Jane Cahill Pfeiffer
A rising star from her earliest days at the company, she would become the first woman White House Fellow and IBM’s second-ever female vice president
studio portrait of Jane Cahill Pfeiffer

An article in the September 25, 1965, edition of IBM News described an opportunity to spend a year in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson learning about the inner workings of the federal government. Those selected from candidates across the US would report directly to a member of Johnson’s cabinet or one of his close aides in this unique learning experience.

Jane Cahill, then the personnel manager for IBM’s Space Systems Center of the Federal Systems Division in Washington, DC, saw the announcement and applied. From a field of 3,000, she was selected as the first-ever female White House Fellow and was one of four IBM employees in the 1966 class. The Fellows program was the brainchild of John Gardner, Johnson’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. While there, Cahill worked as administrative assistant to Robert Weaver, the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a department formed to tackle urban housing and community issues.

Cahill embraced the opportunity to work with a team “to face one of our biggest national problems,” she said. “I want to be a part of the group that is creating and implementing techniques to meet these issues.”

From a field of 3,000 applicants, she was selected as the first-ever female White House Fellow
A rising star

Cahill was born on September 29, 1932, in Washington, DC. In 1954 she graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama. She took graduate courses in philosophy and soon entered a Roman Catholic novitiate in Berkeley, California, to become a nun, but she left after about a year to join IBM in 1955 as a systems engineer trainee. She became an expert on the IBM 650, an early digital computer.

Bit by the travel bug, she left IBM to tour Europe with friends. An IBM executive promised her mother he would hire Jane back when she returned. In 1957, she restarted her IBM career on a team in Washington doing programming for an eventual rocket launch at the beginnings of the space program.

Cahill’s star was rising. By 1959, she was manager of operations for the Vanguard Space Center in her native Washington, DC. In 1960, her manager, Bob Oldfield, cajoled her to leave Washington to manage a team in Bermuda overseeing a missile tracking station. The North Atlantic island had become a backup station for Cape Canaveral. “Jane didn’t really want to leave,” said Oldfield. He persuaded Cahill to take the post by promising a short stay.

At one point, employee paychecks failed to arrive on time. Cahill borrowed money from a local bank to pay staff then wrote to her bosses at IBM headquarters to get on top of the issue since the loan was maturing soon. Chairman Thomas J. Watson Jr. was impressed by her assertiveness.

In 1962, Cahill returned to the Washington area where she accepted a role heading recruitment for the Space Systems Center of the Federal Systems Division. Her team of 18 was responsible for hiring technical staff for the space program. She’d continue in that role until her posting in the Johnson administration started in 1966.

Returning to IBM

Upon her return to IBM in 1967, Cahill developed a reputation as an incisive thinker with an unflappable personality. Working in corporate headquarters, first as one of Watson Jr.’s administrative assistants — “torpedoes,” as they were known — and later as his executive assistant, she’d have the biggest platform to advocate on key initiatives and take on tough assignments.

Cahill was one of two dozen IBMers in a conference room one day in 1969 for a symposium on urban issues with student leaders from colleges around the country. As the criticisms of big business and America’s social problems flew, Cahill urged those gathered to keep the pressure on corporations. “There is a serious lack of involvement on the part of industry,” she said. “The business community has a vital role if we’re ever going to solve the problems facing our society. So don’t desert us. Come and work with us.”

In 1970 she was named secretary of the company’s Management Review Committee, which identified, analyzed and solved company-wide problems. A year later she was promoted to director of communications.

She became a champion of IBM’s efforts to hire more women and to promote them into management positions. In 1971, women comprised less than 15% of the IBM workforce; only about 2% were in management.

“We’ve certainly got to take away the nonsensical barriers that have held women back,” she said. “We must emphasize that you don’t keep anyone from an opportunity if he or she has talent.”

We’ve certainly got to take away the nonsensical barriers that have held women back Jane Cahill Pfeiffer IBM executive
IBM’s second-ever female vice president

In 1972, Cahill was named VP of communications and government relations, only the second woman in the company’s history to hold the title of vice president. She said the most challenging part of the assignment was handling the ongoing anti-trust litigation against the company. IBM’s president, Frank Cary, said at the time, “We value most Jane’s sound judgment. She knows what it takes to operate this company and has a special skill in applying the expertise of her people to the central problems of our business.”

That same year, IBM Chairman T. Vincent Learson named recently retired Watson Jr. to head a new Corporate Responsibility Committee charged with oversight of the company’s social programs and initiatives. It included representation from the IBM Board, academia and various levels of IBM management, including Cahill.

“I believe in making a contribution,” Cahill said. “You can’t just be an observer. It takes a lot of time and energy and persistence to be a participant and to make a difference.”

In 1975, Cahill married Ralph A. Pfeiffer, IBM senior vice president and chairman and CEO of IBM World Trade/Far East Americas Corporation. Believing that it was a conflict of interest for top managers at the same company to be married to each other, she left IBM and started working as an independent management consultant. Among her clients was RCA, a major consumer electronics and media company that owned the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). In 1976, after a cancer surgery, she declined an offer from President Jimmy Carter to join his cabinet.

During her work with NBC she helped to recruit Fred Silverman, a highly successful broadcasting “fixer,” to become NBC’s new president and chief executive. In 1977, Silverman recommended her for chairmanship of the company, and she was elected, making her the highest-ranking woman in broadcasting at the time and one of the highest-paid businesswomen in America.

She left NBC after less than two years and continued her work in management consulting. She went on to serve on numerous company and educational institution boards, including at JC Penney, International Paper and the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Jane Cahill Pfeiffer died March 5, 2019, in Vero Beach, Florida.

The highest-ranking woman in broadcasting at the time and one of the highest-paid businesswomen in the country
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