Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers

Michael Beck, Executive Coach & Business Strategist | 9/25/2013 | 103 comments

Michael Beck
What do Delta Airlines, Wal-Mart, MGM Resorts, Raytheon, and Walt Disney have in common? In 2012, they all had female CIOs.

But in a July, 2013 blog post in "Women in Tech," Cassie Slane noted that only 8 percent of CIOs are women. What the heck is going on? How is it that Fortune 500 companies find women to be very good CIOs, yet such a small percentage of CIOs is made up of women?

One explanation is that only a handful of women are qualified to be CIOs. Another possible explanation is that most companies (read most men) are biased against women in technology roles. Perhaps not very many women are choosing to focus on careers in technology. As Slane noted, a 2011 report by the US Department of Commerce found that only one in seven engineers is female, and that employment growth in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs for women hasn't increased since 2000.

Why is it that so few women are getting into STEM-related careers? Here are my thoughts…

One factor may be related to stereotypes of a woman's role in society and business. These generally come from parents and society. The STEM fields are perceived to be hard professions rather than soft ones. By that, I mean STEM fields seem to be based on facts, logic and analysis, requiring very little creativity, intuition or even communication skills. Some people still feel that men are generally better suited to these hard fields.

In truth, we all know that all those perceptions are flawed. Sure, a CIO must have technical knowledge and must think logically, but a CIO who lacks creativity, doesn't have much intuition, and is a poor communicator is doomed to play a minor role at a company. There are no hard data to suggest that women, as a population, are any less suited than men, as a population, to excel in the hard professions.

Another argument against female CIOs could be that they are too touchy-feely, that they aren't tough-minded enough to run an IT department. Really? All you have to do is look to those Fortune 500 companies to disprove that. Let's not forget today's leading example for female technology executives, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who's known for her toughness. Let's remember that CIOs are executives -- managers and leaders. For CIOs to be truly successful, they need to inspire their teams -- and neither management skill nor leadership ability is gender specific.

Finally, one could argue that most women just aren't career-minded enough to succeed as CIOs. While that may have been the case in the 1960s, times have changed. Yes, there are many women who prefer to focus on raising a family. However, women in increasing numbers either favor their careers to the same extent most men do, or don't see the need to sacrifice one in order to have the other. In this age of technology it's easier than ever to be effective, whether we're at our desks or at home, during business hours or off-hours.

The bottom line is that there don't appear to be any valid reasons against more women becoming CIOs, or at least being in STEM-related careers. We need to reflect on whether we have an unfounded bias against their participation in these fields. If we do, we need to ensure we don't unintentionally impose it on others.

What's your experience? Is bias the primary factor keeping women out of the CIO's office, or are there other factors at work? Let's start the unbiased discussion in the comments!

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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Michael Steinhart   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   10/1/2013 12:36:53 AM
Re: Elbowing your way in and up
Even if both groups misbehave equally, we'll have achieved something.
Susan Nunziata   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   10/1/2013 12:22:33 AM
Re: Barriers made of steel
@Michael: Oh, yep, I think I can pretty well guess what you're referring to. 

Discouraging, though, to think that this kind of behavrio will continue to persist. 
Susan Nunziata   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   10/1/2013 12:20:13 AM
Re: Elbowing your way in and up
@Michael: I think what emerges from the picture is that people are different, and there's no hard-and-fast rule to govern either gender. Would you agree?

Absolutely. The key is to let go of preconceived notions about male and female behavior in the workplace. 
Michael Steinhart   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   10/1/2013 12:00:32 AM
Re: Elbowing your way in and up
Well, in that case, I don't mind sharing this charming locker-room-esque anecdote:

I was in the lavatory, washing up, when the CEO walked in and noticed a senior sales manager and a VP were also present. "So, this is where the big d!cks hang out!" he cried jovially. Hearty laughs all around.

On the one hand, innocuous fun. On the other, it speaks volumes about senior management's professionalism (or lack thereof) and the whole frat boy dynamic. I still remember it years later.
Michael Steinhart   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   9/30/2013 11:55:37 PM
Re: Barriers made of steel
I've been in uncomfortable situations firsthand, Susan. And you probably know the players even if I don't mention names. I think it'll be years, if not decades,  before the "good old boy" mentality is finally retired. 
Michael Steinhart   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   9/30/2013 11:53:19 PM
Re: Elbowing your way in and up
Thinking about mentors, my first real career mentor was a woman, actually. She was very straightforward about expectations, but also exceedingly nice and leery of confrontation when she needed to issue criticism. Interestingly, her boss, who was a man, behaved in a very authoritarian fashion and issued directives that brooked no argument, even when they were wrong.

I think what emerges from the picture is that people are different, and there's no hard-and-fast rule to govern either gender. Would you agree?
Michael Beck   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   9/30/2013 9:23:54 PM
Re: Maybe it's our fault
@freespirit25 - You are very welcome!
User Ranking: Blogger
Michael Beck   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   9/30/2013 9:22:00 PM
Re: Re : Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers
@vnewman - I guess most professions do, but I'm thinking not to the same degree as a technical profession.
User Ranking: Blogger
Susan Nunziata   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   9/30/2013 7:48:09 PM
Susan Nunziata
Re: Elbowing your way in and up
@Sara: Well said. I agree with you. I worked for a female boss a few years back who was always polite and very direct in her communications, as one might moreso expect from a man. I thoroughly enjoyed working with her for that and many other reasons. However, there were others who reported to her who thought she was a terrible boss precisely because of that directness and were not afraid to say and do things to undermine her.

There's no way to prove this, but I'm firmly convinced that they would not have reacted the same way had she been a man.
Susan Nunziata   Women as CIOs: Breaking Barriers   9/30/2013 7:43:01 PM
Re: Women Vs. Men debates
@H-H: it's a good question, there are certainly other jobs that tend to be female-dominated where it's rare to see a male employed. Is this a question of nature or nurture?
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