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Icons of Progress

Building an Equal Opportunity Workforce


The story of IBM is as much about progress in equal opportunity as it is about technological advancement. For Thomas Watson Sr. and his son, equitable treatment of all employees was a personal priority that they instilled in the company they ran. Over the years, IBM leadership has made certain the original precepts have remained in place, operational and up to date. The result has been an enduring heritage that has kept IBM at the forefront of global organizations committed to creating an equitable workplace.

Forces of change

In 1995, IBM President Louis Gerstner established eight diversity task forces, based on the following cultural groups: African Americans; Asians; people with disabilities; Hispanics; men; Native Americans; people self-identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT); and women. Composed of middle- and senior-level executives, each task force addressed the unique concerns of its respective constituency, while several questions were common among all eight, such as:

  • What does your constituency need to feel welcome and valued at IBM?
  • What can the corporation do, in partnership with your group, to maximize your constituency’s productivity?
  • What can the corporation do to influence your constituency’s buying decisions so that IBM is seen as a preferred solution provider?
  • With which external organizations should IBM form relationships to understand better the needs of your constituency?

Leading by example

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before Thomas Watson’s equal-opportunity letter of 1953, and before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, IBM hired Thomas Laster, the company’s first African American salesman, in 1946. That year, IBM brought on several more black employees in areas such as engineering, marketing and management.

Through the years, IBM has maintained a strong culture of inclusion. Key issues addressed by the IBM Black Executive Task Force include hiring, early identification and support for high-potential talent, and strengthening the pipeline of future black employees and leaders.

Assisting the elderly and disabled in Japan

Japan has the highest percentage of elderly in its population of all the countries in the world, creating a pressing need there for services that are easily used by those with aging-related impairments. In 2010, IBM worked with the local government of Tottori, to help it improve citizen access to critical government online services. They implemented an innovative collaboration solution which offers greater access and ease of use to people with visually-related disabilities and to elderly people who have visual impairments.

Empowering people with disabilities

One of the most recent advancements in accessibility at IBM uses the power of Internet technology. IBM ® Accessible Workplace Connection (AWC) is a web-based, productivity resource for IBMers with disabilities. The application simplifies requests for accommodations, such as live captioning for teleconferences and audio screen readers. The Accessible Workplace Connection also facilitates delivery to assist IBMers with disabilities, their managers and human resources partners.
Read more on the Accessible Workforce Icon of Progress

A diverse view

IBM’s minority recruitment strategy has been highly effective in shaping the diverse makeup of the company’s workforce. More than 20 years ago, the firm launched Project View, an innovative program that increased the number of minority interns within the company. After early success, the initiative was applied to the recruitment of salaried workers, connecting technically skilled minorities from higher education and the working world with IBM managers ready to hire. In 2005, due to the positive impact of Project View, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) honored IBM with the prestigious Freedom to Compete Award. Representing the company at the EEOC reception, Randy MacDonald, senior vice president of human resources, commented, “Today’s award is a testament to IBM’s commitment to workforce diversity. This work is part of our DNA and a reflection of our innovation and company ideals throughout our more than one hundred year heritage.”

The rise of the female executive

As early as 1935, IBM recruited 25 female college graduates, slated to work in systems service. These were the firm’s first female professionals. 1943 marked another milestone when Ruth Leach Amonette became the company’s first female vice president. Through the years, the percentage of female employees and executives both showed steady increases. Today, women make up 29 percent of IBM’s workforce and 25 percent of management worldwide. Since 1995, the number of women executives at the company has increased 562 percent.

Each year The National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) recognizes corporations whose equal opportunity efforts positively impact the careers of women in the United States. In 2010 IBM ranked among NAFE’s top 10. Among the initiatives cited were the company’s global women’s internet site, an executive development program for women working toward becoming general managers, and the annual Winspiration Conference, run by IBM’s Global Women’s Council.

Respecting sexual orientation

In terms of equal opportunity policy, IBM has always been at the forefront—most often beyond it. In 1984, it became one of the first companies to include sexual orientation as part of its commitment to nondiscrimination. Thirteen years later IBM extended domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian employees, a policy change these groups had sought for several years. Distinguishing itself further, in 2001, IBM became the first Fortune 500 company to create a sales team specifically for GLBT customers.

Abundant opportunity

In the US today, there are an estimated two million Latino-owned or operated businesses. Between 1996 and 2007, IBM’s Hispanic executive population increased by 224%. As one of the eight Diversity Task Forces formed by IBM in 1995, the Hispanic contingent seeks to expand opportunities by both internal initiatives and targeted business strategies. In 2005, IBM was ranked the number one Fortune 100 company for Hispanics by the Washington, DC-based Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility. In 2009, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers named IBM its Company of the Year. Several mentoring and networking programs, along with active recruitment of high-potential Latinos, has contributed to the group’s growth and success within the organization. Externally, IBM’s share of the roughly US$635 billion Hispanic business market has grown as new collaborations have been created between IBM and Hispanic companies.

IBM and Native America

From Sitka, Alaska, to the Lumbee Indian Nation in North Carolina, to the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Southern Arizona, Native American IBMers have volunteered throughout North America, serving as role models for students and demonstrating their passion for science, technology and learning. IBMers’ contribution of time and talent is just one example of the company’s commitment to the Native American community. For decades, IBM has maintained working alliances with organizations such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the National Indian Education Association. At IBM’s Native American Leadership Conference, held every year in Armonk, NY, attendees develop plans to actively recruit and market within tribal communities across the US. The objective is twofold: to grow the company’s Native American employee pipeline and to tap the valuable market segment represented by the nation’s only indigenous ethic group.

Diversity down under

IBM Australia has been advancing cultural intelligence through innovative professional development programs. For example, IBM manager “QuickViews” are intranet-based resources designed to give managers essential information to conduct business successfully with clients or colleagues from another country. Topics include culture and business, and multicultural management. IBM’s Shades of Blue program supports managers who lead multicultural teams or are engaged in cross-cultural business interactions.

Too much information

As IBM prepares to introduce a genetic testing product for consumers, it has, for many years, recognized the risks surrounding the abuse of genetic information. In 2005, three years before the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act became law, the company laid down its own DNA policy, assuring employees that their genetic information will not factor into matters such as hiring, benefits or termination. The policy acknowledges widespread apprehension among employees at large and small businesses regarding the potential for discrimination based on DNA profiling. Setting yet another precedent, IBM was the first large corporation to enact a privacy policy with regard to the use of genetic data.