Leading IT: Who is right for the job?
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Leading IT: Who is right for the job?

Maxine-Laurie Marshall — March 2018
IT leaders display many common characteristics — but none are dependent on gender. So what can be done to even out the gender mix at the top of the profession?

Leading an IT organization in 2018 requires a specific type of person. Today’s IT leader must be closely aligned with the business agenda, able to build relationships and collaborate with peers outside of their business area, be commercially driven and make time for innovation. That skillset has evolved over the past 10 years ago and is likely to change again in the next decade as the application of technology in business intensifies. One thing will remain the same though.

The gender of the person leading IT through this next exciting period has no bearing on their ability to do a great job. Yet women remain severely underrepresented in the technology sector. Unhelpfully, some of the conversations around this have paradoxical results. Sarah Windrum, CEO of technology support consultancy The Emerald Group, says: “Perhaps controversially, the ‘women in tech’ movement hasn’t actually helped.” She recently spoke at an engineering academy to a group of female students who were “tired of always getting separated from their male peers for these ‘special talks.’ What I had to say was of benefit to men and women wanting to work in the technology industry. I am a person working in tech and my gender shouldn’t define who my advice is useful for.”
Sarah Windrum, CEO, The Emerald Group

“Perhaps controversially, the ‘women in tech’ movement hasn’t actually helped.”

This opinion is echoed by men and women across the industry, but Windrum proves the complexity of the problem when she admits to a feeling of loneliness and alienation as she progressed further up the career ladder: “It’s important for me to remember that I do belong, even though I feel like I don’t. There needs to be a framework of support for women to build our resilience as we climb the career ladder, else we will continue not to make it to the senior roles.”

So how do you champion women in tech without ignoring men and shining an unwanted spotlight on women?
The role men have to play

As KPMG’s global head of technology Lisa Heneghan highlights, if men are not an active part of the change discussion then the problem will continue, as they will tend to inspire future generations with archaic ways of behaving. It’s vital everyone feels empowered by the discussion of gender parity and diversity. She says: “It is just as important that we show that men at all levels are endorsing the need for gender parity so that women can feel supported and understood, and the next generation of men can see their role models rejecting these long-standing cultural biases.”
Lisa Heneghan, global head of technology at KPMG

She continues: “I believe that gender equality can only be achieved if men and women tackle the challenges together. Men need to be at the heart of understanding why there are so few women in the technology space and how their vocal, outward support can be incredibly valuable when bringing other men and women on the journey. I have also seen that when men actively engage in helping to address the challenge they become incredible change agents and are often the most vocal in realizing the benefits.”

Jacqueline de Rojas, president at IT industry group techUK, agrees: “Role models, especially male role models, are going to play a big role in addressing workplace bias. There are leaders like Andrew Wylie, CEO of construction and engineering company Costain, whose simple decision to insist on a 50/50 gender balance for the graduate and youth intake is just one example of commitment to diversity, inclusion and addressing gender bias. These choices will transform and accelerate the company’s future by welcoming diverse thinking.”

“Role models, especially male role models, are going to play a big role in addressing workplace bias.

Basic and easy changes such as balanced graduate hiring can have a profound effect. McKinsey & Co and LeanIn.Org’s 2017 research report revealed: “Fewer women than men are hired at entry level, despite women being 57% of recent college graduates. At every subsequent step the representation of women further declines, and women of colour face an even more dramatic drop-off at senior levels.”

Underscoring the problem is the revelation that of the entry-level women who are hired, they are 18% less likely to be promoted than their male peers. And the long-term effect can be seen in the lack of gender equality in C-suite positions. The report revealed that if entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of them in SVP and C-suite levels would be more than double.
Changing IT and business culture

The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it exists in the first place. Nicola Downing, CFO at imaging and electronics company Ricoh Europe, says that “companies shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge when more work needs to be done [on workplace diversity]. Technology companies should try and foster workplace environments where employees of all backgrounds can achieve their best.”

The culture within an organization mirrors its beliefs and often dictates its success. Currently, many organizations are trying to embrace a culture that stimulates innovation and fresh thinking right across their organization as they address the challenges and threats of digital transformation. Following the same logic, in order to genuinely effect change around diversity within teams, it is necessary to embed that broadly and deeply in company culture.
Regina Moran, VP and head of industries for EMEAI at Fujitsu

Regina Moran, VP and head of industries for EMEAI at global ICT vendor Fujitsu, says: “If this is really a critical business issue it needs to be at the heart of an organization’s business strategy, operational processes and in the key performance indicators of the leadership team, cascaded throughout the organization. We will see better results when gender diversity is built into our targets and not just an add-on or ‘nice to have.’ People tend to focus on what is measured — with an understanding that ‘what is measured, gets done.’ So this is a practical change organizations can make.”

“Changing beliefs is tough, though, but the first step has to come from people who have disproportionate influence in the organization, i.e. the top management.”

Dr Ileana Stigliani, assistant professor of design and innovation at Imperial College Business School in London, believes the critical need to change the organizational culture reinforces the validity of equality programs: “You can promote all the initiatives you want but if at the end of the day beliefs do not change, reality will not change either. Changing beliefs is tough, though, but the first step has to come from people who have disproportionate influence in the organization, i.e. the top management.”

Fujitsu’s head of product business across EMEIA, Michael Keegan, believes male leaders can help create a more supportive business culture by being aware of the differences between how each gender reacts to a situation. He says: “Women tend to be more reluctant to put themselves forward even if they are well qualified. Men need to help them by creating the right workplace environment; speaking less and listening more would be a good start.”
Michael Keegan, head of product business, EMEIA at Fujitsu

Also focusing on the benefit of embracing differences, Moran encourages businesses to welcome diverse leadership styles: “If the organizational culture values a more directive style, more often exhibited by men, this can be a barrier to women succeeding. By being clear about organizational values of inclusion, teamwork and collaboration, this can encourage people with those attributes to go for leadership roles and succeed.”
Unconscious biases

Closely related to changing company culture is the need to address unconscious biases in the workplace. As the name suggests, such biased ways of thinking are so ingrained in many people and organizational decision-making they are part of ‘natural’ behavior. Dr Stigliani says bringing them to the level of consciousness in training sessions is the first step. Interestingly, it is not only male biases that need addressing. As she says: “Women can be negatively biased against other women and often they do not even know it.” Unfortunately, seeing a very small number of women in senior leadership positions gives the impression that gender bias doesn’t exist: McKinsey & Co found that nearly 50% of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in 10 senior leaders is a woman.

Highlighting the importance in addressing biases in the workplace the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2017 ‘Global Gender Gap Report’ suggests more needs to be done within organizations to end “gender-biased hiring and workplace practices that lead to a low rate of female applicants and a high rate of exit among female talent in certain industries.” In European Union countries, the WEF highlights, only 20% of women aged 30 and over who hold ICT-related degrees decide to stay in the technology industry, with research on women’s motives for leaving STEM jobs pointing to the effects of workplace culture.”
People-centric solutions

IT has had to become more people-centric as the technology deployed by businesses is intrinsically tied to creating great user experiences for customers and employees alike. The focus on supporting employees to work in the most productive way is often centred on offering the ability for mobile and flexible working. This is regularly cited as a solution to support women who have childcare or other family care commitments. In reality, this benefit goes beyond merely helping women; the need to offer mobile and flexible working will soon be a major requirement if businesses are to attract and retain millennial talent. Nick Mayes, senior consultant at PAC, who conducted research into the workplace of the future, says: “Compared to how organizations have enabled productivity over the last 20 or 30 years, individuals will be working in very different ways by 2025.”

The issue around women in technology often not being promoted at the same rate as their male counterparts is again partly about a lack of understanding around how colleagues in general are supported. The McKinsey & Co report found that “one factor in women’s lower rate of promotion is that they are less likely to receive advice from managers and senior leaders on how to advance. This kind of support is important: employees who receive it are more likely to say they’ve been promoted in the last two years.”

Formalizing initiatives to support all employees will see women prosper without always having to engage in gender-specific programs, and will see the business benefit as employees’ needs are met.

The WEF report gives the IT industry reason to be hopeful: “While industries such as energy and mining have seen comparatively little progress, others — such as software and IT services — have made significant progress from a low base.” While progress should be welcomed, it shouldn’t be confused with a solution: the gender parity battle is far from won. As Heneghan says: “We have to be careful that all of the great work to close the gender gap and reduce gender disparity is not superficial. There has to be a cultural change in order to reach a point where the environment we operate in does not unconsciously/consciously suppress the views of young women. We have to create an environment which allows great ideas to be heard and thrive, no matter who they come from.”

As that underscores, women in technology don’t want to be singled out and treated differently because of their gender. Understanding the issues they face and having open discussions about addressing them can result in a more productive and rewarding work environment for everyone.

  • Need a little extra help in supporting the people in your business on the journey to gender parity? Looking for like-minded people to network with? Want to offer support to the next generation? Start with the resources below.

Trailhead: Salesforce’s online learning platform, open to everyone, has modules covering unconscious bias. Linda Aiello, SVP of international employee success at Salesforce, says it offers unconscious bias training to all managers across the business as increased awareness is key.  

Stemettes: A social enterprise working with girls aged 5-22 to encourage them to pursue a career in STEM subjects. Volunteering as a mentor or sponsoring one of their events will help with their goal of reaching 2 million young people by 2025.

European Women in Technology Conference:Taking place in Amsterdam on 28-29 November 2018.

Returners Hub: A collection of resources for both men and women looking to return to the technology sector, and support for companies looking to start their own ‘returners’ program to attract and retain talent.

Everywoman.com: Established in 1999 to assist the advancement of women in business, the Everywoman program includes events and awards such as the annual Everywoman Tech Forum and Technology Awards. It has a presence in over 100 countries and also runs leadership programs, a membership club and sponsorship opportunities.
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