Want more female CIOs? Break these 3 rules

Enough incremental progress: Here are three ways to take a sledgehammer to IT’s glass ceiling
394 readers like this.
cio role 2021

Fewer than one in five CIOs are women, according to recent Korn Ferry research. We’re doing better than the days when this number was in the single digits, but there’s still a long way to go.

Now, the business case for greater diversity in any role is clear, so I’m not going to reiterate that here. It’s clear that we need more women CIOs – particularly in an age where challenges such as eradicating gender (and other) bias in areas like artificial intelligence are of critical importance. 

Nor will I revisit what feels like an evergreen list of potential solutions: mentorship and sponsorship for high-potential women leaders, more women on technical education career tracks (as well as supportive communities like Girls Who Code), inclusion training for leaders, and more disciplined succession and assessment processes to evaluate and deploy leadership more fairly and thoughtfully. What we think of as classic solutions do have an impact – and have helped companies double the number of women CIOs over the last few years.

[ Read also: How to develop the next generation of female digital leaders. ]

These solutions are necessary, but not sufficient – driving what still feels like incremental progress. So what should organizations do to change the game? 

Here are three ways to disrupt the glacial march forward – and take a sledgehammer to the IT function’s glass ceiling: 

1. Kill off linear succession

Even in an age where the “career jungle gym” is supposed to have killed off the “career ladder,” we still gravitate toward choosing IT function leaders who’ve spent their whole lives marching in a straight line. You manage X people and Y budget, then 2X people and 2Y budget, then 5X people and 5Y budget … on to infinity. 

If we want more capable women in the job in the near term, we need to step off this particular treadmill – and be willing to grab great female leaders from the CIO-2 or even CIO-3 level. We don’t do this today because we believe such a move would generate “unqualified” leaders who haven’t yet managed large budgets and numbers of people or projects of sufficient complexity. 

In the age of agile, self-organizing teams, continuous funding models, and sprints to MVP, are we actually prioritizing the wrong kinds of experience?

But in the age of agile, self-organizing teams, continuous funding models, and sprints to MVP, are we actually prioritizing the wrong kinds of experience? Are we elevating people who have experience with large budget processes over people who actually understand how to manage the resources to get the work done? And people who have experience navigating matrixed hierarchies rather than people who can move teams by influence, not power?  Stepping away from a strictly linear view of succession would allow organizations to access bigger pools of women leaders – and get more appropriate leaders in the seat, period. 

2. Make the CIO role a stepping-stone to CEO – and make more non-technical leaders CIOs

As C-suite roles have increased in strategic importance, organizations have looked to more diverse pools of talent to fill them. The CFO role used to be the exclusive province of CPAs; today that job is often done by former strategy consultants. It’s time for the CIO role to get the same treatment – and as seemingly every company across industries declares itself a “tech company,” shouldn’t we have more CEOs who have been CIOs? In turn, this means pulling more CIOs into the role from other functional or general management tracks – yielding a greater assortment of women leaders as candidates for the role. 

Cisco, GE, Harvard University, Caesar’s Entertainment, and Petco  plucked female CIOs from areas as diverse as finance, marketing, and supply chain.

One might ask, doesn’t this yield unqualified candidates as well? Well, Cisco, GE, Harvard University, Caesar’s Entertainment, and Petco might beg to differ: These organizations plucked female CIOs from areas as diverse as finance, marketing, and supply chain. A great Forbes article from a few years ago details how these CIOs’ diverse experience base operated as an asset, not a liability.

And when you consider capability as collective, not individual, you can have a highly strategic CIO, complemented by a team of great technologists around her – and the net effect is greater than the sum of the parts. The result could be an eventual CEO who really gets technology – because she had to learn it to succeed.

[ Read also: Why diverse IT teams have a competitive edge. ]

3. Change the vision of what it means to be a good leader

Some provocative recent research has suggested that broken stereotypes around how a leader should behave – namely, the “commanding” behavior that we are so often conditioned to respond to – have suppressed the proportion of both women leaders and, importantly, qualified male leaders who differ from this stylistic norm. Change these beliefs – the thinking goes – and the “right” successors for the CIO role might fade in favor of the actual right successors… a group with more women in it (or at the very least, more effective male leaders!).

Now, you may be looking at this list and saying, “Wait a minute – these suggestions don’t have anything to do with gender.”

That’s absolutely right. The dearth of female CIOs is a symptom of deeper problems across organizations in how leaders are chosen, promoted, and developed. Unless companies are willing to question their fundamental assumptions about what roles require, the right people to do them, and how to get the right people into the right roles, the chance of getting more extraordinary folks – male and female – into the CIO seat will be limited.

Change the rules of the game, though, and the next generation of CIOs could be exceptional – and look a lot more like the world outside the IT function.

[ What other concrete steps can organizations take? Read our related article, How to build more diverse IT teams: 3 strategies. ]

Melissa Swift is the U.S. Transformation Leader at Mercer, the consultancy helping redefine the world of work. In this role, Melissa is responsible for the firm’s efforts in the areas of workforce transformation, HR transformation, HR digitization, diversity equity and inclusion, and workforce analytics.