IBM’s CMO Michelle Peluso on Recruiting Women Who Left Work Years Ago

The first thing that struck us about Michelle Peluso is how happy she is, and how great her job sounds. The second thing we noticed is that she’s really not having the “Lean In” philosophy. No, it’s time for corporationsand mento do some leaning in toward what women want and need in the workplace and in their lives this time, she says.

What does your day-to-day schedule look like?

Day-to-day, my schedule is always changing, but there are a few things that I make a priority when I am in the city at my primary office.

I’m a mom of two, to an 8-year old son and a 10-year old daughter. So, our day always begins very early with my husband and children, getting ready for the day. I love to drop my kids off at school. Our family just moved so we could be closer to my office and my kids’ school, so I usually walk to work from there.

At the office, I sit at a 6-person table with my team. No one at our marketing headquarters in Manhattan has an office, so we end up doing all the fun stuff that teams do when they sit beside one another. Typically, I am very strict that I hold only 15-minute or 30-minute meetingsI think it’s often a great way to stay focused and disciplined about how you use your time and your team’s timeall of our most valuable asset.

I also love to walk the floors in our building and sit in on our Agile teams working together. It’s so energizing to see teams trying new things, learning from each other, and inventing the future of marketing in their day-to-day work.

I usually leave around 5 and head home to have dinner with my family and spend some time with them. Dinner, homework, reading, games, bath time and bedtimethe next few hours are always a fun blur, and then at about 8 o’clock, after the kids are in bed, I get back online and do some work for the last couple of hours of the day.

Could you talk more about this idea of authenticity at work? What is a workplace that encourages people to be their whole, authentic selves in the office? And how does authenticity connect to fairness and competitive companies?

Encouraging and enabling people to be their authentic, whole selves at work is the cornerstone of diversity and inclusion. It means that you create a culture where everyone feels comfortable to bring their diverse backgrounds into the office and bring their ideas forward.

You often hear companies talk about how diversity enables innovation. Diversity is one part of the equation, but without an inclusive environment where team members feel free to be themselves and bring their ideas forward, you won’t truly spark the innovation you are seeking. And, it’s one thing to recruit diverse candidates into your team, but you need an inclusive environment to retain them and inspire people to contribute to their fullest potential.

Leaders who do this best actively seek out different voices in a conversation, pull from different experiences, encourage openness about what’s important to the different members of the team, and work to create an environment where people feel comfortable talking about their background, interests, and family lives.

What are some initiatives IBM has taken to ensure workplace inclusion and diversity?

We’ve taken a special interest in helping women with high-value tech skills return to the workforce after they’ve taken a break for a few years, because companies need to get creative to attract this rich source of talent.

When women in STEM hit mid-career, they drop out of the workforce at an alarming rate. In fact, more than half of women in non-executive STEM jobs leave the workforce while in their 30s (according to Harvard Business Review). And for those who want to return to work, they are often unsure where to start. That’s even true for women who have updated their skills for hot technologies like AI and blockchain, but who may feel out of step with a work culture they left behind.

That’s why IBM started Tech Re-Entry, a 12-week “returnship” intern program for skilled women returning to the workforce after anywhere from 2-20 years. Since launching the program in 2016, 30 women have graduated (all were offered jobs at IBM), and this year we are offering the program to 30 more women.

We also have to reach out to attract the next generation of tech leaders to build the workforce of the future. For nearly two decades, IBM has hosted camps to encourage girls and boys ages 8-14 to explore careers in STEM, and thousands of children have attended. These camps are developed primarily for students from diverse ethnic and academic backgrounds, with little or no exposure to technology at home or school.

You’ve mentioned celebrating not only high-achieving women, but also the men who support or encourage their achievement. Can you explain this more?

IBM received the Catalyst Award for women four times, not just because we have great HR programs to support women, but because our leadership teamboth men and womenare focused on ensuring women succeed and move up the ladder.

Each woman who achieves and succeeds in her career typically has a lot of people who support and encourage her along the way. I know it’s true for me and the many friends and colleagues I know.

I believe it’s important to talk about the men who are champions for diversity, inclusion and supporting women to succeed. If we tell the stories of these men, it will help other men have examples to emulate. Until women represent half of all tech jobs, half of all executive jobs, half of all Board jobs, it will fundamentally require men to value, support and encourage talented women. Men must be part of the solution, and when they are, others will have a path to follow.

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few months about blowback, push back as a reaction to the #MeToo movement. Some men, and even some women, have voiced fears that all the talk and attention on infractions against women will actually hurt women. What’s your take on this idea?

I don’t agree. I think part of why the #MeToo movement is so powerful is because it’s led to an important broad conversation about supporting people of all genders, all colors and ages.

While lots of companies do training on harassment in the workplace, I think this movement has really brought it home and opened peoples’ eyes, of course to blatantly criminal and morally offensive acts, but just as much it’s forced each of us to be more aware of what we say and do that could negatively impact a coworker’s comfort or confidence. It reminds all of us to examine our own behaviors and find ways to improve.

And there are so many exceptional men out there who mentor, support and help create meaningful opportunities for women. I’ve had many such men in my life, and I’m very grateful for all they have done and still do to support me. I believe the vast majority of men want to see a fairer society and a more diverse workforce; they want it because it’s good for business, and they want it because it’s the right thing to do. They want it because they have wives and sisters and daughters. They look at #MeToo and want to be part of the solution.

If all of us who want progress raise our hands and get to work, as IBM has always done over it’s past 107 years, our world can be better. Will there be some blowback? Yes, of course. But this is a moment that challenges all of usmen and womento roll up our sleeves, confront what we don’t like, and force needed change to happen.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

First, too many women drop out of the workforce at middle-management or mid-way through their careers, often when they have young children at home. Companies need to do a much better job of supporting these women’s ability to be successful at work and simultaneously successful in their personal lives.

And secondly, it feels like in the past several years, the conversation has been all about what the woman needs to do to succeed vs. what the companies and men need to do to help her succeed. The narrative has been “you need to find a mentor, you need to be a mentor, you need to raise your hand, you need to ask for help, you need to never ask for help, and on and on.”

It’s time to change the narrative. The battle for equality is one of culture, and it will only be won if men feel just as compelled as we do to make the future better. It’s one of the many reasons I’m proud to work at IBMover our 107-year history, we’ve never shied away from standing up for what we believe and taking actions, often well ahead of others, to ensure a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

How has IBM evolved since you started? How have you evolved with it?

IBM is very focused on ushering in the era of AI responsibly. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, talked about how all companies and governments:

  • need to commit to data security and responsibility,
  • be transparent about when and how AI is being applied and how it was trained, who trained it and with what data.
  • and make sure we invest in training our teams with new skills to ensure they have what’s needed to take advantage of new technologies.

As a leader, I’m wholeheartedly committed to ensuring my team is the leading example of applying leading-edge technology to marketing. This means giving everyone training and experiences for continual learning so they are at the leading edge of their profession and experts in applying technology to data-driven marketing.

What’s been your proudest moment in your role so far?

Generally, it’s always when I get to see my team accomplish big things, and I’ve had many such moments in the role thus far. But when I step back, what is so uniquely IBM is when we put our values into action to fight for inclusion and against discrimination in our country. For example, when our head of HR, Diane Gherson, and 20 IBM leaders went to Austin to protest the Texas “bathroom bills” because discriminatory laws are a direct contradiction to IBM’s deep-rooted values of diversity and inclusion. IBM took a vocal stance against these bills because they hurt our ability to attract and invest in talented professionals in Texas, where IBM has operated for more than 50 years. Our team there has played a critical role in many groundbreaking IBM innovations, and we are glad that these discriminatory laws did not pass. We’ve also been very vocal about protecting Dreamers, quite a few of whom help make IBM stronger and more innovative with the work they do every day.

IBM wrote its first Equal Opportunity policy in 1953, a decade before the Civil Rights Act was enacted. We were one of the first companies to include sexual orientation in that policy over thirty years ago, and have stood up to ensure that LGBT IBMers across the globe can live and work free from discrimination in any form.

I’m proud to work at a company that firmly believes nobody should face discrimination for being who they areand beyond that, believes that everyone should feel encouraged to be themselves at work.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Find a company that truly wants you to succeed in all areas of your life – your professional and personal life. Surround yourself with people you respect and can learn from every day. Be a continual learnerintellectually curious and always seeking to be at the leading edge of your profession.



The Switch Editorial Team.

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