IBM Executive Shares Four Lessons Learned In The Battle To “Have It All”

Recently, our own Sofia Bonnet was featured in this article written by Shavon Lindley for Forbes.


The future of female leadership is being forged, in real time, by women who not only own their evolutions but work hard to bring other women along with them. One of those women is IBM Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader Sofia Bonnet.

DIversity at IBM
Sofia Bonnet

Named one of Mexico’s 50 Most Powerful Women two years in a row by CNN/Expansion, Bonnet decided early in her career that she wasn’t going to let cultural norms hold her back. Self-assuredness is in Bonnet’s blood; her grandmother, who grew up during the Mexican Revolution, made the tough decision as a young widow to raise her children alone. Bonnet’s mother also gave her girls what Bonnet calls the “inheritance” of a strong voice. “When accomplished women speak,” says Bonnet, “we speak for generations behind us who instilled in us the confidence to make our own paths.”

SBWhen Bonnet joined the workforce, she found Mexican workplace culture, unfortunately, wasn’t as forward-thinking as her own family. Working on teams dominated by men, Bonnet found that women in the office “were expected to have a place of adornment.” Although her career was going well, “I was always the second person in the decision-making chain…or maybe the third. Or sometimes not even considered in the decision being made.”

At IBM, everything changed. Bonnet found she had a platform, a new corporate culture and a fully amplified voice to champion issues she cares about, like diversity and inclusivity regardless of racial or socioeconomic background, sexual or gender orientation or physical ability. “A more equal society leads to a more positive approach to social and economic problems,” Bonnet says. “It’s about the ecology of our company and our community—when women have a voice, and are heard, when LGBTQ+ employees have the same gender-partner benefits as their heterosexual counterparts, when we teach high school girls in Pakistan how to code, it just brings that humanity level higher.”

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Sofia and her twins when they were little

As she worked hard and rose at IBM, securing jobs with wider scopes and global responsibilities, Bonnet became a mother—of twins, no less! She always knew she wanted to return to work, so she worked out a timeline that worked well for her family, which fortunately included a supportive husband.

Bonnet’s life is by no means easy—there are early flights and late calls, blogging and leading progressive charges to improve diversity around the globe, balanced somewhat by yoga and Zumba and precious time with her kids, now 17. And she’s learned some critical lessons about gender equity, cultural awareness, and self-worth along the way. Read on to hear how Bonnet has stepped up, spoken up, and stood up for herself and others in her own personal journey to be a leader who models equality.

Lesson #1. Nothing develops leadership potential like asking someone to lead.  

“During one of my first meetings at IBM, a high-level director asked for my opinion. Having been used to playing a support (and not leading) role, I just gave it, and then sat back. He said, ‘That’s fantastic, Sofia. Go do it.’ I remember looking around and, ‘whoa! whoa! whoa!’ He listened and handed me back the authority to get it done. It was new. It was scary. But it was a leap-forward moment.”

As someone who works in women’s leadership development, I think this is critical for both managers and reports to hear. Managers: if you see someone on your team who clearly has leadership potential but for some reason or another (she’s new, she’s unsure, she’s maybe a bit introverted) isn’t stepping forward, ask her to lead. I’ve found in my own career and in my conversations with women that when presented with a leadership opportunity, few women refuse. Up-and-comers: when someone asks you to step up and lead, say yes. Don’t blow an opportunity to hone your skills and own the results—especially if you have a mentor who can provide guidance along the way. One day, you’ll be the leader and be able to extend that same chance to someone else. It becomes a benign chain.

Lesson #2: Attitudes don’t change unless YOU help change them.

“I remember being back in Mexico on assignment and seeing some of the attitudes towards women I’d experienced all my life. And I just couldn’t laugh along with the common jokes, however innocent or naïve, when the end result was the demeaning of women. I remember one day I said, matter-of-factly, “Your joke might be funny in another context but its not appropriate here. I don’t believe we should be laughing.” And you know what I got in response? Respect. From them, and from myself. You have to speak the uncomfortable truths, respectfully and thoughtfully. Silence conspires with biases in the workplace.

A 2016 study of women in the workplace conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. showed that the attitudes and practices affecting women in a workplace change when more women join the table—and anecdotally, anyone who’s spent time in an office over the last 20 years already knows that to be true. Plus, when women feel valued and do better, companies do better—as Bonnet noted during our conversation, research also shows that having women in high-level positions boosts a company’s bottom line. Elevating the discourse lifts everyone.

That’s not to say everything’s rosy. Many of us work in offices where the good ol’ boys—and their good ol’ sexist jokes— still rule. So how do we get change? Remember the time-worn saying, “If it is to be, it begins with me.” Sometimes it takes all the bravery we can summon, but speaking up when you see someone being mistreated, inappropriately joked to or about or in any way disrespected, is the only way things change for the better.

Lesson #3: To move up as a woman in a competitive workplace, you must do two things: Demonstrate results and speak up about any obstacles holding you back.

“I constantly have the ‘moving up talk’ with young professional women. And I always go back to two things. First, you must demonstrate an ability to produce results. Your gender, race and background don’t matter. Just show you are extraordinary, at whatever it is you do.

Second, if something is holding you back, don’t assume it’s obvious to everyone else. Go to your manager and say, ‘I’ve been doing this job for a year and a half and would like to know when I’ll be considered for a promotion—or what I can do to improve my chances.’ You have to talk about salary, upward mobility, opportunity, all of it. If you remain silent, you’re letting others decide for you.

That last line has stuck with me since Bonnet and I spoke. If you remain silent, you’re letting others decide for you. I know plenty of women who spent the early years of their careers being patient, doing their jobs with integrity and hoping someone would notice and reward their efforts. But when patience crosses over into passivity, you really are letting someone else dictate your path rather than owning your evolution.

During our conversation, Bonnet acknowledged that speaking up takes courage. She suggests preparation in advance of these tough conversations. Grab some time with a mentor and have them pretend to be the boss while you tout your performance and explain why you believe you deserve that raise or promotion. Your mentor can coach you on both your message and your delivery. “You are not pleading your case, you’re making your case,” Sofia says. BINGO.

Lesson #4: You don’t have to end up in the Motherhood Penalty Box if you make the case for fairness—and persevere.

“After my twins were born, I took a full year off, taking advantage of IBM’s leave of absence policy, by which you can be away for personal or maternity reasons, then come back to work. I started working part-time the second year, working back up to full-time incrementally over about five years. About a couple of years after coming back full-time, I gave my manager—a fantastic leader—a detailed analysis of how taking a break to have children seemed to have delayed my salary progression. It had not been intentional, but an unforeseen side effect of being away from work and then working part-time. So I said in my next promotion, I wanted that made up. She looked at the data and said, ‘I’d never thought about it that way.’ She took steps to gradually adjust the situation. I don’t believe that would have happened had I not spoken up.”

 The motherhood penalty hits women in every field. It’s like someone just hit “pause” on your compensation trajectory when you went on maternity leave, and you’re expected to just pick up where you left off when you return full-time, whether that’s six months or six years later. This can be especially frustrating if you’ve continued, as Bonnet did, to work part-time during this period. But as with many of the issues Bonnet and I discussed, if you want that imbalance corrected, you’re probably going to have to present a solution yourself.

Again, this is where preparation is everything. The mere existence of inequality won’t convince a manager to compensate you with a raise or promotion. You’ll need to do as Bonnet did and present a timeline of how you would have advanced, in title and salary, had you stayed full-time. Fair or not, if you’ve been on leave for a significant amount of time, you’ll also want to prepare yourself for some catch-up. Systems and technology evolve, so you’ll likely need to spend some extra time getting up to speed. No one likes the feeling that we’ve got “something to prove” just because we took time off to care for a baby or loved one, but just consider it extra motivation to do and be your best.

Perhaps most critical to owning her evolution, Bonnet says—especially once she became a mother—was getting back on the “ramp” to professional growth. “You take the off-ramp to have your baby,” says Bonnet. “How do we make that ramp back into work easier?” Bonnet gives some credit to IBM, which provided educational programs to help ensure that the executive who’s now also a caregiver feels supported. But in the end, it was her own self-advocacy—owning her voice and her purpose—that ensured she felt valued for the results she brought to her job and the company.

Balance has also been key for Bonnet. “If I’ve started work at 5:30 a.m., I can’t go until 1:30 a.m. the next morning. When my kids were little, I would block time to prepare dinner or take them to karate. Priorities are health and family. Am I perfect? No. I have a hard time disconnecting, but sometimes you have to do it. The world will keep going while you take a break.”


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2 thoughts

  1. Some great words of wisdom and sage advice from Sofia. It was great seeing this article. I am retired from IBM now, but Sofia use to be my Manager.

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