‘Sometimes I felt a fraud’: Salesforce UK&I CEO on lending her voice to diversity

Zahra Bahrololoumi, Salesforce UK&I CEO, reflects on the successes and challenges she has faced in trying to increase diversity at the company

When she became CEO of Salesforce UK and Ireland in March 2021, Zahra Bahrololoumi set a clear marker for success. She wanted more women on her leadership team and greater representation and inclusion across the board.

Bahrololoumi described this diversity drive in interviews at the time as non-negotiable, adding: “It is our biggest focus. If I don’t do it, I’ll be really, really angry.”

The regional CEO moved quickly to increase the number of women in her executive team, taking the total to five out of eight people. Two are also from an ethnic minority. Reflecting on the changes in her first year, Bahrololoumi says: “We’ve now got a brilliant spread within my immediate leadership team.”

More than half of the extended leadership team are also women, according to Bahrololoumi. “We’re bringing that diversity to the top table because people can’t be what they can’t see, so we need to set that tone,” she adds.

Looking at the wider company, when Bahrololoumi joined from Accenture around 30% of Salesforce UK&I’s sales hires were women. In the first quarter of 2022, that figure has risen to 54%. She says these changes are a result of “excellent partnership with our recruitment teams and our business leaders” and demonstrate that the company has “really turned the dial” in terms of bringing more women into the business. But she adds: “We are by no means done. We still have so much to do.”

In the most recent gender pay gap report, which provides a snapshot of the company’s pay data from 5 April 2021, women at Salesforce UK&I were paid 30p less than men (comparing median hourly pay). Although there has been an improvement in the difference between men’s and women’s mean hourly pay (21.8% in favour of men in 2020/21 reduced to 10.3% in 2021/22), only 25% of the highest paid roles at the organisation were occupied by women.

Bahrololoumi claims that many of the changes at the top of the company have come into place since this report was filed. She expects there to be a much greater improvement in this area in the next iteration of its gender pay gap data because of the increased number of women now in senior positions.

Ethnic diversity at Salesforce

Salesforce has built up a reputation as a good employer and was listed as one of the best places to work in Glassdoor’s annual top 10 rankings in the US, Canada, UK, France and Germany. But a recent motion at the cloud software company’s annual general meeting raised concerns about how the business has approached diversity.

Investment firm Tulipshare put forward a proposal calling for an independent racial equality audit, referencing the resignations of two black women. Both questioned whether the company’s public stance on equality and diversity was matched internally, with one resignee Cynthia Perry stating in an open letter that Salesforce is “not a place of Equality for All”. The proposal was rejected by Salesforce. 

A spokesperson for the company says: “Equality is a long-standing core value at Salesforce, and we are continuously evaluating ways to improve and accelerate progress against our equality goals. Transparency and accountability are critical in our path forward, and we will continue to work with leading third parties to inform our strategy and programs, as well as report on our progress through our quarterly and annual updates.”

Despite questions over the success in this area in the wider business, Bahrololoumi believes the UK arm of the company is making positive strides forward. It has also adapted its recruitment process to increase the number of women and ethnic minorities it hires. After reviewing its hiring practices, the company found that many were dropping out of the process at the interview panel, Salesforce’s final recruitment stage.

What we thought was a fair and wonderfully robust process had to be tweaked

“We learned that women and ethnic minorities with a different cultural upbringing were either declining offers or dropping out at that point, so we had to be more thoughtful about that panel setup,” Bahrololoumi says. “What we thought was a fair and wonderfully robust process had to be tweaked.”

A decline council was set up to discover why people were rejected or declined at the interview stage; this revealed that the interview panel was not conducive to diverse recruitment as it favoured candidates who were confident in shouting about their achievements. Consequently, this element of the hiring process has been adapted to support people with alternative skill sets.

Breaking glass ceilings

Bahrololoumi has long been an advocate for diversity and inclusion and is a member of the Technology Leadership Group for the Prince’s Trust. But it has not always been a topic that she has been comfortable taking the lead on. “When I have lent my voice to diversity, I sometimes felt a fraud because I haven’t hit lots of ceilings or had to break through a sense of adversity,” she says. 

In her 22 years at Accenture, Bahrololoumi worked her way up to become the professional services company’s technology lead and was headhunted for the top position at Salesforce UK&I. But when she started her technology career, she says she was typically the only woman in the room. “I’m also a brown woman and was raised to believe that you have to work harder and be more productive than anybody else,” she adds. “I think that’s a voice in my ear and I’m sure it is in the ear of many people like me.”

Since going through this journey, Bahrololoumi says: “I can help people and I am legitimate in that even though I perhaps haven’t faced some of the struggles or the closed doors as some people.”

With Salesforce looking to create 271,000 jobs in the UK and Ireland by 2026, Bahrololoumi hopes that the changes she is making will mean these hires will be from a much broader diversity of backgrounds.