Arvind Krishna’s elevation at IBM may be India’s gain, but it’s a loss for gender equality

A loss.
A loss.
Image: REUTERS/Steve Marcus
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As Indians beam with pride over Arvind Krishna joining the ranks of Silicon Valley’s crème de la crème, another group has a reason to rue.

The newly-appointed chief of IBM adds to the long list of Indian-origin CEOs in America, including Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai. However, he replaces Ginny Rometty—one of a handful of female leaders who have climbed to the top of the tech ladder.

Her exit now leaves just 34 female CEOs among Fortune 500 companies, many of whom underperform on the gender-balance front. Take Apple, for instance, where just 33% of the staff are women. When it comes to leadership positions, this figure drops to a mere 29% at the Cupertino-based phonemaker.

Facebook, which has oft made chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg the face of its brand, rejigged its executive teams in May 2018 and ended up having mostly white males in roles overseeing products and engineering.

Google fares a little better. Although the internet giant’s workforce is 70% male, its management team, with 46% women, is among the most gender-equal.

In fact, just over half of startups have at least one woman in an executive position, and less than half have one on their boards, according to Silicon Valley Bank (pdf), which surveyed 1,377 technology and health startups in the US, UK, Canada, and China in 2019.

This crippling lack of women in senior roles stems from their dearth among entrepreneurs, experts say. Only 28% of Silicon Valley startups have female founders.

For good reason…or not

In the case of Krishna, his role in the acquisition and integration of the open-source software provider Red Hat in June 2019 was a major driving force behind the executive shuffle. The purchase was the biggest in Big Blue’s century-plus history.

“Rometty is passing the baton to new leadership that is an integral part of that acquisition,” said Craig Lowery, vice-president analyst at Gartner, referring to Krishna and Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat who was named IBM’s new president.

Krishna’s elevation is meritorious since “he is both a technologist and executive talent—the right blend for the new IBM,” David Bahnsen, chief investment officer at California-based The Bahnsen Group, told Quartz.

While in Rometty’s case, the switch has more to do with skill sets than unsavoury dealings, that isn’t always the case. For example, last April, Microsoft’s women said the company was a toxic place for them to work. They complained of discrimination and harassment.

The “bro culture” is insufferable in some cases. A March 2019 study by IBM itself revealed that advancing women is not a priority at almost one in eight organisations. Yet, there is not much of a concerted effort to retain the gender diversity.

The fewer women there are, the more problems they will face. Role models are few and far between. The lack of women in leadership roles certainly has an impact on the gender and racial pay gap that exists today, Lisa Crooms-Robinson, professor of law and associate dean for academic affairs at Howard University, told CNBC Make It.

Gender parity also makes business sense—more women in corporate roles drive higher revenues besides making better female-oriented innovations from health-monitoring bras to fertility care. More women in tech may also mean less mishaps like Fitbit’s unreliable period tracker.