Ginni Rometty is the former chairman, president and chief executive officer of IBM. She began her career with IBM in 1981. In 2012, she became the company’s CEO, a post she held for eight years until her retirement in 2020. Under her leadership, IBM built out capabilities in hybrid cloud, data and AI, quantum computing, security, and industry expertise, both organically and through acquisition. During Rometty’s tenure as CEO, IBM acquired 65 companies, including Red Hat, an enterprise software company with an opensource development model. In 2018, she received the Catalyst Award for advancing diversity and women’s initiatives. Rometty also is co-chair of OneTen, an organization with the goal to upskill, hire and promote one million Black Americans over the next 10 years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement. She was interviewed by email by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.
You joined IBM in 1981 and became CEO in 2012. Can a woman with executive aspirations who earns a master’s degree in business in 2023 expect that she may become CEO of a company by taking a job there tomorrow and advancing to the top of that company organization chart some decades later?
Yes! The moment we question our own potential is the moment we inhibit it. That does not mean becoming a CEO is easy for anyone. I was a product of the times in which women had to work extra hard to distinguish themselves, and this is still true in many places, especially the tech industry. My advice is never to let other people’s bias define your ambitions.
News sources often report that despite good economic news about inflation and employment rates, people remain very anxious about their economic future. Do you think that anxiety exists and do you consider it justified when you ponder the nation’s economic future over, say, the next five years?
Anxiety does exist, and I would never presume to tell someone their emotions are misplaced. That said, I would remind people that this is not the first economic downturn, it won’t be the last, and it will not last forever. My suggestion for dealing with any difficult period is to acknowledge negative feelings, but rather than dwell on them put energy into controlling what you can. Be honest about your financial situation and your skill set, and create a plan of action to adjust to unpredictable circumstances. We often have more control over situations than we think.
Fortune Magazine, among others, reports that the executive-worker pay gap is growing increasingly wider. Does that gap alarm you, either in terms of decisions made by individual businesses or as a matter of politics at a time when economic resentment appears to be a political force?
Economic divides should alarm all of us, and a variety of factors have widened the gaps, from employers’ pay choices, to advances in technology, to a lack of pathways into good paying jobs, to hiring practices that ignore large swathes of the population. We can bridge the gap when we open the workforce to more people by creating more educational paths that teach relevant skills, especially in tech, and by employers recruiting for skills rather than just traditional degrees. These are systemic changes that will only happen if championed by people with privilege and power. Leaders especially have a responsibility to use their influence to create real opportunities for all.
A member of the LMU political science faculty, Richard Fox, has studied women in terms of their aspirations to hold high political office. He finds that women are less likely to pursue those positions than similarly situated men do. Is that a phenomenon that you have observed with regard to women who aspire to high positions in business?
I respect data, as well as my own experience. I know and meet so many women who aspire to great heights. But women’s dreams get derailed because they, more than men, leave the workforce or change their working lives to care for and accommodate family. Many women make this choice willingly and with joy, but it hinders their ability to pursue senior positions, and as a result companies miss out on great talent. When employers offer women more flexibility and more pathways back into the workforce after taking time away — and when more men share in domestic responsibilities — more women will hold onto their aspirations and achieve positions they desire and deserve.
Do you think the path for women to executive positions in business is any more equitable in terms of their advancing based on their talent and experience than when your career was advancing your career at IBM?
IBM has always been ahead of its time in supporting and advancing all people, including women. This was my experience, and it’s true that I never felt personally discriminated against. Still, there were usually more men than women in the rooms I was in, and to prove my value I assumed I had a higher bar to hurdle than if I was male. If I failed, people would remember because I was different. Preparation helped protect me, at least in my own mind, from gender bias, conscious or otherwise. It also helped me achieve my potential. Gender bias still exists, tragically, but I also think women on the whole have more opportunities than my generation.
Pursuing diversity in the workplace, which you have been committed to particularly as co-chair of OneTen, is increasingly denigrated and treated, sometimes through public policy, as a decidedly harmful goal for any U.S. organization or institution. Why do you believe pursuing diversity is important?
Creating more diverse, inclusive workplaces is not about politics, or ideologies. It is a choice we must make for the health and well-being of our companies, economy, and society. A workforce that includes employees with different ideas, lifestyles and backgrounds reflects the diversity that exists in the marketplace; this makes companies more competitive because they create products and services relevant to more people. Diversity at work also creates healthier, more stable societies. When so many people cannot see a path to a better future for themselves and their families, they lose hope and revolt against the status quo. In short, economic inequity is bad for democracy. But when underrepresented and overlooked individuals can access and excel at good paying jobs, we increase economic equity for more people, and that creates more stable communities. Diversity is not just the right thing to do, but it makes our organizations and society better.