OU women engineers find a champion in IBM pioneer Phil Gilbert

Spring 2020

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Phil Gilbert photo courtesy Rosenfield Media

Phil Gilbert photo courtesy Rosenfield Media

Everyone relies on computers – men, women, children, people of every race, every religion and every nationality use computers to perform a multitude of tasks.

So why are most software design teams largely composed of white males? It’s a fact that cuts against the grain for Phil Gilbert, a 1978 University of Oklahoma Price College of Business graduate who is IBM’s general manager of design and a pioneer in the field.

“In the technology industry, there is not diversity of gender and race, but we’re building products for consumers who are diverse in gender and race,” said Gilbert, who has spent four decades in the computer industry.

That perspective is at the heart of what Gilbert does. He believes nothing gets done by an individual; he would rather pull individuals together to form racially diverse teams of men and women.

On paper, Gilbert is a numbers guy through and through. While at OU, he majored in accounting with a minor in computer science, and his first job out of school was with KPMG, one of the world’s top accounting firms. But, for Gilbert, people are at the center of it all.

He preaches a gospel known as “Human Centered Design,” in which designers solve problems by putting themselves in the shoes of the people they’re trying to help.

So far, his ministry has reached about 250,000 “IBMers.” But, he says, Human Centered Design can only go so far if designers are working alone, and if they all look the same.

“I’ve seen the power of diverse thinking as it relates to differentiation of products in the marketplace,” he said. “For the best outcomes, you want diversity, and you want to form interdisciplinary teams that are empowered to display divergent thinking.”

As a member of OU’s student government in the late 1970s, Gilbert confronted emerging issues of diversity and grew as a leader. He carried those life lessons into a professional career with three successful start-up companies and, finally, at IBM.

Gilbert also has become a women’s advocate, serving as co-chair of IBM’s Executive Women’s Council, and he brought that advocacy back to OU.

As an advisory board member for OU’s School of Computer Science, Gilbert is opening windows for women preparing to enter the professional world. Each year, he makes gifts through the OU Foundation allowing students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference – considered the world’s largest annual gathering of its kind. Last year, Gilbert supported some 20 OU CS and School of Electrical and Computer Engineering students traveling to the event.

OU student Jasmine DeHart said it was empowering to be at the conference last fall with so many fellow minority women.

“It was good to see there was room for me and to establish an outline of how to get to where I want to go, what steps I need to take to get to where I want to be as an African American woman,” DeHart said.

She currently is pursuing a master’s degree at OU while dual enrolled as a candidate in the Computer Science Ph.D. program. Eventually, DeHart hopes to work in academia and become a college professor.

Gilbert said DeHart’s story is a good example of the outcome he was hoping for when he began funding the Grace Hopper program.

“Thousands of powerful women participate in the conference, and this is a chance for OU students to meet them, be inspired by them and accelerate their own careers in our technology industry,” he said.