Today’s conversation is inspired by a reader who posed a question that I’ve been asking myself for over 40 years – “Why aren’t there more women CTO’s?” Her very valid question provokes a broader question as well – “Why aren’t there more women in IT?”
The questions aren’t the issue, finding answers with a root cause and actionable steps to resolve them is. I’ve followed NCWIT research for several years, and these questions provoked me to go back a few years to ground myself.
Women struggle to maintain a presence in IT, especially at the senior levels and in the heavier technical fields. We know the challenge. According to the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), some important progress is being made:
It is great to see that progress is being made. In only five years, women in the most senior IT role moved from 6% to 20%. It is also interesting to see the stats that have not moved.
At the same time, there is a challenge to grow our workforce exponentially. Look at the overall number of computing job expected by 2026. In just five years, the expected requirements for computing professionals have tripled. The growth is being driven by the 4th Industrial Revolution.
The 4th Industrial Revolution describes the exponential changes to the way we live, work, and relate to one another due to the adoption of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the Internet of Systems. As we implement smart technologies in our factories and workplaces, connected machines will interact, visualize the entire production chain, and make decisions autonomously. This revolution is expected to impact all disciplines, industries, and economies. In some ways, it’s an extension of the computerization of the 3rd Industrial Revolution (Digital Revolution). However, due to the velocity, scope, and systems impact of the changes of the fourth revolution, it is being considered a distinct era. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting almost every industry in every country and creating massive change at unprecedented speed. It is daunting.
Let’s go back to the challenge – where will the IT workers come from? Women are key to the answer. Women are 50.5% of the overall US population, which is in line the total world population of 50.8%. In theory, would you not agree a significant opportunity lies with increasing the number of women in IT to at least 50% of the workforce?
How do we attract and retain women to the field of IT? I’ve come to believe the answer comes in three parts:
It is easy to see that our opportunity must include increasing STEM education with an emphasis on increasing women to the field. Introducing IT as a career choice for girls early in life is key. I point you to a source far more eloquent on the subject:
Please take note of the section on stereotype threat and unconscious bias as it plays a significant role in the second leg of the answer – Inclusion.
There is a business case to be had here. Employers who invest in hiring and retaining women in STEM careers can reap significant rewards. The World Economic Forum has projected that correcting gender segregation in employment and entrepreneurship could increase aggregate productivity globally by as much as 16%. And according to Deloitte, highly inclusive organizations generate 1.4 times more revenue and are 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market.
There are solid action steps that can be taken in attracting and retaining women to the IT field. I particularly appreciated the steps outlined in the following Glass-Door article:
Inclusion is impacted by second-generation gender bias, starting at job description development to recruiting, reviews, and promotions. In organizations which are most often male-dominated at the top, men will have their most important work relationships with people like them, and women with people not like them. So, it’s harder for women to build a relationship beyond the workplace.
Because men so often occupy the top positions at companies, the implicit model of what a great leader looks like is a man. If a woman has a different management style (as we often do) it may not look assertive enough, or too much or not enough of something because of the subconscious model formed by the predominate leadership and culture of the organization.
Second-generation gender bias refers to practices that may appear neutral or non-sexist, in that they apply to everyone. It is a subtle, covert, and at times unintentional, phenomenon that thwarts women’s power and potential. This form of bias is complicated because, unlike the first generation of overt, explicit, and conscious bias against women in the workplace, second-generation bias can occur in hard to-pin-down incidents such as the way a job description is worded or never being asked whether one is interested in being promoted or taking an overseas assignment. They discriminate against women throughout the employment lifecycle because they reflect the values of the men who most often created the setting in the workplace. In any case, it is unfair and results in the disparity of outcomes.
An example of second-generation gender bias is that leaders are expected to be assertive so, when women act in a more collaborative fashion they are not viewed as leaders and often women who do act assertively are perceived as too aggressive. This kind of bias, or gender stereotyping, can be entirely unconscious, is most often unintentional, and goes unrecognized.
Again, second–generation bias does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential. Feeling less connected to one’s male colleagues, being advised to take a staff role to accommodate family, finding oneself excluded from consideration for key positions. All of these situational examples reflect work structures and practices that put women at a disadvantage.
Equity is a bit more complicated. I started in data processing in 1977 when there were no women in the data center. My entry into data processing was by way of a clerical role in the engineering department. My job function was the first in the company to go online – CICS no less. The data processing manager invited me to consider a job in the data center when he recognized my attitude for process improvement. My first data processing supervisor publicly exclaimed to me that I could not work there; I was a girl. How could I be expected to lift tapes, disk drives, run cables, and printer boxes? I was damned determined to prove him wrong. And I did. Much to his credit, he apologized to me within a few weeks. And thus, my IT career took off.
Over the years, I worked very hard to keep gender out of the equation and refused to accept that I was not treated on equal par with my peers. I denied it until the day I had cause to look closer at my organization and take note of the types of positions filled by my male peers. The only other woman on the executive team headed HR. What opened my eyes was when I learned that my total compensation package was much less generous than my peers, despite the more substantial budget, influence, and overall responsibilities of my role as the CIO and head of the monitoring call center (a $17m dollar profit center). No one, including HR or the President, gave me an answer to the inequity. It hurt a lot. And it made me angrier the more I thought about it. I stewed on it and let it fester until another job offer came my way. I then made the dumbest career decision of my life, but that is a story to share over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.
On a positive note, it influenced assuring parity of salary and opportunities on all my teams from that point forward as well as to work with my clients to look at theirs.
Without an understanding of second-generation bias, people are left with stereotypes to explain why women as a group have failed to achieve parity with men. If they can’t reach the top, it is because they “don’t ask” are “too nice” or simply “opt–out.” These messages tell women who have managed to succeed that they are exceptions and women who have experienced delays or setbacks that it is their fault for failing to be sufficiently assertive or committed to the job. To no fault of their own, they may be held back, paid less, or not considered for promotion due to second-generation bias.
Second-generation bias is embedded in stereotypes and organizational practices that can be hard to detect, but when people are made aware of it, they see possibilities for change.
In my work with women leaders in IT, we focus on recognizing when bias is showing up and holding them back.
We know that the men will nominate themselves even if they don’t meet all the requirements; whereas women will hold back applying unless they meet 100% of the requirements. In one case, a client observed that her male peers were assigned more strategic roles such as the head of development or security, whereas she and her female peers were assigned more operational ones such as the PMO, Relationship Management, or Support – signaling that they had lower potential. Working with my client, she proposed to the CIO that the department provide clear criteria for development assignments in order to be transparent on how potential was evaluated and to give direction as to what experience would best increase a person’s potential. These types of actions enable more women in leadership roles.
I find that when women recognize the subtle and pervasive effects of second-generation bias, they feel empowered, not victimized because they can take action to counter those effects. They will apply for roles even when they may not feel they check 100% of the boxes. They can put themselves forward for leadership roles when they are qualified but have been overlooked. They can seek out sponsors and others to support and develop themselves in those roles. They can negotiate for work arrangements that fit both their lives and their organizations’ performance requirements. Such an understanding makes it easier for women to “lean in.”
Malu – this is for you. Thank you for the provocative question. Our conversation is far from over. I would love to hear from others, both women and men, about this very important issue of Women in IT.
Until next time, have an effective week!
IT Executive Advisor and Leadership Coach
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