A Woman’s Place

Late last night, I flipped the final virtual pages of Sinclair Lewis’ The Job: An American Novel (free for Kindle!).

I love books that fit the genre: set in the early 20th century, starring young women who find strength in fending for themselves and making it in the big, bad city. (See also: Theodore Dreiser.)

The Job spanned a decade starting in 1905, when Una Golden and her mother moved to New York City from a small Pennsylvania town. Una’s father had just passed away, and after the dust settled, the mother and daughter decided that a big city like New York held more opportunity for a young woman to earn a living (and support her mother).

Such “opportunities” were vastly different than what women expect today. After a quick stint at secretarial school, Una started her career by taking dictation, eventually running small offices. Throughout, her fellow secretaries and stenographers married and left their jobs. The message – and reality – were clear: women had to choose between work or family. Women tended to work only when they had to support themselves in the absence of a father or husband. Una struggled to reconcile her desire for a family with her career aspirations.

As I read, many of the office dynamics were familiar, with hierarchies and break time confidences. But I marveled at just how far we’ve come in a century.

My own company, IBM, recently named a new CEO. As of January 1, Ginni Rometty was named President and CEO – IBM’s ninth CEO in a century.

Ginni Rometty is IBM's new CEO and president

When the news was announced in October, the gender-focused headlines bothered me. Why should it matter that she’s a woman? That our best and brightest, someone who worked her way up through IBM’s ranks since 1981, happens to be a woman? We should applaud the best person getting the job, regardless of gender.

But I know that it is a big deal. As long as Fortune and Forbes keep putting out lists of “Most Influential Women” and we have stand-alone “Women in Technology” receptions at conferences, the divide will persist. (Can you imagine if they had a “Men in Technology” night at a software conference?)

I grew up truly believing I could be anything I wanted to be. It never occurred to me that being a girl limited my career choices. I could be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or even an astronaut, as long as I worked hard. (Funny, “social media strategist” never popped to mind as a career option back in the 80s or 90s.)

But not terribly long ago, that wasn’t really the case. When my mom applied for teaching jobs in the 1970s, she had to include a headshot and answer questions about her marital status and whether she intended to have children.

It’s certainly changed in the century since Una Golden arrived in New York. Even so, I look forward to the day when gender isn’t highlighted as something novel during such announcements.

We’re getting there. Our outgoing CEO, Sam Palmisano, reiterated the point: “Ginni got it because she deserved it. It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies.”

Congratulations, Ginni, and thanks for helping perpetuate the reality that a woman’s place can be in the board room.

The New York Times has an interesting look at women in technology, and specifically, women in IBM. 

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