Colman Domingo
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How IBM Transformed Itself Into an LGBTQ-Inclusive Company

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Editor's Note: Corporate LGBTQ+ programs and initiatives are important drivers for social change. At The Advcoate, we are launching a new series highlighting personal stories of LGBTQ+ people at some of the world's top brands and businesses. We aim to provide more than just corporate talking points, but rather a first-person account of what life is like being out in corporate America.

Our first profile is of Bob Breitel at IBM, one of the world's most iconic technology companies. Additionally, late last week, IBM apologized for its 1968 firing of a young computing pioneer, Lynn Conway, who also happened to be transgender. IBM made amends by honoring Conway with its Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented by Diane Gherson, the company’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources.

“Where governments policies fall short, employers shine with flying colors.” 

We live in an unprecedented time, reckoning with racial injustice and dealing with ongoing inequalities around gender and LGBTQ+ rights all around the globe. And where the government didn’t cause these crises, it is slow to respond — especially during a global pandemic. 

I believe these circumstances make it imperative for the private sector to pick up where other institutions have failed. And as a member of IBM’s LGBTQ+ council, and executive sponsor for one of our LGBTQ+ teams, I want to share the ways in which our company has made a difference with strategies for diversity and inclusion and a long history supporting marginalized employees across multiple dimensions.   

I joined IBM 30 years ago as an engineering trainee and today serve as an executive on our Strategic Partnership team. I’m also on our LGBTQ+ Executive council and act as the sponsor for our LGBT+ Marketplace Diversity Business Development team. When I started, as a trainee, writing an article like this would never have seemed possible — I was DEEP in the closet, married with two kids (all three of whom are amazing!). I am also a hardcore swimmer and I believe this sport saved my life and was instrumental in giving me confidence to come out.  

With the help of counseling, and support from my wife, I came out in my thirties. At that time, I’d hoped that coming out was a “one and done” thing, but every new relationship means taking the step all over again — and for me it’s a tough step. Even now, coming out brings back memories of being bullied and teased as a kid and a tremendous fear of rejection. It’s those memories that made it so hard to come out at work.    

Back then, IBM had a great track record on diversity, but I still bargained with myself; not telling anyone my orientation wasn’t lying, it was just keeping my personal life to myself. I managed to get by, only confiding in a few of my most trusted work colleagues. But after I met my partner, John, and we got married in 2017, I decided that enough was enough and it was time. 

I came out at work, and the next thing I knew I met an inspiring diversity leader in HR who recruited me to join our LGBTQ+ council. When she sent the email announcing my status as an IBM Out Executive, it was like a switch flipped in my brain. From that point on I was all in.  

IBM supports our LGBTQ+ employees in multiple areas from Human Resources to Government Relations as well as Employee and Business Resource Groups. The area I am responsible for is our LGBTQ+ Marketplace Diversity team. Our team’s mission is clear and simple: help take IBM’s leadership on this topic externally to our clients and partners — an effort that has been in place for 19 years. I support a team of three full-time employees working on this, and they also depend on many volunteers across the globe who pitch in to support our efforts. IBM believes our work is the right thing to do for its core values. But the leader of the team, Tony Tenicela, attested to me recently an important insight, that it is good for business too. 

“At IBM, diversity fosters innovation in the way we address the needs of our clients and help the world work better,” said Tony. “Given IBM operates in over 170 countries, diversity is a competitive differentiator that enables us to reflect the global diversity of our customers.” 

Our work includes speaking extensively at events around the globe on LGBTQ+ business topics, developing “allyship” classes and promoting them to our clients, and even working with academia — like the University of Massachusetts at Amherst — to showcase IBM’s experience addressing the needs of our LGBTQ+ community such as voluntary self-ID. 

Recently, I’m most proud of the work the team has done to take a European initiative called #workingpostively and transform it into a program with global reach. The program, which we partner on with two other organizations, aims to end discrimination against HIV+ employees in the workplace. Due to its success, it is being introduced to several countries with a scheduled launch in the United States on World AIDS Day.   

Of course, I get help from other senior IBM leaders too, because executive support is key to this program. Without it, we don’t get the budget and resources to support our work.  It is also important for our LGBTQ+ employees to see our executives as visible allies for our community.   

Despite our strides we still have more work to do as we continue to learn. At IBM that means documenting the history of our LGBTQ+ efforts. One of our early leaders in IBM’s LGBTQ+ community, Paul Carey once described why our LGBTQ+ history is important: “Our LGBTQ+ timeline is intended to share the bold, proud steps we have taken, but also to inspire us to maintain momentum.” (https://www.ibm.com/thought-leadership/lgbt-plus-pride/#timeline)

I am fortunate to work for a company where diversity and inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community is a priority. I don’t have to worry about being fired for who I am. But a recent McKinsey report (June 2020) says that only half of Fortune 500 companies provide benefits for domestic partners and fewer than two-thirds offer trans-inclusive healthcare coverage. And 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ respondents say they are not broadly out at work. My hope in sharing these insights from my IBM experience is that they will inspire other businesses and leaders to think about how their support of their LGBT+ employees is the right thing to do — it is good for both society and business.

Bob Breitel is Director of Global Alliances and LGBTQ+ Executive Sponsor at IBM.

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