The Texas Legislature is once again gathering in Austin, this time for a special session. One of the most controversial topics is the so-called “bathroom bills,” which regulate which restrooms transgender people can use.
Tech companies have come out against bathroom bill proposals, and perhaps none as vocally as IBM, which has taken out full-page ads in several major Texas newspapers and is bringing employees to the state Capitol to speak out against it.
We talked with IBM’s Diane Gherson, a senior vice president for human resources at IBM, about the company’s stance on the bathroom bills. This interview has been edited for clarity, and some answers were shortened.
512tech: Why is this a front-burner issue for IBM? Why have you gotten involved?
Gherson: “It’s a front-burner issue and the reason is it goes straight back to our core values. IBM has been around for 106 years. We’ve always believed in diversity and inclusion. It’s a really important part of who we are...and is the reason why people come and work for us.”
I read that IBM has 10,000 employees in Texas. Where are those employees located?
“The three major locations are Austin, Dallas and (Houston). We’re mostly in Austin and Dallas. I would say 90 percent in those two areas. As you know, Austin is our largest location (in Texas). It’s actually IBM’s second-largest in the United States.”
Has IBM gotten this involved, with full-page ads and bringing employees in to lobby, in other states considering bathroom bills?
“This certainly has been the biggest one I’ve been involved in in my tenure. In other generations, IBM has been involved in other issues that have been as important to our values. This is the biggest one we’ve been involved with.
Largely because there has been an increasing level of concern among our population as the bills have come up in various legislatures. It affected our ability to hire and retain really important talent to us. It comes up when we ask people to move. There’s an unwillingness to come here.
It’s really gotten to a point that it’s really clear to us at IBM senior management that this issue matters to us from a standpoint of talent.”
Just to be clear: You used the past tense, so you are already hearing from new hires in Texas, or in other states like North Carolina, that they are concerned about the bathroom bills?
“Yes, we’re experiencing it in Texas. When we’re on campus and hiring, and when we’re asking people to transfer it comes up.”
Are you working with other tech companies while you are here?
“Absolutely. As a sector, we are all experiencing the same reaction from the talent base. We all compete for the same talent base and we know it well. And so we are all together on this issue.”
What are your plans while you are here, who are you meeting with?
“It’s really important for us to meet with the legislators to make sure they understand our point of view on this. We aren’t just a fly-by-night. We’ve been here for 50 years, we really have a stake in this state.”
Who are you meeting with?
“We’ve got a number of meetings that have been scheduled. This is a very fluid day here because it’s not clear how long they will be meeting. There’s still more to be learned as we go through the day. There is a large amount of willingness to meet with us. We’ve felt welcomed by the legislative leaders here.”
Are you meeting with the lieutenant governor (Dan Patrick)?
“I’m not sure.”
IBM has brought employees in to help lobby the Legislature. Do you know how many are here this week or today?
“We have over 20 here today. They are primarily from Texas.”
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about on this topic?
“Well, the other issue that we haven’t really talked about is education. This is an area we feel deeply about. Maybe you have heard about P-TECH. It’s a six-year high school we developed originally in New York. Texas has recently funded that here.
It enables people without a university degree to get skilled up in hot areas in tech. We’ve been very, very committed to it and it’s something to support here in Texas. Now it’s up in the air.”
I’m a bit confused. You said it was funded already?
IBM spokeswoman: “This past legislative session a bill was passed that would fund $5 million in planning funding for six-year high schools. We had created the model in New York.”
Gherson: “Of course, that has an impact on the kind of people that get trained. We’ve been very involved in the P-TECH that has existed already....that’s a really important element of our commitment to the state. I think the overall broader issue is our future in Texas.”
So what you’re saying is you’d re-consider your commitment and investment in Texas if a bill like this is passed?
“That’s correct. Obviously it affects our ability to hire, so we’d have to reconsider our hiring as well, and our planned growth.”
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