Sunday, November 6, 2011

IBM Shatters The Glass Ceiling

On October 25th Virginia Rometty, 60, was chosen to be the CEO of IBM. She is the first woman CEO of IBM in its 100 year history. It came shortly after HP, another venerated tech giant, chose Meg Whitman as its CEO, its second actually after the unceremonious ouster of its first woman CEO Carly Fiorina.

Ginny, as Virginia is referred to, joins a select club of woman CEO's. Indra Nooyi, Indian born, at Pepsico; Ursual Burns, first Afro-American and second woman CEO to head Xerox, Xerox has had two women CEO's in succession with Anne Mulcahy as the first; Ellen Kullman heads the bicentennial giant Du Pont, a first in 200 years of that company's existence. Compared to corporations the supposed guardians of progressive politics, the universities, are slow to move. Princeton got its first woman president, Shirley Tilghman a molecular biologist, in 2001. Harvard appointed Drew Gilpin Faust a Civil War scholar to its presidency in 2007 shattering the proverbial glass ceiling after 350 years.

Sam Palmisano, the outgoing CEO of IBM, is quoted by NYT as rejecting the notion that gender played any role in selecting Rometty. Palmisano was full of praise for Rometty. No nation on earth is free of prejudices and biases that disadvantage sections of the population but how they evolve from it is what differentiates the substantive from the chaff.

The rise of women, by merit, in US is irreversible and marks a progress that is substantive. Drew Gilpin Faust illustrated how women outgrew their traditional roles in the crucible of the civil war in her book "Mother's of invention". When men had to leave for battlefields it was the women who stepped out and filled in the shoes of men. Teaching, seen today as a woman's profession, was out of bounds for women in pre-civil-war era in USA. In the decades after women were assigned to traditional jobs like nursing and teaching. Many other occupations were out of bounds for women. Especially Science and Math. Faust herself faced jeers from male professors as a student. Faust had completed all requisite coursework for her PhD and the work that remained did not need her to be at the university. Newly married Faust asked her professor if she can complete the thesis from remote as she had to accompany her husband. The professor sneered that as woman she was only focused on marriage. When many women won Nobel Prizes in science in 2009 I wrote and emphasized that women started entering top research positions only in the 80's and their researches are only now coming to notice and that this is only a beginning.

The incident in Faust's life illustrates a key difficulty for women. I remember reading an article in Harvard Business Review citing IBM studies that women lose 7 years in their career life due to child bearing and bringing up children. Corporate America has been negligent in this regard. In an age when jobs are being sent across oceans allowing women to work from home where the function can afford it is still in the minority. Corporate America is stuck in the 60's when it comes to workers and work practices.

Corporations are rarely, rather never, given credit for ushering in social change, politicians corner it. IBM has been a leader in ushering in social change. As an employer of hundreds of thousands over decades its policies are an illustration of how Corporations are often painted with the same brush and very unfairly. IBM's President Thomas Watson, in 1953, sent out a letter to his employees that IBM needed the best people irrespective of color. He also sent notices to two southern governors that IBM will NOT have a segregated workplace. Only those who know the race politics of US would appreciate the monumental courage for a company CEO to do that. IBM is rated highly for its support of Gay and Lesbian rights. When Atlanta natives demurred over a function to honor Martin Luther King Jr who had won the Nobel Peace prize Coca Cola threatened to walk out of Atlanta if the city did not honor its most famous son. A note, both IBM and Coca Cola were thrown out of India when Janata Party came to rule, George Fernandes broke coke cans in the streets.

When Time magazine chose to highlight whistleblowers for their courage to speak truth to power, not coincidentally all three that were chosen were women. Michael Lewis in his latest bestseller about the crises sweeping Europe, "Boomerang", writes that maybe Wall Street would not have been so reckless if there had been more women at the helm. Testosterone driven men drove Wall Street off the cliff. Michael Lewis, I could say with my tongue in my cheek, has not heard about Jayalalitha or Indira Gandhi and has forgotten Imelda Marcos.

American politics is still chauvinistic. When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama dueled for the Democratic party nomination a WSJ poll said more Americans were ready for a black president and not yet for a woman president. The poll was taken about a hypothetical without referring to Hillary or Barack. However I am sure people responded with those two in mind and it certainly skewed the results. Hillary is the first woman to 'win' votes in a primary. She gave many a sleepless night to Obama. When Hillary spoke at a rally in New Hampshire two guys stood at the back of the crowd with t-shirts that said "come do my laundry". Obama never faced such a racism at close quarters those such comments surfaced in commentary. Hillary finally lost due to her own mistakes. However today she is the most admired cabinet member of Obama with a Time magazine cover story this week gushing over her work. She is the third woman as Secretary of State.

Many men who swear by gender equality still betray traces of male chauvinism. I've seen this especially amongst Tamil Nadu men, particularly those who dislike Jayalalitha. Jayalalitha's marital status is often fodder for jokes and snide remarks. That she was an actress adds fuel to the fodder. As Elizabeth, the Virgin queen, was mocked for her supposed virgin status so is Jayalalitha mocked.

Hillary Clinton suffered many an unkind remark about her pant suits, her girth, her make up, how she dressed, if she dressed conservatively she was stuffy, if she dressed with an open neck she flaunting cleavage, if her eyes had dark lines she had a bad night dreaming of losing, if she had her makeup perfect perfect she was 'unconnected and distant'. Damned if she did it, damned if she did not.

After Iowa when blacks realized that Obama is not Jesse Jackson and rallied to him in a historic candidacy women refused to do the same for Hillary. Oprah chose race over gender. Hillary plowed on and won 18 million votes in primaries and later referred to it in her concession speech as '18million cracks in the glass ceiling'.

That women of high merit are chosen because of their merit is what makes these breakthroughs as admirable. Drew Faust is a sheer scholar. Rometty is a high achiever. They are not, to be blunt, affirmative action cases or quota cases. In a not too distant future a woman would certainly become the President of USA. 

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