Saturday, February 19, 2011

Integrating Personal & Professional Identities

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Remarks by Sarah Siegel for oSTEM – University of Michigan Chapter

16 February 2010

Gary, thanks for the privilege of speaking with you today on integrating personal & professional identities. During this session, I’ll tell some stories about how my identity took shape; we’ll discuss the anonymous questionnaire, to help us gain a sense of where we are collectively with our identities; and of course, you’re also welcome to ask me questions along the way. How does that sound? [Pause for answer. They agreed it sounded good.]

Let me get an initial sense of who’s here: How many of you are freshmen? [None.] How many are sophomores? [25%.] How many are juniors? [~38%.] How many, seniors? [~38%.] How many are Master’s students? [None.] Are there any doctoral students? [None.] I didn’t go to Michigan for grad school, but I do have at least a story or two for each of my undergrad years here.

Freshman year: Picture the yearbook version of me minus four years, living in Bursley Hall – how many of you live, or have lived, in Bursley? Well, there I was, rooming randomly with a beautiful, bright-blond, blue-eyed Michigan farm-girl, who was a National Merit Scholar semi-finalist and an art student. Our first morning as roommates, she did a moving pencil-drawing of me, sleeping. [Show the sketch. A participant asked, “Were you really asleep?” Yes, really, I was, I told him, which made it all the more astonishing when I awoke to the gift.] When she gave it to me, I was hardly gracious lest I betray how I really felt and then I feared she’d guess the rest about my attraction to girls and women, and my attraction to her.
All year, she was relentlessly kind to me, no matter how indifferent I tried to act. Finally, we became friends during senior year, after I told her the truth about my identity, and she was as kind as ever…and probably already had guessed, though she didn’t say so.

But let’s go back to freshman year again, to my first weeks on North Campus, where I made a magnetic, new best friend: Like me, she was also Jewish and from the East Coast; she seemed like a worldly version of the most appealing girls who had been my classmates at the Modern Orthodox Jewish day school I had attended from 1st through 8th grades. I felt at home when I was around her. We were together day and night.

One of those nights, early on, she initiated intimacy with me, but the next day, claimed to have been asleep and dreaming through the experience. I was devastated, but I followed her lead. I told her, I agreed: it was nothing…but our friendship was spoiled, since I represented a discovery she did not want to make at the time….I wonder if any of you have had something like that happen to you with a friend. [Pause, but don’t wait for answers.]

In contrast to you [or most of you], my luck is that I can fast-forward to nearly a decade after graduation, when my mom ran into my freshman friend’s mother at a dance for Age-50+ Jewish singles. Her mother was divorced and mine was a widow, who had not found anyone close to my father’s caliber to remarry. While standing there, hoping for any decent men to walk through the door – rather than making do with the ones who were already there – my mother caught up with her mother and told her that I was a lesbian.

Her mother responded, “Oh, my daughter’s that way sometimes, too.” [Pause. Some (rueful) laughter from the participants, which I had hoped for, and which materialized.] It’s sort of funny now, but definitely was not funny when I was 18 and just finding my footing. In fact, though I was self-aware by 11, I ran from my identity till age 21, based on my upbringing and schooling: All of the girls in my school and community were expected to marry one Jewish man each with whom we would have Jewish children.

Not long after the episode with my female freshman friend, my high school boyfriend, who went to “the Michigan of the East” – do they still sell those T-shirts? [Pause for answer. Yes, they confirmed, they do] – visited for a weekend, but it was like hosting a sibling; he was Jewish, gorgeous, brilliant, a college track-star and I loved him, but not the way my heterosexual friends loved their boyfriends. I willed myself to stay involved with him through sophomore year, but not exclusively.

So now, I’ll help you imagine my sophomore year: During my first week, I ran into my high school girlfriend on campus, as that girlfriend was here for an internship. Just as our whole relationship had been in high school, I spent the winter with her in secret with the explicit deal that we did not qualify as a couple. After she left campus, I became involved in parallel with a closely-cropped, sandy-bearded Philosophy major – a guy – and another beautiful student who identified as lesbian at the time, but who was actually a transman, who transitioned some years later….Our first date was at a Women Take Back the Night march. Do they still have those in Ann Arbor? Does anybody know? [Pause for answer. One of the men shook his head that he didn’t know, and I said, “Right, why would you necessarily know?” and then one of the women confirmed it.]

Since I didn’t yet own my identity, I didn’t pledge romantic loyalty to anyone and felt super-lonely after each successive experiment.

By junior year, I was living in Jerusalem and studying Israeli Literature at Hebrew University. A large part of my agenda for going to Israel was to increase the odds of finding a Jewish man who was attractive enough to sway my orientation, as if that were possible – I had broken up with my high school boyfriend prior to the journey, to free myself up, I told myself, to meet my true Mr. Right…except that I kept meeting women along with men that year. From the anonymous survey results, which we’ll discuss in a bit, I know that at least a few of you have studied abroad and at least one of you is studying abroad by being at Michigan.

Back in Ann Arbor, during the first day of my senior year, in the ladies room of the Grad Library, I saw a flyer for a lesbian campus group and finally surrendered; I went to the advertised event and met the woman who was my first acknowledged girlfriend. I was still full of internalized homophobia, but finally brave at least:
I wrote to my family: my mom and two older sisters, as my dad of blessed memory had died of cancer when I was 17; he didn’t even get to see me graduate from high school. I told them about my lesbianism and my Michigan girlfriend, saying: “If you don’t accept me, then don’t bother coming to my graduation.” I don’t know where that bravado came from, but I feel fortunate that they were loving in response; my mother, brother-in-law and sisters all flew out to celebrate with me when I graduated. Later, it emerged that my mom felt she had already lost my dad, and that she had to accept me, as she did not want to lose any more family members.
My mother’s revelation confirmed a truth for me: So many of us worry that our families will reject us if we tell them about our sexual orientation or gender identity, but just like a job interview, rejection can go both ways. I think a number of us forget that. In the survey, one of you talks about this as well, in relation to your grandmother…but more on that in a bit.

Well, back to my girlfriend, who I met at the start of senior year:
We were together for two years and eight months, which was remarkable, since we had the following in common: both of us studied at the University of Michigan; both of us were lesbians; and both of us loved fiction. What was great about being with her, though, was that I finally committed myself to one female person; once I settled into one, focused relationship, it was remarkable how much else I had time and energy for:

I wrote a thesis that enabled me to graduate with High Honors; I became an active GLBT community volunteer when we moved to Chicago after graduation; I joined a winning rugby team as #5 in the scrum; and I even co-anchored a Cable Access TV show focused on news and entertainment by and for Chicago’s gay, lesbian, bi and trans community. The seeds of the most interesting facets of my IBM work, namely, being visible and building community, were planted during this period of volunteering.

But why did I need to suffer, and make others suffer, through all of the romantic drama in the years leading up to graduation? Because I did! Certainly, all of that exploring made me doubly grateful when ultimately, I found my partner Pat.
Are any of you able to relate to my experience? In terms of discussions with your families, or in terms of your love-lives or in terms of GLBT community volunteer work? [Pause for answers. One of the Asian participants agreed that in his experience, “…there’s an image of what an Asian child is supposed to be…” and that it was hard, within his family, not to conform to that.]

When I look at my college yearbook picture, I remember consciously wearing something unusual – a tropical shirt with a hoody Michigan sweatshirt over it, topped off by a double strand of iridescent plastic, purple beads. So part of me was trying to assert my difference via my clothing-choice, but as I look at the attempted disguise of my hair, I know that ultimately, I was ambivalent and sort of still wished to pass as heterosexual then. Have any of you posed for your yearbook pictures yet? What did you wear? [Pause for answers. A senior, who later identified herself as a straight ally, said that she wore a “pants-suit,” and one of the male seniors agreed that he wore a suit. So in contrast to me, they opted for the traditional look, I acknowledged.]

I’ll tell you one more story, about mentors because in the tip-sheet I give you at the end, you’ll see that I’ve included, “Find role models and mentors…” as the third tip. I included it even though I recalled how useless it was to look for coaching from anyone when I was first coming to own my identity. Here’s an example: I mentioned that I did the Honors Program through my major; I first met with an Honors advisor as a senior.

One afternoon around this wintery time of year, I sat down across from my advisor and saw that she was wearing a small, gold Lambda symbol around her neck. Back in the day, it was like wearing a rainbow bracelet; it was a signal of someone’s homosexuality. I marveled at it, as she was also a Physics professor, and until then, the only professional lesbian woman I knew was my high school gym teacher, and even that was not confirmed, but rather, just the rumor. Really, part of my internalized homophobia up to that point had been that I thought I’d have to be a gym teacher if I were lesbian, that is, that my career choices were limited.
Awkwardly, I acknowledged the advisor’s necklace and told her, “I am, too.”

Generously, she suggested we go get a soda, or around here, I should say, pop, and we talked about my future. Could I be out at work? She thought so, definitely.
P.S. I did not come out at my first post-graduation job, as a summer intern at a Chicago magazine; then I was under-employed, since I chose an employer solely based on learning that the office manager was openly lesbian and that I could be myself there, too. The point of this story about mentors is that nothing a mentor says or a role model does will sway us to do as they say or do, until and unless each of us is ready ourselves. By the same token, I will never forget her, since ultimately, she taught me by example that my career options were not limited by my sexual orientation. I just needed to do a better job of networking with people, who could help me.

The other point of that story, I think, is that too often, as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, we still tend to be under-employed; I am hopeful that this is the decade when that changes.

May I give you a couple of current examples of what I mean? [Pause for agreement. They agreed.] This past fall, at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Los Angeles, Dr. Steve Salbu, the openly-gay dean of Georgia Tech’s business school, shared research, reporting that GLBT leaders in business rise to senior leadership positions more slowly than leaders of any other historically-underrepresented group, including women and people of color.

Telling you about this research is not meant to motivate you to abdicate. I’m reminded of something my mom told me about a boyfriend of hers who didn’t last. When he met my grandfather for the first time, he told my grandfather that he couldn’t get a job in a particular field because he was Jewish. This was in the 1940s. My grandfather told my mother to get rid of him. My grandfather’s point was that we must be ambitious [I saw several heads nod then] and must believe in our ability to triumph over potential discrimination. Fortunately for me, she agreed with her father’s assessment (or I wouldn’t be here).

Here’s the second current example of gay, lesbian, bi and transpeople, being under-employed: In my current role at IBM, recently, I designed and facilitated a GLBT Leadership Development Workshop for 30 openly-G-L-B-or-T high-potential IBM leaders from around the world. Their managers and the people who reported to them completed anonymous surveys on their IBM leadership competencies and “Influence through expertise” was the Competency, where they most needed to improve; that Competency is all about being recognized at IBM – and externally – for our thought leadership, or not. Please keep in mind that this was just 30 leaders, most of whom had been working for a decade or more, as opposed to being new-hires, who might have a different mentality, and I hope that’s the case…but still, I was struck that this was the Competency, where we needed improvement. To me, it meant that the 30 leaders were not yet as bold in demonstrating our expertise in our business and technical leadership as our non-GLBT counterparts. Being seen as a thought leader is a giant component of reaching the top rungs of the leadership ladder, so there still is work to do.

On the upside, the IBM Competencies at which these leaders most excelled included “Collaborate globally” and “Build mutual trust.” There is no research on it, but my hypothesis is that the leaders are seen as excellent at these Competencies, since our bicultural perspective makes us adept at collaborating across cultures, and since *when* we are open about our sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, people feel trusted and return our trust. Does that hypothesis, or hypotheses, make sense to you? [Pause for answer. They agreed.]

Speaking of surveys, let’s talk about the anonymous survey you should have received prior to this session. I know it came while you were studying for and taking midterm exams and I hope your exams went well for you. Due to the timing of the survey, we received relatively few responses, but it’s quality, not quantity! Let’s review them, and as time allows, feel free to answer live, here as well, if you feel comfortable doing so.

1. How do you identify? Select all that apply: student, faculty member, administrator, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, heterosexual, scientist, technical professional, engineer, mathematician, other: _________________.
2. Explain your culture's influence on your personal / professional identity; specify your particular culture (e.g., your native country; ethnicity; religion; and/or whichever elements you identify as part of your culture…).
3. How do you express your personal / professional identity, using social technologies (e.g., Twitter; blogs; YouTube; podcasts; Facebook; LinkedIn; others…)? Be specific.
4. How important is it to you to be open about your sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, and why? Totally; Very; Neutral; Somewhat; Not important. Please explain your selection
5. Have you faced discrimination because of your sexual orientation or gender identity and expression? Yes, as a GLBT person; Yes as a Heterosexual person; No. If Yes, please share whatever details you are comfortable providing.
6. If you have you studied abroad, were you active in the local GLBT community to any degree? Yes, as a GLBT person; Yes, as an ally / supporter of GLBT people; No; Not Applicable. If you have studied abroad, in which city/cities and country/countries did you study?
7. If, for your post-graduation job, you were offered a six-month international assignment in a country, where homosexual activity was illegal, what would you do and why?
8. In preparing for your career, how do you determine the employers that are most welcoming to GLBT and GLBT-friendly people? Check all that apply: Word of mouth; The employer's web site; Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) Corporate Equality Index. Which employers seem to be the GLBT-friendliest in your experience so far?
9. Do you see your sexual orientation and/or gender identity & expression as a potential barrier to realizing your deepest ambitions?
10. What does success look like to you?

If I had been responding to this survey as a senior at Michigan, even though I felt so unsure of what I wanted to do for my career then, the last question, about what success looks like to me, would have been a similar answer to the one I'd give today, fortunately: to have stable love and stable work to make me much richer than I'd be without either one.

We haven’t talked much yet about stable work. In your case, most of you, I hope, will not need to work full-time until you graduate, so I’m probably one of the people in the room with the greatest amount of work experience, though a number of you might have been entrepreneurs from an early age and so the number of years you’ve been working might come close to mine. Is there anyone like that in the room, who invented something very early on and sold it commercially? I remember from the survey that at least one of you is a game designer. [Pause for answers. One of the participants said, “No. I wish I were that cool.” No one else claimed to have commercialized a product or service to date.]

Well, if you like, I can share a number of experiences, where I was able to successfully integrate my personal and professional identities, as it might spark your imagination on how to integrate yours, even if the examples I give per se don’t seem like ones you would want to experience yourselves. May I? [Pause for answer. They agreed. (There’s a best practice when presenting that one shouldn’t speak for more than three minutes consecutively without asking a question that participants can answer, i.e., rhetorical questions don’t really count, and so that was part of my logic in asking for their permission, but also, sincerely I wanted to determine their interest-level.)]

Thanks. The one great thing about the first job I had out of school – the one I mentioned, where I was under-employed – was that it got me invited to work on the TV show I mentioned, which I’d never have been otherwise. Pam McDonald, a friend I made, volunteering on the hotline at Chicago’s GLBT Center, said, “You work in video and TV, right?”

“Not really. I sell videos, audios and transcripts of TV news to PR and legal departments.”

Even so, Pam invited me to the first meeting of “The 10% Show” and since it was all-volunteer, and since she and I were two of three lesbians to show up, and probably because I had no actual camera or editing skills like the other two women, I was invited to co-anchor the show. I relished the opportunity. The best part of the show was that it taught me that I was part of a rich culture. Till then, the only sense of the culture I’d gleaned was through reading lesbian fiction and through the social aspect, which I had come to know only through going to lesbian bars in Chicago.

“The 10% Show” enabled me to interview the filmmaker of a documentary on a self-identified Kentucky drag-queen; the author David Leavitt; the producer let me crew for the interview of Robert Ford, publisher of “Thing,” a ‘zine written for and by Black gay men; produce a segment on a lesbian kiss-in at Water Tower Place in Chicago and so much more. Doing that work after hours and on weekends helped me see that my lesbian identity made me a member of a rich culture just as my Jewish identity did. Up until then, I knew only about Jewish culture. Both gave me pride, which made up for feeling so different. In the survey, one of you mentioned that you didn’t know anything about being gay till you got to the States. Can you relate to what I’m saying? Can others? Do you recognize a GLBT culture yet?

[Pause for answers. One participant answered that he related to the idea of a GLBT culture in terms of the sheer diversity of gay, lesbian, bi and transpeople he met at the University of Michigan, compared to where he grew up, where there was just one openly gay guy in high school – and it wasn’t him.]

In 1990, thanks to my girlfriend at the time getting an interview for me, I joined what had been the technology arm of Sears as a technical writer before it became a joint venture of IBM and Sears, and that’s how I got started, working for technology companies.

The way I got started, thinking about using my personal identity to enrich my professional identity came from joining the National Organization of Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Trans Scientists and Technical Professionals not long after joining Sears Technology – and that organization is the reason I’m with you today, since Gary had advertised in the e-bulletin that he was looking for a speaker. I found my first openly gay friend at IBM through that organization, Rob Shook. Both of us are still at IBM and Rob remains a premier mentor for me.

If I boiled down my career to its essence, I’d say I used my:

1. Sexual orientation as a differentiator to help clients and my employer succeed
2. Bicultural, or multicultural perspective (Lesbian, Jewish, American) to promote cultural intelligence among my colleagues globally
3. Web-affinity and visibility advocacy to apply technology to social learning, again to help our leaders.

When I interviewed to join IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning, I told Ian Bird, the London-based manager I now report to, that I’d been helping build online communities since 1997 – and that the one I helped build in ’97 was for IBM’s gay, lesbian, bi and trans population, since we needed a way to find one another. It was one of my selling-points, that I understood how to give online communities what they needed, and how to help them flourish. The principles that work for the GLBT online community also work for the online Technical Leadership Exchange (or TLE) Community, and the IBM Manager Community, that is, connecting to, and learning from one another’s experience.

It’s my privilege to help our technical leaders and business leaders of all sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions to learn from one another. Remember, I also said that the volunteer work I did in Chicago’s GLBT Community with “The 10% Show” sowed the seeds for what I’ve achieved at IBM around communities and visibility. This past summer, I moderated a panel of three IBM technical leaders from Vancouver, Haifa and San Jose, through live video, streaming over the web and it was like being on the TV show again.

In my current role, I think of online social learning as an equality-agent. Everyone has a chance to shine online, whereas traditional hierarchies, shyness and a fear of standing out sometimes impede a number of colleagues from expressing their good ideas. Can you relate to this notion of online social learning, being democratic? [Pause for answers. One of the participants responded that he felt that online, he had a better opportunity to control his image, since he could take time to craft what he wanted to say by contrast to how awkward he sometimes feels when speaking live. His point was that his online presence gave him an advantage to balance out the occasional disadvantage he felt offline. That was his interpretation of democracy. No one really questioned what I meant by “social learning” because I think they were simply thinking of social behavior online, which includes learning and socializing in parallel – unconsciously for them, and for most of us, I think.]

[Another student brought up friends of his who were applying to med schools, who had two different Facebook accounts, to ensure they wouldn’t be disqualified by the less inhibited version of their profile. Predictably, this was the most lively part of the dialogue, as everyone there engaged in social networking; Forty percent of the participants and I became Facebook friends within 48 hours of the session. None, yet, has asked me to join his or her LinkedIn network.]

To finish our session together, I’d like to show you a couple of collages of some favorite professional moments that were personally meaningful. And I have a tips sheet that we’ll hand out in a bit. Also, at the end of the session, please also take a few minutes to complete a quick feedback survey. [Show collages.]

[They recognized the three IBM alumni in the pictures, but not that all of them were IBM alumni: transgender activist, Kate Bornstein; New York Times best-selling author of blessed memory, E. Lynn Harris; and Edie Windsor, the first openly-lesbian IBMer, in the ‘60s; one of the participants said he had just read an article about the documentary they made on her partner and her. By coincidence, the following day, while in the airport on my way home, I read a letter to the editor of “The New York Times” by Edie Windsor, about how if she had been the legal spouse of her female partner, she would not have had to pay $350,000 as an estate tax, just like any wife would not pay upon her husband’s death. It felt like a sign that I was doing something meaningful in making this trip, which on and off seemed to pale compared to the cool Watson saga on “Jeopardy.” On Night 2 of the Jeopardy series, the night before I flew, I remember thinking, I wish I were one of the IBMers who had been brilliant enough to work on the Watson project, but then I had to acknowledge that all of us can make a difference from whatever our vantage point, and this was what I could do; I could encourage up-and-coming talent. In one of the feedback forms, a participant responded to “What did you take away from this session?” as follows:

“A good understanding of how my place in life fits into a greater LGBT life. Lets me calm down and enjoy life.”]

When I spoke of the suffering I endured while cementing my identity, I need to admit that it wasn’t pure suffering. Some of that time was fun, and I hope you feel the same way about your time at Michigan; it’s hard and fun, and ultimately, I wish all of you great success by your definition.
* * *

Seven Tips for Integrating Personal & Professional Identities and How I Can Become Your Agent

1. Look for love in the right places, among people you respect and who respect you, including:
• Romantic love
• Familial Love.
2. Volunteer in your community until, & after, you land your dream-job:
• You will discover talents and interests you were unaware of
• Confidence grows with positive volunteer-experiences.
3. Find role models and mentors, including:
• Faculty
• Internship managers
• GLBT professionals.
4. Let your sexual orientation and/or gender identity be an innovation engine; use your bicultural perspective to collaborate with others globally to hatch new ideas
5. Work for an organization that welcomes you to be yourself, e.g.:
• Apply to join IBM (see below)
• See HRC’s Corporate Equality Index for other ideal workplaces
• Connect with GLBT, seasoned professionals on LinkedIn (e.g., me) and check their networks re: to whom they could introduce you.
6. Be open to travel for your studies and work, and get comfortable with respecting local norms while helping build local GLBT communities:
• Confirm organizations’ global non-discrimination policy
• Contact me if you would like a copy of “Top Tips for Prospective International Assignees,” which includes tips for GLBT assignees.
7. Use social technologies to advance your learning at work and to build your global, personal and professional network, e.g., join Friends and Family of GLBT IBMers on Facebook or follow IBM GLBT on Twitter.

1. Go to
2. Click on “Search for Jobs at IBM”
3. Select “Register new account,” if you haven’t already done so
4. Apply for any jobs that appeal to you
5. Send your resume and the job number(s) for which you’ve applied to Sarah Siegel at....

I will look up the hiring manager and put in a good word, so that your application will jump the queue.


Mark said...


I recall, in my dotage, a rather lovely young woman who baby-sat for me and my "beautiful, bright-blond, blue-eyed Michigan farm-girl" [your quote]. I further recall your graduation party [Jennifer admonished (correctly): "WTH are you discussing religon here...?].

I don't recall that I [we} ever properly thanked you; as a "sympathetic" hetero, I would like to offer any help that I could :)

Mark Laus

Jennifer said...

Hi Sarah!

I see Mark couldn't resist writing to you already

I couldn't find an email link on your blog, so send me something when you get a chance - love to talk to you again after all these years (I've searched for you periodically, but never had any luck - don't know quite how Mark managed it this time). (Oh, and the email on the website isn't my usual one, but it will work.)

I'm so pleased to see that it sounds like you have a cat!

Sarah Siegel said...

Wow! How lucky am I. Jennifer, just wrote you a note and Mark, how did you finally find me? So glad you did!