Diversity, equity and inclusion
Guided by respect for the individual, IBM has been a progressive actor in inclusive workplace practices and data privacy rights for more than a century
artistic rendering of a bee with an equal sign forming the stripes on its back

For more than a century, the founding principles of its first CEO, Thomas J. Watson Sr., have inspired IBM in its efforts to promote equality, fairness and inclusion in the workplace and society. The company has lived the value of “respect for the individual” by championing employment practices that reward ability over identity and that make work more attainable for all. And as increasingly sophisticated technology has exposed more and more personal information across society, IBM has advocated for protections that preserve an individual’s control over their data. 

Watson Sr.’s first year at the helm of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company saw the company hire its first person of diverse ability. Though it wasn’t wholly unusual in an era when more women were joining the workforce, Watson also established a progressive hiring agenda for women that he was eager to push.

IBM began hiring women into professional roles in 1935, launching the first co-educational training of its kind. It recruited its first group of 25 from nine colleges into a three-month sales course at Endicott. Watson Sr. was clear those enrolled in the program would “have neither handicap nor an advantage over the young men.”

Nor, he said, would they be paid differently. “Men and women will do the same kind of work for equal pay. They will have the same treatment, the same responsibilities and the same opportunities for advancement,” he said, introducing the concept of equal pay for equal work to IBM nearly three decades before the 1963 federal Equal Pay Act mandated it. Anne Van Vechten, a member of that first training class, became the company’s first Secretary of Education for the Women’s Division.

At a time when women were taking on more management and supervisory positions in the company, IBM marked another milestone in 1943 when it appointed Ruth Leach as vice president, the first woman and youngest person ever to hold a corporate office with IBM.

‘Equal pay for equal work’ came to IBM nearly 3 decades before the 1963 federal Equal Pay Act mandated it
Supporting diverse abilities and veterans

That same year, the company took a major step forward when it hired psychologist Michael Supa, who was blind, to create a recruiting and training program for people with diverse abilities. His mandate included analyzing operations to see how the company’s plants could accommodate people who were blind. In 1943, IBM opened a training center for people with diverse abilities in New York City. Two years later, the company subcontracted work to Sheltered and Blind Workshops in Binghamton, New York. In 1947, it added disability coverage to its benefit plan.

Offering support to those with diverse abilities came into sharp focus for IBM during World War II. Watson Sr. understood the business imperative of replacing employees conscripted for war, and he was committed to ensuring that returning soldiers, especially those injured during war, had a supportive work environment to return to.

In December 1940 he announced that the company would pay those drafted into the military a stipend of three months’ salary, up to USD 4,000, while they served. He also promised that returning veterans would earn paid time off, would be considered for higher pay given their military training, and that they would receive work accommodations for diverse abilities.

New era, continued advocacy

By the 1950s, IBM had developed a broad slate of employment practices that burnished its reputation as a supportive meritocracy for women, veterans and those with diverse abilities. As the US civil rights movement gained traction early in the decade, the company would have to confront segregation and its corrosive impact on “respect for the individual.”

For company president Thomas J. Watson Jr., the issue was both business and personal. IBM had long maintained an informal policy of non-discrimination based on race. As the company entered an era of booming growth for its computers, it planned to expand with new factories in North Carolina and Kentucky, where it would run a racially integrated workforce. In 1953, Watson Jr. expressed personal conviction and decades of company practice when he penned “Policy Letter #4,” IBM’s first official equal opportunity policy.

He took a stand. “It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed,” the letter read. It came a year before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education court decision that integrated public schools and more than a decade before passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Watson was intolerant of managers who fell short of his policies. Once, upon hearing of a candidate’s rejection after eight interviews and possible discrimination, Watson Jr. exploded. “What are we coming to in IBM? God almighty fellas, we live in America — this country was created by people who were persecuted overseas. … How can I stand up and tell people, tell chairmen of organizations, how wonderful we are with our lack of discrimination and look at the action that you fellas and your associates are taking,” he said.

In 1962, the company signed on to President John F. Kennedy’s “Plan for Progress,” vowing, among other things, to strengthen its commitment to equal opportunity without regard to “race, creed, color, sex, national origin or age.” IBM had been making that very pledge to its employees for decades. In 1968, the company would put its money where its policies were, opening a manufacturing facility that would employ 300 local residents in the under-resourced Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The new jobs, Watson Jr. hoped, would improve the quality of life in these neighborhoods and create opportunities for those who wanted to work elsewhere.

It would continue to build on these initiatives for years to come and has often been one step ahead of the changes moving society.

For example, IBM has been on the front lines of adopting protections for the LGBTQ+ community and promoting inclusivity in business. In 1984, it became one of the first companies to add sexual orientation to its global nondiscrimination policy. In 1995, it formed an LGBTQ+ Executive Council. In 1996, it extended healthcare coverage and other benefits to the partners of its gay and lesbian employees, making it the largest US company at the time to adopt such a policy. In 2002, it also incorporated gender identity and expression into its nondiscrimination policy.

It is the policy to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed Thomas J. Watson Jr. Former IBM CEO
Data ownership, respect for privacy

As a leader in technology solutions across industries, IBM’s work has brought it closer to vast amounts of personal data, putting it at the center of societal and regulatory discussions about privacy. Reflecting both its core value of respect for the individual and its willingness to lead industry in difficult matters, IBM established transparent policies with the goal of shaping industry privacy standards. Its “Four Principles of Privacy,” published in 1974, established recommendations for handling sensitive information about individuals, including ensuring access to one’s own data, the ability to correct data, the right to restrict unauthorized use and the responsibility of those holding the data to maintain it reliably and securely.

The company’s stance on data ownership dates back to the 1960s. When an employee requested to read his own personnel file, it triggered an awakening in Watson Jr., as IBM CEO Frank Cary recounted in Harvard Business Review in 1976. “After he reviewed [the request] thoroughly, his answer to the employee was ‘yes’,” Cary said. From then on, Watson mandated that every manager should approve such requests. The company later would adopt a comprehensive policy protecting employees against unnecessary collection of their personal data.

As IBM ventured further into genetic testing products, for instance, it recognized the risks of potential abuse of genetic information. In 2005, three years before the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act became law, IBM introduced its own DNA policy. It was the first large company to formally assure employees that their genetic information would not factor into employment or benefit decisions.

“It’s been a long-standing policy not to discriminate against people because of their heritage or who they are. A person’s genetic makeup may be the most fundamental expression of both,” said former CEO Sam Palmisano in a company announcement.

In 2020, the company shelved its facial recognition and analysis software, addressing its past use by law enforcement in mass surveillance and racial profiling and calling for “a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”

As it has ventured deeper into artificial intelligence, cloud computing and other sophisticated technologies that harvest ever more data, IBM has been careful to balance the possible with the competitive, legal, ethical and personal demands of its customers. The restraint the company has shown has been guided, as always, by an overriding “respect for the individual,” the bedrock from which new policies emerge and evolve. Watson Jr.’s words of 1968 remain true of the company today: “The most that can be said is that we are making progress, both by building on programs we have supported for years, and by creating new programs. … We are determined to do more than we have done in the past.”

IBM was the first large company to formally assure employees that their genetic information would not factor into employment or benefit decisions
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