12 Mar 2021

How I Established IBM Women’s Network - Vicki Cooper, Client Experience Consultant @Belonging Pioneers

In the early 2000s life was full on – I had 3 children under 5 and was contemplating a fourth but I turned round to my husband in exasperation and said ‘But no one works full time in Software sales and has four children!’.   He said ‘Why not? What’s stopping you?’   There was no reason not to have a fourth child, we were good parents, we could afford it, we had the house to accommodate a big family – but ‘what would happen to my career?’ Was in the back of my mind.  How could I manage this level of chaos??

I knew I needed some ‘safe space’ to clear my head, discuss my career options, talk to other working mothers and provide a place where we could learn and develop together.   I remember attending an event at BTs Womens network and being impressed.  That’s what I wanted to do – establish a women’s network at IBM UK to keep me sane and support us all.

As the idea gradually took hold I worked with a small dedicated female team on how we could possibly make this happen – we would need senior exec support for one thing in order to be sustainable and respected in this male dominated organisation (at that time 18% women, not much different today).

One day I was at a client awards lunch at the Dorchester and after the event I went over (I was quaking in my boots but I #ChoseToChallenge) to talk to Larry Hirst, our IBM UK MD at the time to ask why IBM UK didn’t have a Womens network (and yes, I blurted it out just like that!).  He sighed, looked at me and said ‘At last you have finally come to talk to me!  How long does it take you?  Seriously?  So, what do you need from me to get the Womens network set up?  Whatever you need I’m happy to help’ he smiled.

Of course I was speechless for a moment but then quickly recovered (somewhat angry though I had been challenged back as senior execs are prone to do!) and said I would invite him to the first Womens event to launch the network – and six months or so later in 2002 Women@IBM was born.

For me I found it a place of sanity talking to other women about how to develop ourselves, how to play the game and how to win personally and in our careers.  All new things which were a big challenge at the time!

After a few years of internal events, hosting Take our Daughter to Work day to encourage girls into STEM and going in to schools hosting Careers Days, I felt there was a need for the next stage of the network. In 2009 after I had been at an inspiring event at Citibank Women where they had explained how they had professionalised their networks, branding and logoing each of them for recognition and engagement of their memberships I decided we needed to do the same.

We encouraged our membership to be more involved by regional office in UK, we rebranded and relaunched under the ConnectingWomen@IBM logo which consisted of interlocking cogs in purple - and we were off revitalised again.  We drafted standard objectives for all the ConnectingWomen@IBM regional UK leaders which were included in our annual objectives no matter what role we had.  We ran monthly events face to face and online (a tall order then!) but we were rocking.  NSI ratings on our events were tracked and were consistently high – as CW@IBM Network leader I had a place on the Diversity Council for the UK and we had a voice for Women at the top table - result!

Vicki Cooper, Client Experience Consultant, Belonging Pioneers


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