Claudia Brind-Woody is one of the most powerful gay women in business as a vice president at IBM and a senior advocate across many LGBT+ networks.
(LGBT+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and +. The + represents the numerous other groups of sexual and gender minorities that would otherwise make the acronym too long to use.)
In her role as vice president and managing director of intellectual property licensing at IBM, she has helped shape LGBT+ diversity within business, with clever HR software and mentorship programs. IBM also sponsors over 40 diversity network groups across 30 countries and has even influenced its partners to adopt more diverse working programs and create more LGBT+-friendly products and services.
Outside of IBM, Brind-Woody is also a board member of Out & Equal — a group which campaigns for workplace equality.
Brind-Woody has also been awarded for her diversity work. A prominent professional network for LGBT+ and ally (heterosexual and cisgender people who actively support of LGBT+ equality) senior executives, OUTstanding, awarded Brind-Woody as one of its five executive individuals in the “OUTstanding Hall of Fame” for “proving their commitment year in, year out to fostering environments of inclusivity across the businesses they oversee.”
Brind-Woody spoke to Business Insider about how IBM, which has around 400,000 employees, has made significant strides in LGBT+ diversity at work and has helped shaped the wider tech and business communities with their policies and strategies.
Business Insider’s Lianna Brinded: What has IBM done over the last few years to promote greater LGBT+ diversity within the company as well as influence or shape other major corporations in tech or otherwise?
Brind-Woody: We have done a lot over several years that have influenced a lot of other corporations to follow us. For example, we have an HR indicator that allows employees to self-identify as LGBT+, so it isn’t just an anonymous survey — it is logged in our system. This is the same identifier as if you are a women, or a person of colour. If you are able to self-identify within our system, it allows us to also cross-reference our top talent and help make sure a range of people get put forward for leadership training, bridge with mentors, and ensure we are helping them on their career paths.
It helps them navigate the business and it’s a best practice that is now shared with the likes of Citibank who has followed our process and procedure for employees.
Brinded: How important are mentors and sponsors to helping get more LGBT+ employees into senior leadership roles?
Brind-Woody: It is tremendously important. Mentoring and sponsors are significant in helping employees [excel within a company]. But at IBM we also do reverse mentoring, where LGBT+ employees mentor up the business to someone very senior like a country general manager and other senior executives within the company.
This, therefore, gives them the opportunity to work with people and units in exchanging information on challenges LGBT+ workers face as well as creating more allies within the company.
This has been really key in creating greater diversity because it has helped train straight allies [of the community] and change the climate at other offices where LGBT+ rights and understanding is a bit more hard like India. We have straight ally classes that help this.
Brinded: What is the percentage in terms of LGBT+ employees in the IBM workforce?
Brind-Woody: We don’t have total number because not everyone chooses to be out, or some countries don’t allow reporting on sexual orientation (Germany for example), or even countries where it is more difficult to be “out” can make reporting more difficult. However, looking at the numbers we have, as well as research and anonymous surveys, we are looking at 5-10% of the workforce. If you include people who self-identify as bisexual, the percentage is towards the top end of that range.
What is more important is to remind people that if we assume all our clients are straight, we will be wrong around 10% of the time. We all need to align to serve people who are like us and diverse.
What is more important is to remind people that if we assume all our clients are straight — we will be wrong around 10% of the time
Brinded: From a business point of view, how has greater diversity affected IBM? For example, what has the impact been in terms of talent retention or expansion in departments, as well as productivity?
Brind-Woody: There have been several key takeaways. We have seen some amazing things. In cognitive computing and artificial intelligence, having greater diversity and us valuing diversity has been key for innovation in these units. Also by [creating this type of environment] we attract and retain a lot more talent.
In the business development group, we have identified over $50 million worth of business opportunities [from greater LGBT+ diversity.] This is because there are more people who are close to the business that can bring business to LGBT+ decision makers and influencers within sectors. They are the people who are able to sell our stuff to senior executive levels within companies because we have the best practice [to foster] great client relationships that come from authentic connections.
Brinded: So it seems productivity within IBM has improved greatly with greater focus on promoting diversity within the company?
Brind-Woody: Absolutely. We found that ever since the 1980s, one of the senior vice presidents made a statement [following IBM’s inclusion of the non-discrimination sexual orientation policies within its employment contracts].
Brinded: IBM has around 400,000 employees across 170 countries. Where do you see the greatest challenge in growing LGBT+ diversity as well as educating straight allies in terms of those issues those employees face?
Brind-Woody: Countries in Africa and the Middle East spring to mind as well as parts of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. However, within the IBM walls, we adopt the “embassy model,” which is where you make sure your company welcomes and includes all people where everyone is treated the same and is safe. That’s the very minimum we do.
We try to use our business power to help make a difference.
We try to use our business power to help make a difference
For example, the benefits supplier that won our contract in India, was the first insurer of its kind in the country to recognise and cover same-sex couples as well as married hetero couples. We required that supplier to accurately put the sex of the couples in the benefits contracts. It is little things like that that move the needle.
Brinded: How about in developed countries? For example, would you say the US is behind in terms of LGBT+ diversity and rights in tech, business and in general?
Brind-Woody: The US is behind the UK [on this] for sure. It has made the some of the right progress, and recent rulings in Supreme Court have supported, this but there is backlash from certain states on LGBT+ rights, and what you have seen for the transgender community. The UK is ahead of the US on this.
What the LGBT+ community want is to just want it to be ordinary [to be LGBT+] so that you are just seen to be valued on merit and what you bring to the business without someone thinking twice about you being LGBT+. I have talked about this before and how the “cost of thinking twice” can hinder productivity. When our employees don’t have to think twice about struggling for the same benefits, recognition, or are afraid of being safe, then productivity goes up.
Brinded: Speaking on communities that need greater advocacy, you have mentioned before how women have it doubly as hard in the work place. Why is that and do you still think this is the case in business and in tech?
There is still the case of the double glass ceiling
Brind-Woody: There is still the case of the double glass ceiling. Yes, women in business are still under-represented. They are like visible minorities. If you feel you get discrimination as a woman in the workplace, gay women may hesitate more in coming out as it’s almost like putting up your hand again to be discriminated again for a second time.
However, we are hoping to turn that around. We are very encouraged with the group Lesbians Who Tech and who we partner with to find top talent [within that community].
Brinded: Companies like IBM have such a large workforce that leading the charge on things like LGBT+ diversity can make a seismic change across sectors. Do you see it as up to businesses to make this change for society amid the backdrop of slow-changing governments?
Brind-Woody: It’s up to all of us. We can’t wait on the government, NGOs, activists, we all have to do our parts. The roles we play — corporations, governments and activists — all need to find ways to work together. We at this corporation lead the way and influence businesses, like our suppliers, and governments need us to invest in a country, lab or manufacturer. We have the power of corporate brands to promote and live the values we espouse.