Room at the top

Why is IT unfriendly to women? A short answer might be the ‘glass ceiling’. But I believe it is more than that. Is there a glass ceiling? Yes, depending on your definition. Some 60 percent of women say the glass ceiling is a reality in IT; they define it as a gender bias, stereotypes, and the perception that women are less knowledgeable than their male counterparts. Interestingly enough, the same survey showed that 62 percent of men believe there are no barriers to women.

In many ways, IT is unfriendly because of the nature of the job. IT is a 24/7 job. Achieving any significant position in IT often means putting your career before many other aspects of your life. You will find yourself putting in 70- or 80-hour weeks, becoming deeply committed to both the short-term and long-term needs of your career, and this will result in the loss of time spent with family or in personal activities.

When asked in a survey if their IT jobs were meeting expectations, 52 percent of women said they worked more hours than expected. The same survey stated that 40 percent of the men felt the same way. It is hard work, and most people, especially those who want to participate in a significant family life, are not willing to make the sacrifice. In The Feminine Mistique, Betty Friedan asked the question that caused millions of women to examine the role of housewife, mother, and caretaker: Is this all? Many women trying to balance a full-time career and a family are asking the same question today. There is no good answer.

These traditional glass ceiling and work-versus-family issues are very real, but there are other factors that contribute as well. I believe the unfriendliness is as much one of expectations as it is of gender. The glass ceiling can be and is being shattered, but not without extraordinary time and effort.

We need to understand what a true loss this is to the IT profession and look at ways to attract more women and keep them in our ranks. It is also interesting to understand how some women have been successful despite the unfriendliness.

What is IT losing when women leave the IT workforce?

Many studies show that women excel at collaboration, juggling multiple tasks, and prioritization. Women have a very different way of looking at problems. Research suggests that women see more nuances and have a more holistic approach than men, who are more linear thinkers. Without both kinds of thinking, you lose the breadth of perspective that can approach a problem from multiple directions, resulting in creative solutions otherwise unavailable.

Women managers who possess the inherent skills required of a good manager often add compassion, nurturance, and sensitivity to the role. While this is not vital to success, it does help to build teams that work well together.

Women look to maximize, not necessarily to win, in competitive situations. Often, it is not as important to win as it is to achieve the maximum gain.

Another loss is that of sheer talent. The more people you have in the talent pool, the better your chances of success. Getting and keeping good talent is expensive; replacing a valued worker can cost a company two to three times her annual salary.

Diversity also adds to the overall health of a profession. Individuals and organizations need to work on creative ways to attract this diversity, not only in gender but in all other ways as well.

What do we need to change to attract more women into the IT profession?

A critical area of focus is on adolescent girls.

A recent report, which completes a two-year study analyzing previous research, teacher survey responses, and focus groups of middle school and high school students, suggests girls must be attracted to technology at an early age.

Educators should focus on what is wrong with the computing culture and how to change it rather than on why girls don’t like technology. Educators must also focus on teaching girls complex technology skills beyond the traditional word processing and presentation tools.

Girls are influenced against technology at an early age by computer games that are designed and marketed towards boys. These games are violent and often boring. They are not attractive to girls, who want games that are more interactive, engaging, and creative.

Once we do engage women and attract them to the profession, we need to keep them. The hiring organizations have a responsibility, as do the women themselves.

As women, we need to take personal responsibility for making change. We need to take the best practices that men have developed and learn to make them work for us in our own way. Take networking as an example. Men spend more time networking to further their careers. Women network too, but we tend to network with people whom we like and who share our value systems. We need to retain those aspects of our networking but incorporate this style into the business world. We need to also realize that liking someone and being able to work with that person are two separate issues. The end game is success, and you need every possible resource to achieve it.

Women must mentor other women. We must help them learn early what it took us years to learn, and we must find as many ways as possible to share what we know.

Organizations can contribute by putting reasonable work and family programs in place. Practices such as telecommuting and flextime help everyone achieve balance. (Remember, however, that visibility is a key factor in success, and if you use telecommuting, for example, you must make an extra effort to be in the office at the right times to support your efforts.)

Women often do carry extra family burdens, and managers can help by supporting creative scheduling. Several years ago, when I was programming and raising children, my manager let me leave early to care for my children and then return to work after the children were in bed and finish my hours. This was very innovative at the time. It was a win for everyone because I was onsite when many of the programs had problems and was able to fix these and keep someone else at home.

Work/life balance will always be a challenge, and it is up to us to keep working on better ways to achieve it.

Why do some women prevail and others do not?

It is interesting to note that even with the challenges presented to women, some women have been very successful. Do they do something differently that helps them to succeed?

When I speak with other women CIOs and technology leaders, the most prominent common trait is that they “never knew they couldn’t be a leader or a CIO.”

I love this quote from one of my colleagues in the Community of Practice, Maureen Vavra: “The intrigue of this field is that, in 30 years, I have never had a boring day. You have to relish that part and the stress that comes with it to love this work. The most important things a woman can bring into this profession are willingness to ask tough – and sometimes obvious – questions, belief in her own abilities, and a tendency to find great humor in painful circumstances.”

This does not mean that Maureen and I, and many other women, did not feel the pressure of the ceiling and the unrelenting demands on our time. We all have many stories to tell about gender bias, family trials and tribulations, and so on. The difference with us is that we never saw the problems as barriers, only as obstacles to overcome. Without this belief, most of us would not have been successful. If you believe that it is not possible, it probably won’t be.

Women who aspire to be CIOs, more often than men, must find unique ways to balance family and job or in many cases forego having a family. Okay, I hear a lot of mumbling from some of you women saying, “But men don’t have to give up having a family.” That is only partially true. Many successful men have been divorced several times or are estranged from their families, and many have remained bachelors until they have reached a certain level of success. True, others have wives who stay home and raise the children, but remember that those women chose to be stay-at-home moms. There is nothing to stop you from finding and marrying a stay-at-home dad or a man who wants to start your success by taking on extra work at home. Often, it is your own views on how you should act as a wife and mother that limit your opportunities.

Finally, the successful women are willing to take on projects and tasks that no one else wants or is willing to do. Tackling projects that your boss does not want to do will challenge your skills and stretch your abilities, leading to growth and exposure. Visibility is absolutely essential to your growth and can be enhanced by taking on these unpopular tasks. This may be the very key to your success.

The women who have become successful CIOs have all had to use strategies as well as tactics to achieve their successes. Successful men and women alike use those skills. But do women do anything differently?

what is different for women CIOs in their first 90 days?

Women executives face a few unique challenges when starting in a new position. One of the biggest challenges is that they can’t use the men’s room. You think that’s funny, and it is, but it’s also true! Any man reading this will know there are many issues discussed and potentially resolved in the men’s room.

I have no easy answer to this one. The best I personally have been able to do is to ask the men whom I have influence with and with whom I have built relationships to tell me when a critical conversation or decision has been made when I am not present. Making it funny by mentioning the proverbial “men’s room” always helps.

On a more serious note, we will not automatically be accepted into the club. We need to spend time building the relationships, trust, and support that may come automatically to a man in the same position. However, men can’t keep those inherent gifts without doing the same work. The difference is that we have to earn it up front. So, focus on finding key influencers and building those relationships first. And remember that these influencers are not necessarily your fellow executive staff members.

Your staff will most definitely test your mettle. We may not like it, but some of the staff will view you as “a woman” and test you to see if you have backbone. It is not necessary to overcompensate; you need to be yourself and rely on all the terrific skills that got you where you are. But be careful to recognize when you are being tested, consider the source of the test, and respond to achieve the result you want. Show respect for the existing staff, give everyone a chance, and don’t take anyone else’s word for another’s behaviour – learn for yourself.

Your first 90 days are your time to assess. You should be gathering and understanding the most critical business needs, validating them, assessing how your staff is prepared (or not) to handle them and whether you are staffed and organized correctly to achieve the expected results. This establishes the expectations against which you want to be assessed and reviewed; in the end, they will appreciate your strategy and reward your execution.

This is no different than any other CIO would do. The key is in the handling of both soft and technical skills, which must be kept in balance.

While all of this takes skills that require time to learn, as well as the will to overcome some special challenges, you can do it if you have the desire. If you are willing to make some sacrifices, there is a special reward in leading a technical team to success and building and maintaining a sound IT infrastructure to support the success of your company.

The value of women in IT

With women in top IT spots, we can continue to help build diversity into the IT profession. Women bring many invaluable skills to IT organizations, skills that are equally useful to men. Relationship management, flexibility, and diplomacy are just some of the skills CIOs need to foster in today’s business climate. Many IT organizations are learning, to their benefit, that women executives do extremely well in these areas.

Judy Armstrong is a former CIO of Benchmark Capital and C-Cube Microsystems. The veteran IT executive is currently a Senior Consultant with Stratafusion Group. This article was exerpted from a book entitled “CIO Wisdom, Best Practices from Silicon Valley’s Leading IT Experts”, published by Prentice Hall PTR, and produced by Harris Kern’s Enterprise Computing Institute (

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