Human Resources

Can the evolving CIO role break a glass ceiling for women?

A shift in CIO responsibilities and skills is having an impact on the number of women employed in CIO roles, according to new research. While record numbers of women respondents have added credence to a shift occurring in what is still a male-dominated profession, the reality is that this is more evolution than revolution.

The new global Harvey Nash / KPMG CIO survey of 3,352 CIOs and technology leaders saw female respondents account for 11 per cent of the sample, a 37 per cent increase on last year’s survey. It’s a significant rise in percentage terms but from a low starting point. So should it be celebrated?

On the surface it shouldn’t because this is still a poor overall return but Lisa Heneghan, head of UK CIO Advisory at KPMG, says that around 200 organisations have appointed more women into senior IT positions in the last two years and this should indeed be recognised as progress.

“The CIO role is changing and that is playing into the hands of women,” says Heneghan. “IT is no longer about managing castles of servers. It is about being an enabler and business strategist. This requires very different attributes and these are all attributes women have inherently.”

It’s a good point and while it illustrates the opportunity for women, certainly in IT management, it should not detract from the fact that women have been under-represented in technology roles to date, at all levels. So is this changing?

According to a recent report by Deloitte, in the eight years between 2005 and 2013 the percentage of women in IT jobs in Sweden fell from 23 per cent to 22 per cent. In the US, which has five million IT jobs, the ratio of female IT workers also fell from 25 to 24 percent from 2010 to 2014, with the proportion of women in more senior roles declining three percentage points to 27 percent in 2014. In the UK, with 1.2 million IT posts, the percentage of women in IT jobs increased from 17 per cent to 18 per cent 2010-2015. In each market, the total number of IT jobs increased by over 20 per cent in the last five years.

It’s hardly a picture of dynamic change but, as Heneghan suggests, the more women there are in senior positions, the more women role models there are for young and aspiring female technology students. You only have to look back to the 1980s and 1990s to realise things have improved. She points to the current crop of female leaders of technology firms in the US as inspiration - Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise to name just three.


Diverse diversity

It may come as little surprise then that, as a region, North America ranks number one in the Harvey Nash / KPMG CIO survey, with 16 per cent of IT leadership roles held by women. However, it is Norway that tops the pile of countries for gender diversity with 26 per cent, with Hong Kong (22 per cent), Canada (19 per cent), China (19 per cent) and the US (16 per cent) making up the top five. Europe is noticeable for its poor showing with just three countries above the global average of 11 per cent (Norway, Sweden and Italy).

Of course, Norway’s leadership position has not happened by accident. The country has a quota system for getting more women on company boards, so it’s no surprise this has filtered into the tech departments of businesses. Are quotas the way forward then?

Fiona Czerniawska, founder of Source Global Research, says that quotas can be a force for good. Her research into the subject of women leaders in consulting revealed that quotas are not a better solution than having a sponsor or being able to work with other women, but they are an “accelerant”.

“If we want a higher proportion of women at the top of consulting firms, and we know that, if we get that, they’ll act like magnets for the women underneath them, then quotas need to be one of the options for discussion,” she says.

It’s a point that supports Heneghan’s thinking: more women role models will lead to more girls and women being inspired to take-up technology education and push for job opportunities. The shifting role is also significant here. Heneghan talks about increased collaboration at CIO level, more communication with CEOs and less hands-on management of datacentres, more strategy, less tools.


Inspire the young

Jonathan Mitchell, non-executive head of Harvey Nash’s global CIO executive search and advisory practice, agrees there is definitely a shifting role trend at CIO level, driven in part by increased automation and reliability of infrastructure technology. He talks about how more and more businesses are looking for CIOs with more empathy, communication and business acumen. This should be a green light to women, although it is still playing to stereotypes.

Interestingly, in April 2016 the US National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) published its first set of results from a national test of technology and engineering literacy first conducted in 2014. Among eighth-grade students in public and private schools (13 to 14 years old), 45 per cent of girls and 42 per cent of boys scored ‘proficient’ on the exam. The tests were designed to measure students’ abilities in areas such as understanding technological principles, designing solutions, and communicating and collaborating. Girls performed particularly well in the latter category apparently.

Clearly the numbers are not about ability. They are more likely a reflection of bias, both in advertising and recruiting for senior roles. That’s a tough one to crack but conditions are changing. So what can be done?

Inspiring the young is one step. Heneghan believes more needs to be done to promote technology career paths to school pupils and much of this is down to destroying stereotypes by using those female role models as inspiration.

Meeting the demands of the evolving CIO role is another step. Businesses can cultivate female talent based on key strengths, promoting a diverse culture and a strategy built on technology business cases rather than nuts and bolts IT management. Technology within businesses is rapidly evolving with increased cloud-based services, automation and data-driven decision making. This will only increase and, given the recent stats from KPMG / Harvey Nash, we’d hedge a bet that women in leadership roles will increase with it, finally putting an end to the glass ceiling nonsense.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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