‘That’s not right’: Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty on how she protected trans workers after 2016

Ginni Rometty
Ginni Rometty's book, "Good Power," describes her leadership philosophy.
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One night back in 2016, I was four years into my CEO tenure when I received an email from a transgender employee who told me that she didn’t feel comfortable taking a business trip to North Carolina because a new state law discriminated against the LGBTQ community. I called my head of legislative affairs, Chris Padilla. 

“Tell me more about what’s going on in North Carolina,” I said to Chris, who was cooking dinner for his family when he answered his phone. As he chopped lettuce, Chris explained that the state’s Public Facilities Privacy & Securities Act, or House Bill 2, made it illegal for people to use public bathrooms that were designated for the gender other than the sex identified on their birth certificates. It was a bit more nuanced, but that was the discriminatory gist. Other states, like Texas, were considering similar bathroom bills, as they were known. 

“Well, that’s not right,” I said. People should feel safe to be themselves in the places and spaces where they live and work. It’s what allows them to be their best selves. “Let’s talk about what we need to do.” 

That Monday, IBM denounced the law in North Carolina and began a campaign to defeat proposed legislation in Texas, which housed our second-largest workforce in the country. I personally called Texas Governor Greg Abbott and made it clear that if the legislation passed I would reduce IBM’s investments in the state, which meant fewer jobs for Texans. The governor listened, then suggested I also call others in state government to share my position. Deciding to take a stand here was about taking a stand for inclusion broadly. 

About 20 executives flew to Texas to meet with lawmakers. We also placed ads in local newspapers explaining our view to the public. We weren’t just Tweeting an opinion and hoping it went viral but taking a grassroots approach and communicating on many fronts. Other companies spoke out, too, threatening to reduce or halt their business in the state. Texas’s discriminatory bathroom bills never made it to Governor Abbott for his signature. 

Why did I decide to act so swiftly and resolutely on an issue like this despite the political risks? Even before becoming a CEO, I felt I had a responsibility to make the promise of inclusion a reality for more people, inside and outside the company, and in different countries. 

Why did inclusion matter to me personally? I understood that I was a woman in a field and industry dominated by men. My way of advancing—and breaking so-called glass ceilings—was to do my best, work hard, develop others, and keep learning. I also see myself as the beneficiary of people and policies that made concerted efforts to include someone who might be left out, or left behind, or discriminated against. I had a mother who accepted people for who they were. I grew up around neighbors who cared about the less fortunate. I had access to decent public education, as well as a private university due to academic and financial scholarships. I also was employed by companies and worked for managers that, for the most part, did not hold me back because of my gender.  

There’s no doubt that the inclusive attitudes where I spent my professional life influenced me. The company hired its first Black and female employees in 1899, and its first professional female employees in 1935, the same decade it established equal pay policies for men and women. The company named its first woman executive in 1943. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, IBM was at the forefront of hiring and promoting under-represented minorities and women—again, I consider myself a beneficiary of those efforts. Granted, IBM had a reputation for uniformity in dress and presentation, as many corporations did. But for the most part I elected to grow my career in a culture that made conscious efforts to value all people.  

When I was a young manager back in the ‘80s, my performance reviews graded me on how well I provided equity of pay, recognition, and promotions to people in my unit, as well as how I accelerated the development of minorities and women, and how successfully I focused on minority hiring. We didn’t call it diversity or inclusion back then, but by making even first-level managers like me responsible for it, the imperative took hold in my young psyche, influencing my future leadership. 

I matured into my leadership roles determined to carry on the tradition by embedding inclusive values and efforts into how we worked. As proof of that progress, IBM received the prestigious Catalyst Award in 2018 for Advancing Women and Diversity in Business, making IBM the only tech company to receive it that year, and the only company to receive the award four times since the award’s inception in 1987. By the time I retired in 2020, the company had achieved best-in-class inclusion scores and record diversity across all representation groups, including being one of the leaders in the tech industry with the most women in executive positions. Eighty-eight percent of our employees said they could be their authentic selves at work. These are achievements I’m especially proud of.  

People ask me if there was a silver bullet to the company’s track record on diversity and inclusion. My answer is that inclusion is not one thing, but a choice we make again and again. 

We must authentically believe, in our hearts as well as our heads, that inclusion creates better products and makes companies more competitive. Research has found, for example, that the demographics of engineers who create AI play a role in the AI’s predictions. We address bias in technology by populating innovation teams with people who reflect a mix of races, ages, and gender, as well as a variety of viewpoints.  

There are so many ways to make environments more welcoming for all. In today’s world, an inclusive environment is also one that tolerates differences of political opinion. 

I would also never forget that addressing issues of diversity and inclusion around the world requires understanding a region’s cultural context, and in some cases meeting countries where they are in order to get them to progress to where we believe they should be. In 2013, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe proposed adopting Womenomics, a concept of how and why to close gender gaps that was developed by Goldman Sachs. Research suggested that by closing the gender gap in Japan, the country’s GDP could increase by up to 15 percent. IBM had also been very committed to improving its own workforce diversity in Japan. As a strong sign of support to the country, and to further our own efforts, I cohosted a conference in Japan with the late Prime Minister Abe’s wife, Akie Abe, in 2016 for almost one thousand Japanese women. I also enlisted the IBM board of directors to join panels and share their global experiences. What a statement and what encouragement that gave to many, including the men in the audience. My point is to never stop innovating ways to include more people. 

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from GOOD POWER: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World by Ginni Rometty. Copyright 2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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