Stopping Diversity From Walking Away

IBM programs work at keeping women and minority techies in-house.

There was the time when a former boss encouraged Ruey-Feng Li not to come back to work after the birth of her second child because he felt a mothers place was in the home. Then there was a colleague who passed her over for a big assignment because she was less assertive than her male counterparts. Indeed, in the 13 years shes worked in high tech at IBM and elsewhere, Li said she has seen plenty of women encounter work force challenges simply because they are women. But fairs fair—she has to admit, the blame doesnt always rest on others shoulders. In the past, she frequently didnt convey ideas or issues to higher-ups simply because she lacked the self-confidence.

Not any more. Li is one of the hundreds of women benefiting from IBMs MPIT (Multicultural People in Technology) project, a diversity program launched early last year to help women and multicultural employees—specifically Hispanic, Asian, African-American and Native American workers—build the skills needed to overcome their unique workplace challenges. In Lis case, a three-month workshop last year introduced her to a range of networking and communications techniques that have already changed the way she works—not to mention her interactions with others. "The class helped me think more rationally, not let my emotions lead me," said Li, manager of software development for IBMs Retail Store Solutions, in Raleigh, N.C. "Now Im much more persuasive when I see something I feel strongly about, and thats bound to help my career."

Helping women and minorities advance professionally is what the MPIT and IBMs dozens of other diversity programs are all about. While other programs at IBM focus on recruitment, MPIT seeks to enrich the jobs and skill sets of highly valued, multicultural employees with a tenure of less than five years, the goal being retention in an extremely competitive technical job market. Like countless other companies, IBM is up against a dwindling supply of high-tech talent; thus it is looking to reach out to populations that represent an increasingly large percentage of the work force. Indeed, these types of programs have delivered impressive results at IBM, increasing the number of women and minorities in the work force and, in particular, the executive ranks. And, experts say, such programs make sense for all enterprises facing the need to recruit and retain the growing number of female and minority techies.

"IBM needs to appeal to a work force that reflects more and more diversity," said Kate Colborn, editor in chief of Diversity/Careers in Engineering & Information Technology (, a magazine and Web site in Springfield, N.J., devoted to recruitment and diversity issues in the high-tech market. "They want to be seen as the place to work thats the most friendly and supportive for that population."

Aside from its own hiring needs, IBM has real business reasons for cultivating a diverse work force. The U.S. minority population has grown to 83 million people, with buying power in excess of $1 trillion, according to Ted Childs, vice president of work force diversity at IBM, in Armonk, N.Y.

"As a concept, diversity is the bridge between the workplace and the marketplace," Childs said. "Customers need to be able to look into IBM and see people like them at every level, from the mailroom to the boardroom. If they dont, its a deterrent to shopping here."

MPIT pilot programs launched over the last year are designed to help IBM maintain that diverse makeup. Generally a mix of professional development, training and networking opportunities, the pilots aim to make the target groups aware of the resources available to them and instill attributes necessary for success in the U.S. market that are not generally associated with advancement in other countries. "In some cultures, if you put your head down and do your work in the best way you can, thats enough to be recognized," said Arnella Brown, manager for the MPIT office in Raleigh. "Theres no effort done in networking or building relationships with other decision makers," all key elements for prosperity in the United States.

In addition to the seminar Li attended, MPIT hosted a technical conference in Orlando, Fla., last year that was attended by several hundred multicultural employees as well as dozens of top-level IBM executives showing their support and providing mentoring. There is also a retention program for minority Ph.D.s to help them adjust to the corporate world as they transition from academia. Theres also a pilot project to foster interest in technology and science careers among females and minorities within the K-to-12 pipeline. The plan over the next year, Brown said, is to gauge the results of the pilots.

In the interim, feedback from participants has been more than enthusiastic. The Orlando MPIT conference was the highest-rated conference given by IBM last year, according to a company satisfaction index. And Li, for one, is so pleased with what shes learned that shes making a conscious effort to share it with employees and management peers. Said Li, "Because Ive been helped by this program, my mission from this point out is to go help others and more actively coach and mentor new generations."