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IBM’s first woman vice president paved the way for female executives everywhere
Portrait of Ruth Leach, IBM's first woman Vice President

When Ruth Leach joined IBM, to demonstrate the electric typewriter at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, she had no intention of pursuing a career in business — and few career ambitions at all. But the experience lit a spark that would not only change the trajectory of Leach’s life, but also open new opportunities for women in the American workforce. 

“It was a crash introductory course to the business world, a world I had thought wasn’t for me but now found quite fascinating,” Leach would explain in her memoir, Among Equals: The Rise of IBM’s First Woman Corporate Vice President. “I began to rethink my life plans, vague as they were. Maybe I wasn’t meant to fall in love and settle down just then. Perhaps I should do something with my life before becoming a bride.”

“The election of a woman to a corporate office is recognition by IBM of the increasingly important part which women are playing in its operations,” IBM President Thomas J. Watson Sr. said while announcing Leach’s headline-making appointment. “We are adding women to our executive staff, through promotions, in order to make sure that the women in every department and branch of IBM receive maximum assistance in carrying on the important work which they are doing.”

Catapulted onto the national stage, Leach became a spokesperson for IBM’s pioneering efforts to recruit and train female workers for non-secretarial roles and, more broadly, for women (and employers) around the country who were reimagining so-called “women’s work.” Her efforts burnished IBM’s reputation and helped propel the company forward at a time when many of its clients were making critical contributions to the war effort.


The election of a woman to a corporate office is recognition by IBM of the increasingly important part which women are playing in its operations Thomas J. Watson Sr. IBM President
Rising through the ranks
IBM systems service women

Leach was born in Oakland, California, in 1916 and grew up in nearby Piedmont. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1937 with a degree in political science. A deft typist, she enrolled in secretarial school but dropped out after failing to master shorthand. Next, she signed up to train as a dental assistant but found the work “grotesque” and quit after two weeks.

At the San Francisco Fair (formally known as the Golden Gate International Exposition), Leach demonstrated the capabilities of IBM’s state-of-the-art electric typewriter by tapping out 120 words a minute. She spent her time between demonstrations exploring hundreds of innovations on display at the sprawling IBM pavilion and beyond. 

When Watson visited the fair, he invited Leach and her co-workers to join the company permanently, as “IBM systems service women” — a vital role that involved training customers on IBM’s growing portfolio of machines, and that had been created to extend a broader array of opportunities to women. After several months learning the ropes at the IBM Schoolhouse, the company’s training and education center in Endicott, New York, Leach was assigned to IBM’s Atlanta sales office.

Challenging the CEO
Leach impresses the boss

In Atlanta, Leach distinguished herself with her work ethic, interpersonal skills, sense of humor and creative approach to solving customers’ problems. “I learned quickly that at IBM, a 40-hour workweek meant nothing if your job was not finished,” she recalled. When Watson visited the Atlanta office, Leach impressed him yet again, this time by challenging him on a question over the proper way to train customers.

Intrigued by Leach’s insight — and, perhaps, her courage to publicly disagree with him — Watson asked her to return to Endicott to serve as an instructor. She was promoted to IBM secretary of education for women in 1941 and subsequently to manager of the IBM Systems Service Department.

As America entered the war, Leach worked closely with Watson, leading IBM’s effort to recruit and train women to fill the roles that men were vacating. As Leach recalled in her memoir, she focused on inspiring her charges and emphasizing their role in ensuring the very survival of the business: “We’ve told you that as a systems service woman your job includes handling some of our customers’ accounts. Their needs must be satisfied, for a disgruntled customer can mean a loss of several thousand dollars if he chooses to return our equipment. It also can mean the loss of a valued customer and his future business. So, we will train you to protect the revenue of this business. You will be our unsung heroines.”

A pioneering legacy
Leach spearheads gender equity

In 1943, Watson called Leach to his office with big news: He planned to create an IBM Women’s Division, and to put her in charge. She rejected the offer, saying she disagreed with the concept. “Why separate the ewes from the rams?” she recalled thinking. Within weeks, a new offer was on the table: to become the company’s first woman corporate vice president. 

The appointment garnered national attention. Leach became a sought-after speaker, crisscrossing the country not only to visit IBM offices but also to address business groups, educational institutions and organizations involved in the war effort. She received honorary degrees from multiple colleges and was recognized by the Women’s National Press Club in Washington, DC, as one of the 10 outstanding women of 1945. (The artist Georgia O’Keeffe was a fellow honoree.)

In the immediate aftermath of the war, IBM reversed many of its steps toward gender equity; married women, for example, could no longer work for the company (a policy that held until 1951). “Management immediately released those women already married, with no severance pay,” Leach wrote in her memoir.

Why separate the ewes from the rams? Ruth Leach IBM’s first woman vice president

Leach described a complicated relationship between the company and the women it had elevated, then abandoned. “The systems service women, though outraged, accepted the policy as a rule they had to follow,” she explained. “At that time women felt grateful for the superb opportunities IBM had given them, the best in the nation then, and they loved their jobs while they lasted.”

Years later, IBM would once again lead the way in expanding opportunities for women, continuing on the path that Leach forged. “The corporate growth of IBM during the war period was due in no small way to the efforts of its women employees,” reflected Leach (who died in 2004, as Ruth Leach Amonette). “I took great satisfaction in watching my unsung heroines blossom as they used their newfound talents in handling their territories as competently as the men they replaced. They really paved the way for women to take on professional and managerial roles in the business world.” 

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