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Diversity Wins!

Diversity is much more than the advancement of women. It is about having the right person in the right place at the right time in the right job – at every level, regardless of their cultural background or other attributes. At Volkswagen’s second Diversity Conference, the diversity managers were concerned precisely with this issue.

What happens when a homogeneous group of white men design and bring a product to market? Who do they think of when developing and testing the product? That’s right – other white men! It’s how the Homo sapiens’ brain works. One real-life example is the smartwatch, whose heart rate monitor only worked on white skin and thus excluded many other target groups with more heavily pigmented skin. Another is crash test dummies, which in the past almost always simulated only the male body – when a different physique, such as that of women, causes very different injuries. There are numerous examples of how harmful thinking inside the box can be for a company, especially one with global operations that deals with very different groups of customers. What appeared to go well for a long time can give rise to significant losses – financial and even worse.

Making Volkswagen AG even more attractive as an employer

Elke Heitmüller, Head of Diversity at Volkswagen AG

“It’s about diversity,” said Elke Heitmüller, Head of Diversity Management in the Volkswagen Group, “and it’s about adapting as a Group to the rapid changes that are currently taking place in the markets.” Companies that are unable to cater to diverse markets and target groups, that do not bring budding talent on board and do not foster existing talent will find in the coming years and decades that the odds are stacked against them. Heitmüller went on to explain: “Two factors are important for us: we need diverse people, and we need a working environment in which they can make the most of their talents. This motivates employees for the long term and ensures good results.” It also has the added benefit of making Volkswagen AG even more attractive as an employer.

Diversity is much more than the advancement of women. It is about having the right person in the right place at the right time in the right job – at every level, regardless of their cultural background or other attributes. At Volkswagen’s second Diversity Conference, the diversity managers were concerned precisely with this issue.

Diversity at Volkswagen AG

Diversity managers: think globally, act locally

Volkswagen’s diversity managers at the skill capture workshop

To entrench diversity in the Group and thus ensure future sustainability, Heitmüller along with Benjamin Ramirez, Head of Diversity and the Advancement of Women in the Volkswagen Group, has launched a program that ensures that diversity is put into practice in the Group across all brands and on all continents. Diversity managers create awareness of the importance of the topic and how successfully it can be managed. 

On November 7 and 8, fifty Volkswagen Group diversity managers from all over the world met up in a small town in Sweden called Södertälje, where Scania has its headquarters. The diversity managers come from 20 countries and from all Group brands. Heitmüller explained the objective of the conference: “We are developing a common understanding of how we can further advance diversity within the Group. And that is precisely the goal: think globally, act locally.” It was the Volkswagen Group’s second Diversity Conference. Last year’s one was hosted by Bentley in England (Diversity Conference - Volkswagen Group committed to diversity of workforce)

Scania has created best practice

Diversity managers from the Volkswagen Group on a guided tour of the Scania plant

The smell of coffee and Swedish cinnamon buns wafts through the halls of Scania. Those attending the conference converse animatedly and laugh a lot. They give the impression of being happy to be there, networking, exchanging ideas – and naturally learning something new as well. This is because Scania is at the forefront of diversity. “The skill capture program is an excellent example of best practice in the company. We have incorporated large parts of the training into our corporate program and developed them further,” Heitmüller said. 

Skill capture

The program was kicked off in 2015. At Scania, skill capture specialist Karin Callin is one of those in charge. “We need to change the standards and structures in place at Volkswagen so that we can bring about sustainable change,” she said, providing an example of diversity: an advertisement for a job for which women were supposed to apply had been written by a man. The outcome: just 10 percent of applicants were women. The ad was therefore placed again, this time written by a woman who was better at understanding the target group. Success! This time, 40 percent of applicants were women.

Diversity means efficiency

Benjamin Ramirez from Volkswagen Diversity

While this might sound simple to many people, numerous studies have shown that mixed teams achieve better results, generate higher returns and are more innovative. But how do you manage to get a global corporation like Volkswagen to implement diversity? “Small changes can yield big results,” said Ramirez. This also means working on several levels, with KPIs, supervisors acting as role models, nudging, in other words encouraging desired behavior. “It’s about creating a context that encourages openness and creativity among employees.” These can be small things, as the example of Scania’s job advertisements shows. Ramirez headed up the international team that organized the two-day conference and is pleased to see the rollout of the Group’s diversity program picking up speed: “We hope to create awareness within the Group of our collective intelligence – and drive change in this way.”

Monoculture only works well until circumstances change

Diversity is an important element of the culture change at Volkswagen being implemented as part of Strategy 2025. “However, it is not enough to understand that more diversity is necessary. Diversity is something that needs to be put into practice every day,” Heitmüller pointed out. A frequent impediment to this was unconscious experience, which makes us act instinctively, she said. “This sparks tremendous perseverance to keep doing things the way we have always done them. In the advancement of women we experience how difficult it is to achieve even moderate growth rates on this basis,” Heitmüller said. This is why the Volkswagen Group’s extended diversity approach is more comprehensive and promising, starting with the management.

Heitmüller said diversity was a challenging task, adding with a smile: “But as necessary as it is possible.” It was about time, she said. “In spite of all our global diversity, we still have a monoculture at Volkswagen AG – though this only works well until circumstances change,” explained Heitmüller, adding – with a view to the digital transformation, electric mobility and other challenges – “And circumstances have changed.”

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