IBM’s Sofia Bonnet was featured by Forbes 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.
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.”
When 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.”
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.