Women CIOs: cracks in the glass ceiling

It’s 6 pm on a Thursday evening, and a small group of animated women in business attire sit together in the center of a fancy restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. The waiter, a bit put off by the difficulty he is having breaking into the multiple passionate conversations, likely assumes that these are the wealthy wives of some local business execs out for a night on the town. As I sit and watch this dynamic, I am struck by how wrong this impression would be. Here at this table sits much of the IT power in Indiana, including the CIOs of the State of Indiana, Anthem, NCAA, Dow Agribusiness, and Cummins, as well as various other IT women from around the state.

This bimonthly group, “Wine and Whine,” happened somewhat by accident. Initially, some of the previous award winners of an Indiana group called Women & Hi Tech got together to pick the next year’s winners. We had so much fun at dinner that we decided to continue and expand the group. Some of the women had met through the local SIM (Society of Information Management) group. Many others were connected through original participants who thought that they, too, should be there. No structure, no rules, just open sharing.

Our time together is very special, and complex calendars are cleared for these dinners. Topics range from great shopping to not-so-great vendor issues. Although we don’t talk as a group about “work” too much, we have shared some thoughts about what makes a woman CIO different. This article is your invitation to that discussion.

Of course, we do not presume to make blanket statements about all women CIOs. In fact, there was hesitation from all involved and reluctance to even consider how women in IT are different from men in IT. Perhaps there is a fear that somehow our thoughts will become generalized and turn into stereotypes that will limit women’s career options.

Overall, our experiences do not speak to massive discrimination. Some of us started as programmers in the early 1980s and were aware of our minority status. Very few remember feeling discriminated against in any way. If you were getting your work done, you were just “one of the guys.” In retrospect, each of us had bumps in her career that could have been attributed to the narrow vision of a male manager or customer, but it’s hard to know for sure. We pretty much agree that the way to go is to assume there is no discrimination and plow forward. If you look for it, you’ll find it. If you don’t, you won’t.

As computer consultant and author Ellen Ullman said in an InformationWeek article, “Sexism is everywhere. Technology is one place where for the first two-thirds of your career — if you’re good at it — you’ll be on equal footing with people around you. The need for people with talent is so great that I hope more women and minorities will be attracted to IT” . Recent research seems to indicate that minority women are starting to move into IT for this very reason.


Many of the women at the table did not grow up thinking they wanted to be a CIO. In fact, most have come into IT from different areas — very few started as programmers. One who did start as a programmer actually had a first career in theater. Some got into programming to support families as single mothers. Most have moved through multiple business areas and endured “trials by fire,” building business savvy along the way. A few, like Cummins CIO Gail Farnsley, have worked internationally, moving husband and family in the process.

I noticed that all these women have pretty much stayed in the same industry though, and their industry expertise, as well as their ability to build collaboration, has been a great asset for them. In an article entitled “Who Holds the Keys to the Info Kingdom?” author Anita M. Harris takes note of this phenomenon [1]. Harris observes that a greater number of CIOs are coming from such areas as finance, accounting, sales and marketing, or general management. Of course, these people also have additional training and expertise in IT. Because CIOs need very specific but unique skills in both business and technology, it is tough to recruit a well-rounded CIO. This need may have opened the door for women CIOs.

Rhonda Winters, former CIO of the NCAA, commented, “I think you will find many women in this position have progressed through the ranks as ‘situational leaders’ rather than positional leaders … and although now we have a position to lead from, we often draw from those traits that allowed us to lead informally.” She further noted that these women are highly adaptable individuals:

Not only is the profession we practice riddled with change, but the ability to succeed in this profession over the past two decades has demanded agility on the part of women making their way in it. The women who succeed at the CIO level have navigated a path of opportunities and obstacles without the same bench-depth of mentors and role models that their male counterparts have enjoyed. I think this results in individuals who have developed creative approaches and methodologies for solving problems, nurturing relationships, and leveraging previous experiences of their own and from observing everyone around them. The best teams that I’ve been part of have had a woman at the helm. There seems to be less focus on individual success and more on team success — critical in IT.Text

Many of us were the “first” or an “early pioneer” in activities in our early lives (I was in Soap Box Derby the first year for girls and in the first big class of women at General Motors Institute), and we still often find ourselves seated at tables and conferences as one of very few women.

These women have adapted their behaviors to accept different types of people. As one of my dinner companions said, “We have trained ourselves to find common threads for connecting with everyone around us, not just those with whom we are most comfortable interacting.”

So to what do these CIOs who happen to be women attribute their success? What are their goals? What are their challenges? In this article, I have organized the discussion of these questions into the following sections:

– Influencing skills

– Delivering customer value

– Work-family balance


The CIOs at dinner talked about how they influence others through relationship building and collaboration. They tend not to openly compete (do battle) as a first strategy, although I would definitely be afraid if any of the women in our group decided to put her foot down and I was the target!

One commented, “We are highly observant, and we teach those around us to be highly observant because we must often rely on a number of scattered details to develop a viable ‘big picture’ solution. We are quick to ask for and accept help … who else in the marketplace is experiencing what we are? What resources might be available?” At the risk of reinforcing silly clich

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