Where are the women CIOs? Three speak out

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. – The number of women CIOs in the United States continues to drop. To find out why, CIO.com interviewed three well-respected women CIOs, representing three different industries: Helen Cousins, executive vice-president and CIO of Lincoln Trust Co. of Denver; Twila Day, senior vice-president and CIO of food distributor Sysco Corporation; and Stephanie Reel, vice-provost for information technologies at Johns Hopkins University, and vice-president for information services, Johns Hopkins Medicine.

CIO.com: Do women CIOs or aspiring CIOs face unique challenges? If so, what are they?

Helen Cousins: Women as CIOs do face unique challenges. No matter how far women have advanced up the corporate ladder, it is still a man’s world at the top level of most organizations. Being in technology, or any executive position back in the 70s and 80s, there were very few women, especially in international banking on Wall Street. I always felt I had to work twice as hard and put in twice the number of hours as my male counterparts.

While things have improved, I do think that women are more often asked to prove that they can commit fully to job, especially if they have a family since the mother is still viewed as the major caretaker of the children. You will often find that when speaking with successful executive women, they either have no children or they have a husband or partner who has taken on a lot of parenting responsibilities.

My advice would be that if you are serious about wanting that top position, you are going to have to work hard at it and have many concrete successes along the way.

CIO.com: What advice do you have for women aspiring to become CIOs?

Twila Day (pictured above): A CIO must become more of a businessperson who understands how to apply technology to solve business needs. That being said, I would tell anyone interested in being a CIO they should learn everything they can. Volunteer for new projects at work. You [also] need great communication skills. Find ways of honing your ability to customize your message for the audience and in a way that is in business speak.

Stephanie Reel: Understand the business you wish to work in. Read everything you can —  and listen very carefully. Always tell the truth – and do what you say you are going to do. Set high expectations — and work hard to achieve them.

Helen Cousins: Have a goal and go after it. Always hire great people to work for you. Then help them to be successful. Form strong strategic partnerships along the way. Volunteer for assignments outside your specific [area]. Understand the business and what the challenges are: Be a business person first and a technologist second. Market yourself within your organization. Publish your success stories and back them up with analytics.

CIO.com: Is there an optimal education path/degree you need to become a CIO?


Helen Cousins: I think a solid understanding of math and science in grade school and high school is a good foundation. Future CIOs should have an understanding of and an interest in the businesses they run, so a solid business degree will be necessary. [Cousins has an MBA.] Two skills that have helped me in my career are finance and marketing. I did not come up through the technical side of IT, but I have always surrounded myself with strong technical people.

Stephanie Reel: I think years ago it was true you had to have some kind of background in analytics or analysis or math or software development or software engineering. But I think that’s less the case today. In healthcare, a number of physicians have become CIOs. And that’s because they understand the business so well. And they understand the potential of information technology. They are enormously successful without any formal training in the IT disciplines, and I’m sure the same is true in other industries.

If you’re a really excellent business leader, making the leap into the role of CIO is not a difficult one. However, vendor management is an important part of my job, so it’s important to be able to understand what technology limitations are and it’s easy to be sold a bill of goods if you can’t have a meaningful conversation with a vendor.

CIO.com: Do you need an advanced degree to become a CIO?

Stephanie Reel: I have an MBA. I believe that my MBA has made me a much better leader, and much more able to have a meaningful conversation with my CFO or my CEO. I think my education, my training, has been helpful to me. I also think an advanced degree of some description provides some level of credibility. I think that’s true in almost any industry. I don’t think it’s essential, but I think it’s helpful.

CIO.com: Are there certain industries e.g., healthcare, education that are more women CIO friendly?

Twila Day: I don’t believe there is any industry that [isn’t] open to having a woman CIO. In fact, companies who may not currently have as many women in their executive staff may be looking specifically to add someone and the CIO role is an excellent role to do that.

Helen Cousins: Any industry that affords both men and women a more flexible lifestyle will be one that women will more likely be drawn to. That being said, I think any industry that has a Board of Directors and a CEO that is looking for bottom line results, regardless of whether you are a male or a female, would be one that women can be successful in. I think it’s important to encourage women to apply to some of these industries.

CIO.com: How important is mentoring – and have you mentored any female IT executives?

Twila Day: Sponsors and mentors matter. Find people who are willing to sponsor you for advancements and mentor you by giving you great advice that can help you grow. I mentor both males and females. There are some female specific mentoring programs that I’m involved with such as Sysco’s women mentoring groups and the Women in Foodservice Forum. I’m open to mentoring anyone as long as I can dedicate the time to spend with them.

Stephanie Reel: I have taught at CHIME, the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, which hosts a CIO boot camp twice a year, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a very heads-down, heavy-duty emersion for three solid days and nights with people who wish to become CIOs. I’ve also mentored a number of people who were students. I mentor at least two people every year men as well as women – for six months at a time, as part of a Hopkins leadership program, which is very rewarding.

Helen Cousins: I have mentored both men and women during my career. Many of these people have moved on to very successful positions. I have always been in industries with more men in technology, but have had the privilege of working with some great women. One success story I can think of is Allison Young, who is now an SVP at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana.

CIO.com: What can women – and men – CIOs can do to encourage young women to become CIOs?

Helen Cousins: I think that while it is great for women to mentor other women one on one, it is important to expand beyond this. It needs to start in our grade schools and continue through high school.

Successful women should look at encouraging young girls to view technology as an exciting career and a place they can make a real difference. This goes beyond just encouraging girls to study math and science, it is to encourage young girls to be interested in business and telling them they have opportunities that are endless.

Women should explain that technology is not just ‘programming.’ It is about making a difference in organizations that can in turn make a difference in the world.

(Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com)

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Featured Articles

Empowering the hybrid workforce: how technology can build a better employee experience

Across the country, employees from organizations of all sizes expect flexibility...

What’s behind the best customer experience: How to make it real for your business

The best customer experience – the kind that builds businesses and...

Overcoming the obstacles to optimized operations

Network-driven optimization is a top priority for many Canadian business leaders...

Thriving amid Canada’s tech talent shortage

With today’s tight labour market, rising customer demands, fast-evolving cyber threats...

Staying protected and compliant in an evolving IT landscape

Canadian businesses have changed remarkably and quickly over the last few...

Related Tech News

Tech Jobs

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Tech Companies Hiring Right Now