Sarah Brooks hero image

Sarah Brooks
Distinguished Designer,
IBM Design Program Office

Introduce yourself.

I’m a service designer, design researcher, and artist with a background in performance, film production, fashion design, printmaking, and sculpture. So, for all of you who like to work between disciplines, I’m with you. My career has followed a varied path from design studios (wild, fun, big, broad, the-future-of challenges), to startups (delightfully chaotic and fast paced), to being invited to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow by the Obama Administration (serious, mission-driven, systems-changey). These days, I call New York my home. I’m a Distinguished Designer in the IBM Design Program Office, leading a team developing the Journey System, a practice that helps IBM employees take a client-centric approach that puts service design into action to better serve our customers’ lifetime of needs.

What are the advantages of working with diverse teams?

For me, working in teams where global views and experiences collide is more interesting, enlivening, and a giant ongoing and humbling education for understanding how different our lived experiences are from one another. At IBM, we are designing for the world, so it stands to reason that our teams reflect the world.

It seems like every day there’s yet another study with data to support the multitude of benefits that working with diverse teams creates: increasing creativity, productivity, employee engagement, and financial returns. Even the Harvard Business Review echoes: “In recent years a body of research has revealed another, more nuanced benefit of workplace diversity: nonhomogenous teams are simply smarter. Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance.”

I am happy to see IBM continue to make the cultivation of diverse teams a top priority. I certainly see it as essential for attracting, recruiting, and retaining diverse—racially, ethnically, socio-economically, age-wise, differently-abled, gender-identified, LGBTQ+—talent. I’m excited to collaborate with other leaders across the design industry through the Adobe Creative Circle initiative to help technology companies “to drive positive impact on business, society, innovation, culture, and design careers.” It’s meaningful to be part of an initiative that’s committed to bringing more dimensions to the design industry.

Which career stage is the hardest for women?

I’d love to hear what women leaders in their eighties and nineties would say to this question (Anyone up for some design research?). From my vantage point, life was hardest for me in my twenties and my career story reflected that. Like many post-college grads, I spent my time searching, exploring, trying, and sometimes failing until I found a way to combine my various interests when I landed in the world of human-centered design. I had a lot of positive experiences but didn’t encounter many women in leadership positions early in my career. Those I did see were important beacons of possibility like a senior executive at CNET who helped me network into my first technology job.

My women friends and I have compared notes on office environments over the years, assessing the effects of bias against women that are so deeply ingrained. It’s disheartening to have to acknowledge that, at ANY stage of her career, the reality still is that similar behaviors in the workplace are interpreted differently, depending on whether they’re exhibited by a man or a woman. The (hopefully rotting) chestnut, “Great Male Leaders vs. Bossy Women” springs to mind.

What’s been helpful for me is that navigating career choices has become easier over time, with more self-awareness, self-knowledge, experience, and confidence. A happiness/sanity tactic I’ve embraced over the years is to rely on trusted women friends and colleagues with whom I can speak honestly about the workplace challenges (i.e. not feeling acknowledged or heard) we all face. Creating a co-supportive environment to help each other rise up is a powerful antidote.

What are you doing to make IBM a better place to work for women in design?

I’ve just joined the advisory committee for Women@IBM NYC, whose mission is to make IBM the best place for women to work in New York (insert cheerleader emoji here)! We run a series of networking and learning events throughout the year, most recently with InspireCorps to kickstart 2020.

I consider it time well spent to actively seek out ways of encouraging the women on my team to elevate their presence within IBM and the broader design world. Speaking at conferences and posting on topics related to one’s areas of interest has been a helpful tool for me. It’s not something everyone feels comfortable doing, so I try to support any effort to push past one’s comfort zone.

Like leaders whom I admire, I make time for women who reach out, whether that’s for a one-off word of advice or a request for mentorship. My women colleagues feel the same as I do—it’s always an honor to be asked. It’s interesting, I’ve yet to have a man ask me to mentor him (hit me up, guys). The lesson I keep learning from the many women who support me and have offered great career advice is that none of us gets where we’re going alone. We need each other.

Last but not least, in a world where women earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn, I am fortunate to work for a company that believes in pay parity. As a hiring manager, this means I am empowered to affirm this equal work, equal pay practice.

How would your career have been different if you were a man?

Hypotheticals aren’t my favorite thing—I’m not cut from “woulda/coulda” cloth. But the first thing that comes to mind, if I were to imagine being a man, is that I’d be much more comfortable taking up space, and offering my opinions in all types of settings (during large presentations or smaller meetings, etc). It’s worth noting that the data (re: the gender pay gap I mentioned) says my bank account, if I were male, over the duration of my career, would have reflected higher pay and I would have had a more well-worn path to a series of promotions. That said, I wonder if I would’ve developed the inner resources that I draw upon and feel grounded by to overcome the challenges I’ve faced as a woman in my field. Was this question designed to evoke gratitude for being who I am? That’s where I’m landing.

Any last thoughts?

Seek out opportunities that truly align with who you are. Take calculated risks, and keep an open mind.