EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

IBM, the Netherlands: Increasing the labour market participation of underrepresented groups – women


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Information technology
increasing labour market participation of underrepresented groups

IBM Nederland, part of a worldwide information technology (IT) corporation, aims to employ more women in the company. Various activities have been developed to increase the number of women starting a career in IT, to enlarge their career opportunities within IBM, to change the mindset of IBM employees towards their female colleagues and to strengthen the contacts between women in a network for women.

Organisational background

IBM is a worldwide information technology and consulting services organisation, headquartered in the United States. IBM has revenue of $91.4 billion and employs 354,000 people. There are three geographic regions, each with its head office. Benelux is part of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). EMEA accounts for 35% of the revenue and 25% of the employees of the whole organisation. This article focuses on IBM Nederland. IBM Nederland is part of Benelux and develops and supplies advanced information technologies, including computer systems, software, micro-electronics and related services to customers in The Netherlands. IBM Nederland employs about 5,400 people, 20% of whom are female. Most personnel, including women, are highly educated. The company discusses terms of employment with the works council, but unions are not involved directly. Union density is very low (exact figures are unknown).

Description of the initiative

IBM Nederland intends to employ more women in the company. The initiative derives from the head-office in the United States and is part of a ‘diversity approach.’ There are, however, regional differences in the interpretation of the corporate policy. One of the taskforces of the European Diversity Leader is the Women Taskforce, aimed at hiring more women and at stimulating their careers within the company. The taskforce formulates recommendations and projects. One of these projects is the stimulation of national subsidiaries to create diversity networks. A women’s network has been founded called ‘Women in Blue.’ The activities of the network were focused on: communication to strengthen mutual contacts, an increase of women starting a career in Information Technology and enlarging their career opportunities within IBM, and a change of attitude toward female colleagues.

At first (2000 to 2002) activities were organised by 40 volunteers and a project team of five people (four females, one male). At present, a budget is available for the activities. Every year the chairperson of the project team formulates a plan with matching costs, which will be discussed with the general manager.

Concrete activities within the framework of the project include:

  • To arouse interest in technical professions, summer activities have been organised for teenage girls; these girls visit workshops and are engaged in various technical activities under supervision of IBM-employees.
  • To present IBM as an employer well-disposed towards women, IBM identifies top female students at two Dutch universities and offers them coaching and sponsors student activities, such as conferences on the empowerment of women.
  • To stimulate the recruitment of women, the recruitment procedure is halted when the list of applicants contains less than 20% women.
  • Participation in working parties that stimulate the participation of women in technical training and technical occupations.
  • Coaching of talented women.
  • Network meetings are held three times a year and are a combination of lectures and discussions.
  • A supportive HR policy directed at the optimal work–life balance for everyone.
  • Flexible working hours.
  • The availability of laptop computers and mobile phones to facilitate work outside the office and outside office hours.
  • Evaluation based on results and not on presence at the office.

The project is initiated by management and the works council is informed about the project.


The fact that IBM has succeeded in attracting more women is shown in the following figures:

  • More women were recruited. In 2002, 17% of newly-hired employees were female and in 2004, 22.5% were female. Recent figures show that in 2006, until October, 22.3% of newly-hired employees were female.
  • In 2000, 19% of the total employees of IBM were women. This figure climbed to 21% in 2003 and remained so in 2004
  • In these years the percentage of women in management climbed from 14 to 16%.

Apart from these quantitative results, some qualitative results can also be mentioned. The general manager and management team have been convinced of the significance of this policy. Moreover, in determining the HR policy, issues of diversity and work/life balance are considered carefully. The use of regulations concerning work and care is more accepted. Horizontal mobility and consultation between colleagues about their performance are more common now as the network offers more possibilities to exchange information and change jobs.

Although the policy has had its successes, IBM is not yet satisfied. The ratio of men to women still is not optimal. For women of age 30 to 39 years, relatively many women leave the company. As in Dutch culture in general, full-time working mothers are not fully accepted and women who end their working day at the office early to pick up their children are considered troublesome. Although there is some progress, part-time work is not always accepted.

Recently, an executive Work/Life Champion,has been appointed to guarantee financial support and permanent attention for this issue, not only for women but also for the male population. Also needed is a flexible attitude from the organisation and employees. Apart from the attitude of colleagues, the attitude outside the company is important as well, in particular concerning the women’s partners.

To stimulate the success of the policy, the communication of successes is important. A good functioning intranet could be of help, as well as using measurable results. In addition, it is important to stimulate activities initiated by employees themselves instead of enforcing activities through management.

Exemplary and contextual factors

The policy of IBM is exemplary in that it has succeeded in producing a higher percentage of women in the workforce in a relatively short time. Moreover, the change of company culture and the network of women within IBM ensure that women are accepted and valued in all functions and this helps to cut down on the numbers who leave the labour market.

Swenneke van den Heuvel, TNO Hoofdorp

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