August 09, 2010, 3:27 PM — 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.
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."