IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Female CEO breaks glass ceiling at IBM

VirginiaJon Iwara / AFP - Getty Images

It took a century for IBM, the male-dominated computer giant know for its blue-suited culture, to appoint a CEO who often wears a dress.

Last week, Virginia Rometty was named the first women ever to run IBM and the move is both symbolic and potentially game-changing for the computer company and for the technology sector overall, long plagued by the lack of enough female nerds in the rank and file and in leadership.

“I think it’s great news and part of a long steady road to Damascus as far as women leading technology firms,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School who recently wrote about the company’s centennial in a piece for the Harvard Business Review titled “IBM at 100: How to outlast Depression, war, and competition.”

While it’s not unprecedented for a woman to head a tech company, she explained, pointing to Meg Whitman’s recent appointment to HP; the fact that it’s long-time computer stalwart IBM handing over the reins to a female is “even a bigger deal.”

“This is a big, important public bet the company’s making,” she added, “and it won’t go unnoticed.”

Koehn, in addition to many leadership and recruiting experts, and women advocates, are hoping many take notice, especially company boards and women trying to climb the ladder of success in the tech industry, which is still very much a good old boys’ network.

“The cool thing about this particular appointment is that it’s very visible,” said Todd Thomas, associate professor of leadership, DeVos Graduate School of Management at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., and author of the Leadership Matters Now blog. “I think it shows there might be some activity going on in large companies about identifying female talent in the leadership pool, and also a willingness to adapt to different leadership styles.”

The appointment of Rometty, and others including Whitman and Xerox's Ursula Burn, may make some people think women have overcome when it comes to getting a level playing field in the tech sector; but alas, they’re still only part of a small minority. Among Fortune 500 technology firms, only 11 percent of executives are women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

The data on number of women in at level tech jobs, or entering the field, are also discouraging. Women hold 56 percent of all professional jobs in the US, but only 25 percent of IT jobs, the center reported; and only 18 percent of undergraduate computing and information sciences degrees were awarded to women in 2009, down from 37 percent in 1985.

“While some of the stats for women going into the profession aren't great, the key is being able to highlight appointments like Rometty's for our younger generations, and leveraging them into learning experiences and opportunities for inspiration,” said Kate Brodock, executive director of digital and social media at Syracuse University.

Clarke Murphy, global leader of executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates’ CEO and Board Services Practice, said he’s already seeing more women as finalists for key executive positions at technology companies. “It’s an expectation today because there are so many great women executives in the ranks today,” he noted.

So will Rometty’s ascension to IBM’s helm mean the tech floodgates to open for women?

“It would be nice to think that having two or three women leading the big tech companies could be a tipping point,” said Paula King, dean of the School of Business and Leadership at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. “But I don’t think so.”

She said, “the pipeline needs to be full of women in engineering and women not dropping out of tech and physics in grammar school.” It that happens, she added, “there may be a tipping point.”

Paul Carroll, author of “Big Blue: The Unmaking of IBM” and partner at management consulting firm The Devil’s Advocate Group, doesn’t think Rometty’s appointment will lead to overnight change for the world of technology or IBM, but he does see it as an “unusual” move that will shake things up.

“In the late '80s and early '90s, there was only one women who held a position of any real consequence at IBM,” he said. And even today, he pointed out, the executive team at IBM has only two women among a dozen members, including CEO Sam Palmisano.

A Rometty tenure, he said, “is going to open up lots of opportunities for women at IBM.”

“IBM, like other companies have this network where you hitch your wagon to a rising start and get pulled along with that person,” he explained. “It’s been tough for women because so many rising stars were men, but I have to believe she’s going to pull some people along and change the mindset” of the IBM culture.

Some believe all the tech-women-CEO fanfare right now will eventually die down and leave women back where they were. “Every so often it seems that there could be a breakthrough in the hiring tendencies, but, then, everything settles back to business as usual, particularly when the woman has a bad go of it at the helm, as with Yahoo and HP,” said Billie Blair, organizational psychologist and president/CEO of management consulting firm, Change Strategists Inc. (Yahoo recently fired CEO Carol Bartz and HP’s Carly Firorina was also let go.)

By contrast, Carroll maintained having two women -- Whitman and Rometty -- running two of the largest computer companies in the world in terms of revenue would indeed make a difference. At least he hopes so.

“As the father of two daughters, I’m hoping we get to the point where this is no longer remarkable,” he added.