An Open Letter To IBM CEO Virginia Rometty

Eileen Burbidge (@eileentso) is a partner at Passion Capital, a premier early-stage venture capital fund in London. She was formerly the investment director for Ambient Sound Investments and a products director at Skype and Yahoo! after 10 years in Silicon Valley in roles at Sun, Apple, Openwave and PalmSource. She has also created an online petition calling on IBM and Ms. Rometty to pull their sponsorship of the Masters here.

People like to kick up a fuss about sexism in tech and how this contributes to a lack of women in the field, whether that’s through badly promoted “perks” at hackathons, over-abundance of alcohol at events or scantily clad women in promo videos, etc.

But do you want to know why there’s sexism in tech? Because it comes from society at large, and even at the very top, we allow it to happen.

Traditionally, the Augusta National Golf Club has bestowed honorary green jackets representing membership to the club upon the CEOs of its three main television sponsors for the U.S. Masters – except for this year. Virginia Rometty is the current CEO of IBM, and so far has not been given membership – like every other CEO before her, solely because she is a woman.

I appreciate that as a private club it has a prerogative to decide, and am certain that I wouldn’t be able to influence a clearly outdated organization to change its views.

But I would have expected more from IBM — and of us as a tech community to declare this as unacceptable.

So the following thoughts are not directed at the board of Augusta National. These thoughts are directed at Ms. Rometty, chief executive of IBM. I ask simply in an open letter “Why have you not pulled your company’s sponsorship?” And more specifically “Why do you allow them to disrespect you in this way?”

IBM is one of the grandest and most established tech companies in history. Founded more than 100 years ago, as of December 2011 it was the third largest publicly traded tech company in the world by market cap.

It counts more than 400,000 employees worldwide in over 170 countries, has 10 research labs, and among other things invented the ATM (cash point), the floppy disk and hard disk drive.

Its history is full of achievements as a progressive employer and leadership in worker equality. It started offering training classes for female systems services professionals in 1935. It hired its first black salesman in 1946 – 18 years before the Civil Rights Act. Its first equal opportunity employment policy letter was released in 1952 – one year before the US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1953 when negotiating to open two factories in southern States, then company President Thomas Watson openly established that IBM would absolutely not have segregated workforces, against those governors’ wishes.

It was also the only tech company in 2004 to be ranked in Working Mother Magazine’s Top 10 places to work, and provides same-sex partners with health benefits of employees which is partly why the Human Rights Campaign has scored it 100 percent on its index of gay-friendliness since 2003. Two of its thirteen board members are women (which is a better proportion than Apple and obviously Facebook with zero).

So why does it continue to sponsor a golf tournament held at a private club which does not allow female membership? Why is it sponsoring this year’s tournament when, in contrast to IBM CEOs before her who have been awarded honorary membership, Ms. Rometty is not receiving the same respect and courtesy due to her gender alone?

Date: April 7, 2012
Subject: Why do you permit Augusta National Golf Club to disrespect you?

Dear Ms. Rometty,

Even though I have not had the pleasure of even meeting you, I was pleased when you were appointed CEO in January – expressly because your predecessor and still Chairman Sam Palmisano established that this was because you “earned it; zero to do with any progressive social policies” which is fantastic. I was pleased to see it established that you earned your new position and were given the recognition for your contributions to the company – and expressly not hindered because of your gender. I don’t believe myself to have ever been hindered by my gender in my career, and I’d like there to be more public examples of this.

With all of this and the fact that I have a great deal of respect for you established, I simply want to ask you why you and your company continue to sponsor the U.S. Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Country Club.

In addition to your company’s tremendous history of leadership in establishing gender and social equality in its workforce, your appointment as CEO continued to demonstrate IBM as a merit-led corporation. However, your company’s sponsorship of this tournament – and refusal to comment publicly on its membership policies is disappointing. Your silence is deafening.

It suggests that you feel the commercial benefits of sponsoring this tournament outweigh the matters gender equality and self-respect. Even if you “don’t care much” about golf personally (it has been reported that you do occasionally play), the fact that you will be the first in a long string of IBM CEOs to not be awarded an honorary membership – strictly due to your gender – and are seemingly OK with this, is deflating.

I suspect one reason you have achieved a lot throughout your career and will continue to do so is because you speak your mind and follow your convictions. I can also appreciate that you don’t need to do anything for the “women in tech” cause, for other women, or just to be a role model. You should obviously do things firstly for yourself or your shareholders, and to that end, I can also imagine that you may not see it as a part of your corporate responsibility to deal with matters that do not have direct impact on shareholder and employee value. I would like to point out that this does. Your shareholders – and surely at least 50% of your workforce (if not more) would welcome your statement on the situation, even an implicit one made by choosing not to sponsor this tournament any longer, and to instead focus your company’s resources and marketing budget on other events.

I humbly submit that you should take a stand for what your company represents and how it represents itself. By being one of three major television sponsors, you endorse this tournament, its host venue and its current membership policies – along with its snub to you personally and professionally. I wish you would make a statement and clarify your own views about this.

I put to you a question that was asked of Augusta National’s chairman Billy Payne: What do you say to your granddaughters? And extend that to: What are you saying to your female employees? Beyond those groups, what do you say to your sons or grandsons when they ask why you didn’t say anything?

Unlike other IBM and major CEOs before you there is no indication that you will be granted honorary membership at Augusta National – on the sole basis of being a woman. Out of respect for yourself, women like you, women like me, women who work in your organization, and men and women to come, please establish that this is no longer acceptable in 2012.

Respectfully yours,
Eileen Burbidge