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Why IBM is pushing for global gay equality

Harry van Dorenmalen, chairman of IBM Europe, tells GSN why his firm believes in sticking to their pro-LGBT values, wherever in the world they are
Harry van Dorenmalen, chairman of IBM Europe, is a leading straight ally calling for LGBT equality.

Right from the start of the LGBT movement, ‘straight allies’ have played a key part in pushing for liberation, equality and diversity.

Today the directors of the world’s most powerful firms are taking more of a leading role in this. They’ve already realized that being ‘gay friendly’ and supporting their gay and trans staff is good for business.

Now they are taking those lessons out of their company and into the wider world – confident that’s not only the right thing to do but also that socially responsible corporations will be the ones to flourish in the 21st century.

One person at the forefront of this work is Harry van Dorenmalen, chairman of IBM Europe. Just last week he was a keynote speaker at Out and Equal’s Global LGBT Workplace Summit, supported by Gay Star News as a media partner. He spoke with such passion and confidence that he wasn’t just persuading other straight people but also inspiring the mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender audience.

Afterwards GSN caught up with him to quiz him more about his hopes for IBM’s LGBT work and how his corporation is spreading the message worldwide.

How has IBM made an impact in LGBT diversity?

Strong companies, and I think IBM in this area is a strong company, started working on this. The main points we have done is shown leadership, used diplomacy and had really strong role models. And then it’s a question of improving, step-by-step.

The key things are leadership, a policy, programs, role models and then measurement. Those are the five things we learnt.

Then, what we said is that what we are doing already is progress but it’s not good enough. It is never good enough. Firstly we need to work on the straight ally community because then collectively you can grow. And secondly we need to do a better job to make these things personal.

I invited everybody to go back to the village where they were born and talk about these things – go to the mayor, the local news, anybody. Do something. So why aren’t they doing that? Maybe they are starting to feel comfortable too.

IBM seems keen to advocate for change on LGBT issues beyond just the company. Why is that important and what are you doing?

It is becoming even more important. When people talk about IBM they talk about American people in blue suits who talk techie stuff. That’s the image we have. We are the computer maker.

But we have existed for 100 years and our strategy is called ‘smarter planet’. That means we generally have an interest, a commercial interest as well, to work on those societal issues that the planet has to face. That includes diversity, technology and innovation. And on diversity that includes LGBT people.

We are taking action inside the company, of course, because we have to make sure we’re not just helping the world but are strong enough to keep helping the world. And we also really go out and help other companies in their maturity.

For example in Holland KLM, the Dutch airline, came to us and asked how do you start an LGBT community? So we said, start with yourself – you are there already so the group has one member. Then we helped explain how we built from a low maturity to a medium maturity.

And of course, as you do this you build momentum, you speak to the CEO and that also has an impact on our business. It is not necessarily that you ask for it but we are still in a relationship business in this world, so when you show your competence in one area it has an effect in another area.

In Saudi Arabia IBM made the decision not to separate male and female staff. How easy was this to achieve and did you feel you had enough power as a company to insist on it?

It is easy to make that decision if before, as a company, you have decided to stick to your values. And that is typically something IBM manage very well.

The only way we could have survived 100 years in this difficult world is that we respect certain values. So if these things come up, they are simply compared to your values and then the decision is easy.

Do you have to tailor those values to circumstances in different countries?

Of course, life is not easy always. You have rules but you have interpretation. So on the ground we also have our local teams and we can understand they can work in a certain way and we as senior leaders balance things out in how they are done.

Global LGBT rights are becoming a greater focus for companies. How can your company and the corporate world as a whole make a really positive change for some of the worst countries in the world?

If I talk for my own company I can be confident we will do that.

For example we put a lot of effort in to IBM Africa. We started to really zoom in to find out what the complexity is there and what needs to be done. It starts always by reaching out as a company and saying ‘I don’t know that area well enough, let’s find out’.

In Africa there is a long way to go and we cannot assume we will fix it over night. That’s not possible. We need those countries and areas where things are moving to keep going. And then step-by-step we need to work collectively on other countries.

If you go in a gay parade in Poland or Bulgaria these are, for some people, stretchy things that you are doing. In that sense American companies, like IBM, are strong in their values. They stick to them. I would even say they are conservative in this idea of sticking to their values.

You also produce an annual LGBT report for IBM. What is that for?

As a company you have a yearly report and you are proud of that report. You present it to your stockholders and employees and clients etc.

Our LGBT annual report is factual and can be used for clients. What gets reported must have something behind it. So we can give people in IBM report and say this is what we have done and how we do it and what our approach is.

For example there is a section on IBM and lesbian women at work. It describes how we do it and it gives you the facts.

So go to companies and say ‘Can I have your LGBT report?’ and do the test yourself. It is the same with all these people who talk about gender. I go onto their websites and look at the managing board of directors and there is not a single woman. They say it’s important but they don’t do it. So which companies do have LGBT reports?

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I'm impressed about their choice in Saudi, pure guld. Because I don't think it was as easy as he makes it out to be. Never the less, I applaud IBM.