Home history Women in technology Women in technology
For decades, IBM has led the way in addressing the gender gap in technology fields and, along the way, established a culture of equality
IBM employees Joan Mulhalland and Anna Canning, in white lab coats, at an assembly workbench working on pluggable units at the Grenock Assembly plant in Scotland, 1959

The gender gap between men and women working in technology, math and science is no secret. Nor is it a recent phenomenon. Nearly a century ago, a female college student named Anne Van Vechten asked IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Sr. why American companies didn’t offer more career paths for women. This struck Watson as a reasonable question — for which he had no ready answer. But soon afterward, in 1935, he took action to help address the problem. He opened IBM’s existing training center in Endicott, New York — and its career opportunities — to women as well as men. It was a first step in bringing women into the professional ranks at IBM.

That same year he also made a key show of leadership for the rest of the corporate world. Some 30 years before the US Equal Pay Act became law, Watson asserted: “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.”

Watson’s decision reflected a personal belief and a core tenet that he established at IBM: respect for the individual. But laying out the welcome mat for females also had pragmatic benefits. He believed deeply that women could exert wide influence on industrial, social, educational and cultural institutions in the United States. Moreover, they could bring substantial value to his fast-growing company through a diversity of skills and perspectives, as well as sheer numbers. Each of Watson’s successors would advance his vision — which often required bucking societal norms.

IBM has developed dozens of programs and partnerships over the decades to inspire, instruct, recruit and retain women in technology-related roles. In so doing, it helped foster a generation of female computer scientists and engineers who laid a foundation for subsequent generations of women to apply their skills in all facets of technology, from programming and large-scale computing to AI development and blockchain.

IBM veteran Ginni Rometty acknowledged as much after becoming IBM’s first woman CEO. “I want you to remember something: past is prologue,” she told the audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2016. “And it is a fact that women have helped drive every era of technology we have known to date.”

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. Thomas J. Watson Sr. First IBM CEO
From the schoolhouse to R&D

The first women to graduate from training courses given at the IBM Schoolhouse, a brick building erected at Endicott, New York, were Systems Service representatives. In this role, women operated IBM equipment to help analyze customer needs, develop system solutions and teach clients how to use the machines. Van Vechten, the student who confronted Watson, graduated with the class in 1935 and later became IBM’s first Secretary of Education for women. Another graduate, Ruth Leach, sufficiently impressed Watson with her insight and persistence that in 1943 she became IBM’s first woman vice president and a spokesperson for IBM’s efforts to recruit and train female workers for non-secretarial roles and, more broadly, to help reimagine so-called women’s work.

In addition to launching the careers of women, the Schoolhouse also helped IBM avert disaster during World War II and prepare for a coming economic boom. When men were called up to serve, the women in the Systems Services program assumed the computing and technical roles the men left behind. While many of the women lost their jobs when the men returned, this phase marked the inception of a more collaborative, inclusive culture at the company.

At the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory, established at Columbia University in 1945, workflows routinely crossed gender lines, with male and female scientists and mathematicians exploring unknown concepts together. Several female pioneers emerged in a range of fields as a result. For example, Eleanor Krawitz used IBM tabulating machines to calculate the orbit of planets, phases of the moon and trajectories of asteroids, which proved instrumental to the success of the Apollo program. Lillian Hausman (who had worked with lab director Wallace Eckert to program and perform scientific computations on several IBM machines in the mid-1930s) wired plugboards, now known as control panels, and ran engineering sessions. She also trained newcomers, including John Backus and Ted Codd, both of whom went on to earn the esteemed Turing Award.

By 1960, in the United States, more than 1 in 4 programmers were women
Calling all problem solvers

After the war and into the 1950s, the need for computing — and more “computers,” as the female programmers were called — only accelerated. While men were asked to construct IBM’s massive machines, women did the coding and debugging — both highly complex, painstaking jobs.

The industry began to actively recruit women as fears of a labor shortage grew. IBM sought out anyone with a background in math and science — or even chess — who might have an aptitude for problem-solving. The IBM Programmer Aptitude Test (PAT) became the go-to assessment for selecting trainees, which often removed gender from the hiring equation.

The computer scientist Frances Allen, who became the first female IBM Fellow and first female recipient of the Turing Award, recalled this period as a remarkable time for women’s involvement in technology. Her first job at IBM in 1957 was teaching the programming language Fortran. She would go on to pioneer compiler organization and optimization algorithms, and later worked on one of the first supercomputing projects, the Stretch-Harvest, for the US National Security Agency.

By 1960, in the United States, according to government statistics, more than one in four programmers were women.

Combatting the gender gap head-on

IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. took up the cause of equality in a 1970 memo. “Twenty-five thousand IBMers are women and in the last five years management positions for women at IBM have grown twice as fast as the company itself. However, women are still disproportionately outnumbered. Look at your own attitudes.” Gender bias, he insisted, was the antithesis of IBM. “It undercuts our belief in the individual and our commitment to pay and promote on the basis of performance and merit.”

The company has continued to press for greater representation of women — for moral and economic reasons alike. According to research published in 2016 by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, workforces comprising at least 30% females experience a 15% increase in profitability compared with those with little or no gender diversity.

One big challenge comes in ensuring that there are enough women to employ. To that end, IBM has worked diligently to educate school-age girls in technological topics as a means of building confidence and overcoming gender stereotypes. Since 1999, the company has run EX.I.T.E. camps for girls staffed by female IBM volunteers with backgrounds in technology. It also partners with Girls Who Code, which counts more than 10,000 alumnae globally. In 2019, IBM started STEM for Girls to provide career pathways for up to 200,000 high schools girls in India. “This is about activating and transforming the ecosystem of changemakers — parents, teachers, communities and organizations — who can help open up a world of opportunities,” said Brenda Harvey, general manager of IBM Asia Pacific.

The company is also battling female attrition from the workforce. In 2000, it kicked off the Global Work/Life Fund, investing millions into a program designed to address the types of work-life challenges that women disproportionately face. Now open to other industries, the program has reached 4.3 million people at 270 employers.

‘Our work has just begun’

Where many companies proudly date their affirmative action programs to the 1970s, IBM began creating meaningful roles for female employees four decades prior. And it shows no signs of letting up. “IBM’s focus on diversity and inclusion — core to our values and culture for more than a century — has provided a vital source of innovation,” said Marie Wieck, whose IBM career lasted more than 30 years.

As Watson Sr. realized early on, the company understands that equality isn’t just the right thing to do. It makes good economic sense. “Our work has just begun,” said CEO Arvind Krishna, “and we are ever-committed to the journey of equity at IBM and in the world at large.”

Related stories Diversity, equity and inclusion

Promoting inclusive workplace practices and data privacy rights for more than a century

Ginni Rometty

During her tenure as CEO she made bold changes to reposition IBM for the future

Linda Sanford

One of IBM’s highest-ranking women employees helped to transform the company into a vehicle for innovation