How can we hire more women?

I was reminded recently that tech companies are still asking the question “How can we get more women to work for us?“. I’ve told this story occasionally over a beer or two, but have never written it down before, mainly because I don’t think it reflects very well on IBM. Although I think IBM is a great company in general, this story is about something I think they did (and still do)¬†badly.

Ten years ago we had tampon machines in the loos at IBM. Nine times out of ten they didn’t work or were empty, even if they did work can you imagine what it was like in a ‘cashless’ site to have to scrabble around to find two 20p pieces? Or worse – borrowing the right change from a male colleague and then having to explain why you wanted it. Blush. Them, not me.

Sometime around 2003 I expressed my irritation with this situatition to the Lab Manager. Blush. Him, not me. That’s about as far as it went. I thought then (and still think) that tampons should be available in just the same way as loo paper is. The Lab Manager’s answer was that this was impossible because tampons are classed as a ‘non essential item’ under UK tax law. It is true that tampons are taxed at a VAT rate of 5%, however -¬† loo paper and soap seem to be taxed at the full 20% rate. IBM, in common with most large companies supply loo paper and soap, so what is the problem with tampons?

Some years later, there was a new Lab Manager and a big focus on trying to hire more female engineers. I met him and suggested that if they wanted to make life comfortable for their female employees they should provide free tampons. There was no blushing this time. Yay! Progress! He told me that a female client visiting site had also complained about the broken machines, so they took the issue very seriously.

Unfortunately, IBM’s solution to people complaining about the machines was to just remove all the machines. Not quite the solution I had in mind. In fairness they do now sell tampons in the canteen, but, well…


I’m just popping upstairs to grab a sandwich and a tampon.

…you know. Blush.

So perhaps, when a representative of a big tech company asks –

“How can we get more women to work for us?”

one answer is –

“To what extent are you prepared to make your work place comfortable for women to work in? Even if this involves spending money.

Or you could even ask if the provide tampons in the loos in their UK offices. You know what answer I think you will get to that one? Yeah. Blush.