August 5, 2019 By John Ferris 3 min read

I’ve always been puzzled by occupational gender inequality. From a very young age, as I was trying to understand how the world worked, it didn’t make sense to me that we separated jobs for men and jobs for women. When we all studied together in elementary and high school, I saw just as many smart girls as smart boys, and yet as we headed off to college, somehow the roles that women and men were destined to fulfill were prescribed in a way that seemed arbitrary. I studied engineering and saw the limited number of women in those programs, but I knew that women were equally capable of excelling in science, engineering, technology and math.

I’m grateful to have spent most of my career working for a company that has a legacy of prioritizing workplace diversity and inclusion. Building an equal opportunity workforce is a value that is baked into the IBM brand. And it makes good business sense — because if you exclude females (or other categories of people) from your hiring pool, you limit workforce diversity and the innovation that’s possible when a wealth of different perspectives come to the table. Not to mention that women in leadership positions deliver.

It’s evident, though, that we still have a lot of work to do on gender equality in STEM professions.

Practical steps we can take on gender equality

Gender inequality is a broad social problem that demands societal-level changes. But there’s a lot that businesses and individuals can do to support progress:

  • In business, our hiring practices should at least reflect the diversity of the pool of candidates we draw from, if not more (for IBM, that tends to be mostly college graduates).
  • When hiring for technical and engineering roles, we should widen the aperture beyond science and engineering graduates. There are many examples of successful technologists who studied history or psychology in college, and then did, for example, a one-year conversion course in IT.
  • We can also make a concerted effort to elevate qualified women into leadership positions. Earlier this year, IBM launched a campaign called Be Equal that’s focused on the advancement of gender equality in business leadership.
  • And if we really want to achieve societal-level change, we have to work with children and encourage more girls in STEM subjects. IBM’s #SheCanSTEM campaign showcases the achievements of women to help young girls find STEM role models. IBM also participates in many community initiatives to encourage girls in STEM. Here in the UK, for example, we run programs like ThinkIT and Girls Who Change the World (with Marvel Studios). This is an important space where we need to do even more.

What about male advocacy?

Throughout my personal life and career, I’ve had an interest in addressing gender inequality — it’s something I’ve thought and cared about for as long as I can remember. As an IBM manager, I promote the best candidates for roles, and these have often been women.

In the last few years in IBM UK, we have recognized that not only do we have a small proportion of women in engineering roles due to the pipeline from college, but there are even fewer staying in engineering at senior levels. So, I helped develop a leadership course called “Developing Your Technical Career” that’s designed to encourage women in engineering to remain technical. We know that as women with technical backgrounds advance in their careers, they tend to move into management roles instead of continuing to practice engineering, and our curriculum is designed to encourage them to continue to grow as technical leaders.

I also participate in the United Nations HeForShe advocacy program, which, as the name implies, is a global movement about male advocacy for gender equality. One of the essential lessons I’ve learned is that being an agent for change in the workplace means you must always count who’s in the room. Why is there only one woman in this leadership meeting? What can we do about that? Asking these questions is how we grow awareness and start to bring about change. HeForShe is fundamentally a mindset that men can bring to everything we do, and I encourage men to join this effort to advocate for women, help break down outdated stereotypes and be part of progress on gender equality.

More work to do

I’m fortunate to work in IBM Systems Lab Services, which provides expertise on IT infrastructure solutions, and has a track record of women in leadership positions.

But there’s still much work to do. Businesses, social institutions, parents and families all have a part to play. While we may have moved past the more overt discrimination we once saw in engineering, subconscious bias is still a significant problem.

So please join me as a HeForShe advocate. Count who’s in the room. Participate in local programs in your area to encourage girls in STEM subjects. Find your own creative ways to help shift the tide on gender equality for the future generations.

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