Women in IT: The long climb to the top

Despite unequal pay and cultural biases, more women are reaching the IT executive suite than ever before

Meg McCarthy remembers there being a quiet unease about women taking on high-level positions at the former Andersen Consulting when she began her IT career in 1980. "There was always a concern -- though it was never formally expressed -- could women balance work and home? But my view was always that I'm going to work harder than anybody else. I'm going to do more and get more out of every day than other people have the energy for," says McCarthy.

That singular focus on success helped McCarthy gain partner status at Andersen and then attain CIO positions at health care organizations. She is now is CIO and senior vice president of innovation, technology and service operations at Hartford, Conn.-based insurance company Aetna Inc.

The path to the IT executive suite has widened to include more women than ever before. The percentage of women holding CIO or executive vice president of technology positions at 1,000 leading companies rose to 16.4% in 2009, up from 12% in 2007, according to recruiting firm Sheila Greco Associates LLC. Nonetheless, it's still uncommon for women to hold top-level IT jobs, especially highly technical positions like chief technology officer or research fellow.

Women in senior IT jobs are more likely to be in management than men are: 36.9% of female IT leaders hold management jobs, compared with 19% of male IT leaders, according to the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit group that works to increase the impact of women in technology. Conversely, men in the senior ranks of IT are significantly more likely to hold individual-contributor positions (80.6%) than are women (63.1%).

Management and technical careers involve different skills and place different demands on people. Success in management requires people to be accountable for a group's performance, and managers' performance evaluations are based on group results. Individual contributors must have specialized technical expertise, and they must be capable of setting the technical direction for a company's products; their performances are evaluated based on their own personal contributions.

Challenges Persist

The Anita Borg Institute's Caroline Simard blames the disparity on a lack of mentors. "For some young women, when they look at the upper ranks, they see more women succeed in management, which sends a signal about where the opportunities for advancement are," says Simard, vice president of research and executive programs. "Once these women are in these roles, they start pulling up other women."

Padmasree Warrior, CTO at Cisco Systems Inc., considers herself lucky to be surrounded with other successful senior-level IT women at the San Jose-based company. Cisco's CIO, chief marketing officer, head of communications and a senior vice president in engineering are also women. But for Warrior, it wasn't always that way.

"I started my career in the semiconductor industry as a fabrication engineer. At the time, there were only three or four women in a workforce of thousands of engineers. My generation, we were taught to talk differently, act differently, even dress differently just to fit in and be 'one of the boys.' I feel that's not necessary for you to really be successful. People really appreciate it if you're authentic, real and take pride in who you are as a person [and] let that come through," says Warrior, who is married and has a teenage son.

And yet despite so many successes at the top, women in the middle ranks are dropping out of IT, and fewer girls are pursuing IT careers.

While some 74% of women in technology report "loving their work," these women leave their careers at a much higher rate than men, according to a study by the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Some 56% of technical women leave at the "midlevel" point, more than double the quit rate of men, at what is called a "fight or flight" moment, where they must decide whether they want to fight for a place in the organization or exit the profession.

Researchers blame the midcareer departures most often on the feeling of being left out of the predominantly male IT department culture, a lack of mentors, work/life imbalance and little access to the same types of networks that men enjoy.

Characteristics IT Women Share

What has kept successful female IT executives focused and moving forward through turbulent times? It starts with the right character attributes. The Anita Borg Institute recently interviewed a small group of senior technical women who have achieved the highest levels of success. These women said that successful female IT executives have six key attributes: They're assertive, analytical, willing to take risks, collaborative, hard-working and unafraid to ask questions. As it turns out, those character traits are similar to ones that a similar study identified as being important to male executives.

It's no surprise that women in senior IT positions say that advancement requires long hours of hard work.

"Jobs at this level are 24/7, so you can't be in these jobs and have any other expectation," says McCarthy, who is single and has no children. This can be a barrier for women who seek advancement while juggling family responsibilities in dual-career couples. Nearly three quarters of the senior technical women surveyed by the Anita Borg Institute reported cutting back on sleep to advance their careers, and nearly one-third have delayed having children.

Assertiveness is something of a double-edged sword. Female IT executives are much more likely to describe themselves as assertive than women at the entry- and midlevels, according to the study. The women interviewed said they had to learn to be assertive because they're in a professional culture that rewards self-promotion and -- some would say -- borderline aggressiveness. However, women who speak up for themselves may have to pay a "likability penalty" for doing so.

"They're really stuck in this double bind, because if they don't behave assertively per the requirements of this culture, then they are seen as weak," Simard says. "But if they do behave assertively, they're not liked very much, so these women talk about having to modulate their level of assertiveness much more than men."

Kerri Grosslight, executive vice president for risk and compliance, technology and operations at Wells Fargo Inc., remembers being involved in situations in her early career where male counterparts acted overly aggressively. "I can't imagine acting like that myself," she recalls. But "depending on the value somebody may bring to the table, certainly there were circumstances where [those behaviors] were probably excused." While it's important not to be passive, she adds, there are more constructive ways to get your message heard. Grosslight is married with no children.

McCarthy also found that she doesn't have to be aggressive to be heard. "I think it's about being competent -- being able to present whatever it is that you're trying to diagnose or deliver in a very factual and appropriate fashion."

As for being willing to take risks, moderate amounts of that quality are an important part of leadership, and senior women and men are equally likely to perceive themselves as risk takers, which shatters the stereotype that men are more likely than women to take risks, according to the Anita Borg Institute study. Likewise, both women and men consider a collaborative work style to be a critical factor for success in IT.

The good news is that the job outlook for IT professionals is very good in this country. The computer science job market is expected to grow 32% in the next 10 years, and companies will need more women to take on IT roles, Simard says.

What's more, women today have a better chance of leading IT at larger companies. Research shows that small organizations have less-formalized hiring systems and diversity initiatives and often hire from social networks, "which tend to lead people to hire people who are like them," says the Anita Borg Institute's Simard. So while it's hard to change the culture in a large company, those companies also have more staffers overall and more formalized diversity programs.

Moreover, many larger enterprises have mentoring programs to ensure that women have appropriate opportunities and access to higher-level networks of both men and women.

"Companies need to realize that they can't expect women to mentor all the other women coming up the pike," Simard says. Men, too, must mentor women.

Companies also need to develop a culture of flexibility without penalty, according to the Anita Borg Institute. For example, telecommuting is becoming more acceptable, especially as workforces become more globalized -- "but it must be used by men and women and at the higher levels to be accepted," Simard says.

How to Start Climbing

Women on their way up the IT career ladder need to work just as hard on their social and communication skills as they do on their technical expertise.

Self-confidence is the key to resiliency, yet women's confidence tends to erode early in their careers, according to Simard. For example, if a job opening required 10 skills, a woman would be likely to avoid applying for the position if she had only nine of the 10 skills, whereas a man would probably apply for the job if he had just five of them. "It's really important for women to build their own self-confidence and say, 'I can do this just as well as this guy,' " says Simard.

Networking is one of the largest predictors of advancement, yet a lot of young women think that hard work alone is what's needed to get ahead. Spend 10% of your time networking with both male and female peers and higher-ups, Simard advises.

And find a mentor. Mentoring relationships with both men and women can provide access to higher-level people and help determine a career path. Mentors also know the unwritten rules of advancement in a company.

Another tip is to develop a personal brand where you become very well known for specific qualities. "Become the go-to person within the company," Simard says. "For young women and midlevel women, ask yourself, 'What do I want to be known for?' "

And don't pass up opportunities to move laterally and gain experience, or to take on the "dirty job." Those can bring you a level of visibility along with valuable experience, Simard says. "There is a risk of failure, but if you can prove yourself by cleaning up the mess, then it's well worth it," she says. Beyond the potential for a promotion, you gain the opportunity to build relationships with those solving the problem with you. "Those are sometimes the most valuable relationships -- that shared experience," Simard notes.

Finally, vote with your feet. "If they're feeling they're isolated, not advancing and have work-life situations that are especially difficult," says Simard, "women are in demand and they can go to another company."

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at stcollett@aol.com.

This story, "Women in IT: The long climb to the top" was originally published by Computerworld.

Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies