Inspiring Women Leaders

“No one knew what to do with women like her,” recalled my father. My mother was smart, well educated, and conscientious, but because she didn’t type, she struggled to land a corporate job in the 1960s. So she went back to school for a professional degree, one of only 11 women in her year at the University of Connecticut law school. A few months before graduating fifth in her class, she gave birth to me, and then a year later to my sister. She went on to become the first woman to serve as corporation counsel for the town we lived in, universally regarded as a tough but fair lawyer.

What I remember most about my mom is that she was fierce. Whether arguing cases before the state Supreme Court, advising the town council, or negotiating with unions, my mother was prepared, decisive, and strong. I can picture her writing legal briefs in bed late at night, scribbling in longhand on yellow notepads. At the same time, she was helping with homework, making dinners, attending soccer games, leading field trips, and driving carpools. She was a stickler for doing the right things: Send gifts. Write thank you notes. Do your homework. Leave your homework at school? She’d insist we drive back and get the custodian to let us in so we could complete the assignment on time. She was also a devoted wife of 48 years, a loving mother, and doting grandmother — a role she especially cherished. My mom was a role model for me, demonstrating the dual importance of work ethic and family.

Former United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born a decade before my mother. She gave birth to her first child before starting law school at Harvard, one of nine women in a class with about 500 men. Ginsburg was a pioneering champion of gender equity who fundamentally changed the legal landscape of women’s rights in this country. Perhaps just as impressive as these extraordinary outcomes was Ginsburg’s inspirational approach: rigor, compassion, fearlessness, and respect. “Fight for the things you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you,” she said. Ginsburg was the second woman ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, a seat she held for 27 years.

I’m fortunate to work for a company where gender equality has been a central tenet since its early days. “Men and women will do the same kind of work for equal pay,” said IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr. in 1935, decades before this was law. “They will have the same treatment, the same responsibilities, and the same opportunity for advancement.” And IBM has been proactive in advocating for and advancing women. IBM appointed its first female vice president way back in 1943. Ginni Rometty served as IBM’s first female CEO from 2012 to 2020. IBM has been recognized as a top company for women by the Anita Borg Institute and Working Mother Magazine, among other awards. Today, IBM’s General Counsel, its Chief Human Resources Officer, its Chief Marketing Officer, its Chief Privacy Officer, and its Senior Vice President of Global Markets are all women. And last week, I was honored to be named the company’s Chief Information Officer.

In general, though, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity in the corporate world. “Leaky pipeline” describes the phenomenon in which the proportion of women drops off as you move up the corporate ladder. Picture a hollow pipe filled with lots of blue and pink droplets, representing the men and women at work. Near the entrance to the pipe there is an equal number of blue and pink droplets, but as the fluid flows down the pipe there are small holes that the pink droplets more often fall through. At the halfway point there is a lot more blue than pink. When you get to the end of the pipe (or the top of the company), there’s almost no pink left.

Globally, the proportion of women drops from roughly half at entry-level positions to 37% in management roles, 29% in senior management roles, and 23% in executive roles. Women are losing the most ground on the first step into management. These numbers are global averages and tend to be higher in Africa and lower in the Asia Pacific region. And this directly limits women’s opportunities for increased compensation, scope of responsibilities, innovation, and impact.

According to the Women in the Workplace 2020 report about corporate America, women now make up 21% of C-suite roles, which include the most senior “chief X officer” positions: CEO (executive), CFO (financial), COO (operating), CIO (information), CTO (technology), CMO (marketing), and CHRO (human resources). In 1972 Katharine Graham of The Washington Post became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Today, 38 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, a record high 8%. Of these, there are a countable few CEOs in the technology sector: Safra Catz at Oracle, Lisa Su at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Nazzic Keene at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and Christine Leahy at CDW. Interestingly, the percentage of world leaders who are women (7%) is nearly the same proportion as Fortune 500 CEOs; recent analysis found that women-led nations fared better during the COVID-19 pandemic, with exemplar leaders like Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the helm.

There are many programs in place to attract, retain, and advance women in business and technology at the national and corporate level, and they are making steady but slow progress. Mentorship, K-12 outreach, flexible workplaces, and career re-entry programs all make a difference. But in my experience, it is often an individual touch that matters most.

I recall returning to graduate school after two grueling days of interviewing at IBM. I had given a technical seminar and sat through countless one-on-one interviews with researchers spread all over the large IBM Research headquarters building, designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen in the shape of a spaceship measuring a third of a mile from end to end. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and uncertain about whether I could fit in at a place as staggeringly big and dauntingly historic as IBM. In my email inbox was a short note from Dr. Sharon Nunes, one of the few women I met during my visit. “I think you’ll fit in great at IBM and hope you’ll join us here. If you do, please look me up!” It made an immediate and lasting impression on me. I accepted the offer from IBM and asked Sharon to be my mentor. By the time I joined, she had moved on to new roles in other parts of IBM, as an executive for Life Sciences, Corporate Technology, and later Big Green Innovations. Through our regular discussions I learned about the rest of the company and, when I was ready to explore new opportunities myself, I went to work for her in technology strategy. Sharon inspired me — through her personal outreach, her leadership by example, and her versatility. She is one of several extraordinary women I credit for ensuring that I didn’t fall through the many holes in the leaky pipeline and who I try to emulate by supporting and inspiring others.

One thought on “Inspiring Women Leaders

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