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BIG THINKER
“IT does not necessarily emerge as the preferred destination for brilliant female technologists.”
Martha Heller, president, Heller Search Associates
The digital careers luring away female CIOs
Image: Tony Luong
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The digital careers luring away female CIOs

June 2014
Fewer than 10% of CIOs are women. Martha Heller , the US’s highest-profile CIO headhunter, explores the factors perpetuating the gender imbalance at the top of IT.

Only 9% of CIOs are female and that number is not growing. There are both historical and some very current factors keeping that at such a low level.

The first relates to the demands of the role. IT has long been a 24x7, project-intensive discipline. And many women, as the primary caregivers for children and other family members, were either not practically able to take on that responsibility — or they were perceived by colleagues or recruiters as not being able to do so. And that set of demands is on top of all the other challenges that apply to women in the workforce. So, the fact is that women have never entered the IT profession in droves, or, in many cases, felt inclined to stay with it.

But there is another, very contemporary influence adding to that historical picture. The reality is that IT is now by no means the only destination for female technologists. Marketing organizations are hiring technology people just as readily as IT departments. And cool companies, from social media to consumer technology firms, are clamoring for smart computer science graduates of either gender.

There are now sexy places in the technology world for female technologists. And IT does not necessarily emerge as a preferred destination compared to applying technology in marketing or working towards being a chief digital strategy officer. CIOs don’t always get a lot of respect from other professionals, and that contributes to a distinct lack of interest on the part of women in becoming CIOs. For all of those reasons, I do not see the percentage of female CIOs going up any time soon.
Supporting diversity

That said, improving the gender diversity in the IT organization is highly laudable and everyone in the industry needs to continue to support that. For example, it’s clear that women who have chosen a role in IT management are really benefiting from mentoring programs designed specifically to support their advancement. And indeed, the female CIOs who have risen through the ranks and wind up being Fortune 500 IT leaders are phenomenal because they’ve needed to work their way through a distinctly male culture in order to succeed and rise to the summit of their profession.

When you look across the whole executive suite, gender diversity needs to be a top priority. But maybe not with a specific focus on the CIO profession. CEOs will often present our executive search team with a list of characteristics they want in a prospective CIO: the candidate should be both business-oriented and technical; they need to be operational and strategic; they have to have enthusiasm for the company and have a background in its industrial sector. But if they also add: “Can you find us a woman?” then my response is that you probably want to achieve your gender diversity in a different functional role in the C-suite.
First published
June 2014
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About: Martha Heller
As president of Heller Search Associates, Martha Heller leads a group dedicated to placing transformational IT leaders with some of the world’s top companies. She is the author of ‘The CIO Paradox: Battling the contradictions of IT leadership.’

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