Women CIOs: How To Smash the Glass Ceiling

 
 
By Anna Maria Virzi  |  Posted 2006-12-20
 
 
 

Do women have a decent opportunity of getting promoted to chief information officer?

Though statistics on the number of women CIOs are hard to come by, one thing is certain: There are not all that many. "It's still a pretty small number, but it seems to be growing," says David Leighton, president of Women in Technology International, an organization focused on providing role models for women and helping businesses understand the value of female leaders. That value, Leighton says, includes the ability to excel at cross-departmental or horizontal leadership.

Women are severely underrepresented in all top corporate leadership positions, according to a July 2006 report by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that is working to increase the proportion of women in all top jobs. Although the group did not break out CIOs in its numbers, it found that women occupied 9.4% of all jobs higher than vice president at Fortune500 companies in 2005, up from 7.9% in 2002.

Don't let the numbers spook you, say five women interviewed by Baselinemagazine, including three CIOs, an executive recruiter and a global consultant. More important, don't give up on yourself.

These executives offered the following tips for rising up to the CIO's position:

Cora Carmody: Manage by Facts

Cora Carmody, chief information officer of defense contractor SAIC, oversees an information-technology staff of 740, in addition to consultants and temporary staffers. She was previously CIO at Invensys, a manufacturer of automated controls based in London, and at Litton PRC of McLean, Va., an engineering and information-technology services firm now owned by Northrop Grumman. A member of WITI, she joined San Diego-based SAIC in September 2003.

Carmody is so passionate about getting girls interested in technology that she has developed a program through the Girl Scouts called Technology Goddesses; she started the program in northern Virginia, and launched it in the San Diego area when she moved to SAIC. Of special concern: the fact that women are deciding against careers in information technology. Carmody cites a 2005 report from the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., that found the percentage of women in the I.T. workforce declined from a high of 41% in 1996 to 32.4% in 2004.

Q. What three tips do you have for women who want to become CIOs?

1. Have realistic expectations. The CIO position is an amazing one; it commands a breadth of technological and business impact. For a program manager who is really good at what she does, [becoming a CIO] is an admirable ambition, but you have to have a realistic expectation of how long will it take you to get from a program management slot to positions of wider organization and enterprise responsibility. A person who is an applications delivery manager working for the CIO has fewer areas to flesh out. There is a difference in leadership style between a PM [program manager] and an organizational manager; a more realistic first goal for the PM might be head of applications.

2. Build a foundation of credibility. There are a lot of ways into the CIO office, whether it's from technical or financial management or some other route. But have an impeccable credibility and reputation for delivery in what you do.

3. Be able to recognize, groom and retain talent. You cannot learn that in school. Q. How can women best negotiate their way around an industry predominantly made up of men?

With facts and stellar project delivery.

Q. Is there anything in your career that you can point to as an example?

I can give you a few facts about some of the things that I have done while at SAIC. And notice that they are black and white; they are fact-based and not perception-based.

We had issues in project delivery in I.T., and we put in place a program management office. Since that program management office was put in place, we baselined 69 different projects for cost and schedule. We delivered projects 93% of the time within the cost goals. Not only is that a fact; it is a good fact. The perception before that: We were not strong on project delivery. People say it all the time—I.T. projects are always late and always cost too much. Diffusing that with facts is one approach.

We also changed the way we do desktop and local area network support. We now save between $13 million and $15 million a year on a recurring basis because of standardization and centralization of support. When you have concrete facts that show a transformation or a success, that speaks so much more than saying, "We are doing better than we used to." That's management by fact.

Also, take successes and make them not just fact based, but business benefit-based. Returning $13 million to the bottom line is a business-based improvement.

Q. What advice would you give to women starting a career in information technology today?

Try your best. Work your hardest at whatever assignment you've got. For the most part, take any assignment that is suggested to you, knowing that what is good for the company is usually good for you. And be happy in your current assignment. A positive attitude is everything.

Q. An attitude is not fact-based …

You can be fact-based with a good attitude, or a bad attitude. An attitude is infectious. I would rather spread good cheer than negative thoughts.

Next page: Win Over Your Customers

Win Over Your Customers

Q. What was your background?

I studied math because they really did not have computer science. I have a combined bachelor's and master's in mathematics from John Hopkins. I entered programming/software development at PRC, which was then Planning Research Corp. [information systems and services company], and grew up on different projects for different federal [government] customers—which is a lot like the work we do at SAIC. My first position in I.T. was CIO at PRC in 1996; I had been in software and systems engineering for customers like NASA and the Air Force joint programs.

Q. What did you learn from that first CIO job?

When you are a face to your customers—when you take time to do information building and meet with your customers face-to-face—they are willing to cut you some slack. If you never take the time to build a relationship with a customer, when things get tough, they will never call you. They just complain.

I also learned that in the absence of facts, your customers will think the worst. In my first CIO assignment, the first 30 days I listened to my customers and my employees. I would hear, "The system is always down. The systems are never available. We never get help from the help desk." So, a couple of months later, we started posting our statistics. We posted the facts. And the facts showed we had excellent system availability, that most months we closed more tickets than were opened. But in the absence of metrics, your customers think the worst. Q. Do you think there is a gender gap in information technology? And if so, what should be done?

The lack of representation by women in the highest-level positions won't be helped if women reject I.T. as a field.

After giving it a lot of thought, in 2002 I started a program called Technology Goddesses. It is an add-on to the Girl Scouts program. I am a Girl Scout leader, and I mentor girls in Web and multimedia technology to capture them at an early age and pique their interest in technologies.

Q. Do you have a daughter, and is she a Technology Goddess?

I have one daughter and three sons. And she is a Technology Goddess.

Q. How has the experience shaped her?

One reason I call them Technology Goddesses is I want them to have passion and power. I want them to be fearless around the computer and not be afraid to explore. And one of the great things about Girl Scouts is that it gives them a sustaining chain of mentorship. So even at 12, she displays leadership characteristics that adults comment on when they see her leading younger groups of girls. And that is what it takes to change the gender gap in information technology. A third-grader is going to look up to a fifth-grader, who is going to look up to a seventh-grader, and so on. You need that constant reinforcement.

Next page: Play To Win

Loyola U. Chicago CIO Susan Malisch: Play To Win

Susan Malisch, chief information officer of Loyola University Chicago since November 2005, oversees an information-technology staff of 80 full-time employees, including about 30% who are women, as well as 50 student workers and an annual operating budget of $12 million. She previously held the position of regional CIO for North and South Americas at Novell, as well as information-technology positions at Cambridge Technology Partners and other organizations. She received a bachelor of arts and sciences degree in computer information systems from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., where she played forward on the women's basketball team. In October, Malisch was recognized by the Chicago chapter of Women in Technology International (WITI) for Excellence in Corporate I.T. Leadership.

Q. What are three pieces of advice you have for women who want to become a CIO?

1. Learn the business, listen to your customers and help make them successful. Do not just be the technologist. Really understand the business you are in.

2. Maximum your strengths, know your weaknesses and be confident in your conviction. People are counting on you to provide good, sound technology advice.

3. Understand the power of networking with peers and colleagues. Be a contributor in the technology community that you belong to. You will get back more than you give. It's a great way to tap into others' expertise. Suddenly, you have a lot of advisers. [They are] people you can bounce things off and learn best practices from outside your own organization.

Q.As CIO, you cannot know everything. What else did you do to address any weaknesses?

I build a team that compensates for areas in which I may not be strong. It is important that when you put people at the table with you, you add value in places where you do not have the time or where you need expertise. You cannot be everything. Q.How can women best negotiate their way around an industry that is predominately male?

I played college basketball, and to keep our skills sharp, we'd play games with the guys. On the court, you want to be respected as a player—without consideration to whether you happen to be male or female. If you command that respect, you have achieved your goal. It's the same in business.

Q.Are you saying you have sharp elbows?

Be someone who people want on their team. That's one of the strongest characteristics you can develop.

Q.What advice would you give women starting a career in information technology today?

It's the old adage: Find something you enjoy and that you are good at. Do something you love, and you never work a day in your life. When you are good at something, you are more confident. When you enjoy it, you are happy. Those attributes all come out in the way you approach you work. It's helpful to know that I.T. careers have changed. It's not all about being the best programmer all of the time. Those skills are still important, but business skills and business acumen are increasingly important. Relationship building, partnerships and understanding the role of I.T. in a business are important. As a result, there are great roles for women in technology.

Next page: Avoid the Gender Trap

Ogilvy CIO Atefeh Riazi: Avoid the Gender Trap

Atefeh "Atti" Riazi is worldwide chief information officer and a senior partner at Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising and marketing firm based in New York. Before she joined Ogilvy in 1999, Riazi was CIO for MTA New York City Transit, where she implemented a $1.5 billion project to automate fare collections at 468 subway stations and on 4,000 buses. Riazi, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, oversees an information-technology staff of roughly 300, including about 20% to 25% women.

Q. What advice do you have for women who want to be a CIO?

1. To be a good leader, one has to be strong in passion, instinct, courage, imagination, integrity, intellect and honesty. But equally important, a good leader has to understand the mechanics of power and politics in organizations.

2. Good leaders deliver on their promises, and to do so, a leader has to be a persuasive strategist as well as an expert. Some women end up trying to straddle between appearing as an alpha male or an ingenue, thereby limiting their effectiveness as leaders. Women can't allow themselves to get pigeonholed in this way, compromising their credibility around issues of gender and appearance. Selling ideas and delivering results in an organization is a heavy lift that demands every aspect of one's personality, character, experience and knowledge to be brought into play.

3. Being a good CIO transcends gender issues and goes to the heart of being a good leader and manager. CIOs often are seen as narrowly technical, speaking their own language and working in the boiler room. But CIOs, in general, manage a great deal of a company's capital budget and resources. CIOs are implicitly expected to enable the organization to be innovative and help drive its growth. The CIO's job is less about bits and bytes and more about what drives the business. This takes more than being expert. It involves risk, communications, negotiating, partnering and winning. Q. How can more women be encouraged to pursue careers in information technology?

We need to get rid of geek stereotyping in I.T. and engineering. The most critical thing we can do as women, parents, educators, social workers and leaders in industry is to begin changing the image of engineering and I.T. professionals to get more girls interested in this field.

Women entering college assume that to be a very good engineer or I.T. professional, you have to be consumed with studying—that it will consume all of their time and college lives. That is absolutely untrue. If you want to be good in any field, you have to do hard work. It's an equal amount of work if you are studying liberal arts or engineering.

The bottom line is that we have much work to do to attract more women to this field, but women have work to do as well to let go of the stereotype image, to stay competitive and to give this field a chance in order to realize its intellectual fulfillment. We can't give up on women in this field, and women should not give up on themselves. We must come up with different programs to show the real values of I.T. and raise their awareness and confidence level, and do away with all the myths.

Next page: Innovate With Responsibility

Innovate With Responsibility

Q. Why do you think it's important for women to enter information technology?

The reward is tremendous. Engineering and science jobs pay much more than other fields. If a woman wants to be part of a change in organizations, in society, in the world, technology is the way to go.

Q. Why is that?

Technology and innovation are changing us drastically—and bring about both positive and negative change. If you look at the [internal] combustion engine, at the first car or the impact of that car today—the whole environment and the way we work—it's all because of [that] engine. It has also impacted our environment negatively with pollution.

The biggest impact of innovation is understanding social responsibility. Women—and I'm not saying that men don't—bring in thinking about the impact of innovation on human life, environment, culture and society. If we have both men and women contributing to innovation, I am hopeful we can be more conscious about the impact of innovation—both positive and negative—on society. Q. Did you ever encounter bias as a woman in a male-dominated industry, including your work at the transit authority?

I do not think I have been confronted with a gender issue as CIO. My biggest challenge: transforming the business, managing change, convincing the business that change is the right thing to do. That challenge has dwarfed any gender issue. I never established myself as a techie CIO. You wonder what your brand is. My brand working for an advertising agency is a turnaround agent, deploying change in an organization, bringing innovation. When I do think about the gender issue, I do not remember ever having an incident that I may have found bias as a woman. I have an engineering degree, where 80% or 90% of my classmates were men. And then I started working in engineering in a 95% male environment, so I have great experience being one of the guys. I learned early on that I am one of the guys. I did not see gender as an issue.

Q. You worked at the MTA as an engineer …

Yes, I was the first woman electrical engineer.

Q. Was that a challenging environment for a woman?

I learned to be one of the guys and to be trusted. I made them feel comfortable—not to be nervous and uptight around me, as a colleague.

We as a society have become so focused on being politically correct, it sometimes creates an environment of tension and a lack of trust—and we all need to loosen up a little bit. We should not tolerate sexism, racism or prejudice of any kind; we have to relax and be comfortable in our own skin and our work environment. We have to make our colleagues feel comfortable with us. That is how we create effective teams and trust.

Next page: Learn From Mentors

Consultant Judy Arteche-Carr: Learn From Mentors

Judy Arteche-Carr, chair of the Society for Information Management's (SIM) New York Metro chapter, is a strategic adviser to global companies. She previously worked at technology services companies such as Unisys and EDS, as well as JP Morgan. Arteche-Carr studied communications arts as an undergraduate at the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines, and received an M.B.A. in finance from New York University. She got her start in information technology as an "accident," when she was working on budgeting and planning global technology costs for Salomon Brothers, now part of Citigroup. Arteche-Carr is also a 2007 SIM International Board member.

Q. What three tips do you have for women interested in becoming a CIO?

1. Focus on the job at hand. Let people know what your role is and what you are trying to achieve, and how it will benefit the person, team and company.

2. Get mentors—both formal and informal ones.

Formal mentors include executive coaches, since they work with a CIO objectively in the transformation to the next level. Some executive recruiting firms have advised companies to retain executive coaches for CIOs going into a new and bigger job to guide that CIO to face new challenges.

Informal mentors include peers in the industry who can constructively critique actions and be open to sharing their own experiences. Learning from each other and helping one another are key to a CIO's success.

3. Know the business: Align technology ideas with business strategy and initiatives. Don't be afraid to speak up and give recommendations. The CIO needs to do due diligence and get support either internally or externally. Q. What can be done to encourage more women to pursue careers in information technology?

SIM recognizes there is a low percentage of women in I.T. management. We make it a point to have women represented on international and chapter boards around the country, to ensure that we have diversity of ideas. We have panel discussions that celebrate women leaders and get their perspectives, which should help encourage management teams to create diverse workforces. And that should help create bottom-line results.

Q. How can a woman's leadership perspective help a company's bottom line?

There has been research that shows that diverse teams come up with more creative solutions.

Q. Do you think there is a gender gap in information technology?

Yes, I do. Women are not represented as much in I.T. because of usual stereotype labels that are prevalent. And when they are represented, women often stay back—they are often hesitant—and contribute to that stereotype. The soft skills that women have are undervalued, because metrics used in performance ratings are more task-oriented. And the soft skills that require a task's completion are not taken into account in performance reviews. That is why a lot of women undertake assignments that require an understanding of a lot of processes and navigation of cultural differences and silos. I believe there is an opportunity for women to shine in the new global business models.

Q. Are there any particular issues that women need to be aware of when they work on international projects?

A. During most of my experience [overseas], I did not run into gender bias; there is the occasional gender-related comment, not necessarily different from that in the U.S. However, I ignore it and focus on getting the job done. In international projects, women—and men—need to know cultural issues of the particular countries, since it impacts a quick understanding of why and how team members make decisions to get the job done.

Example: Managing a team from Frankfurt, Germany, that included virtual members—all men—located in the U.K. and U.S. of diverse backgrounds. I was dubbed an "American" because I was driving a hard deadline to meet a client need. I outlined what was expected, and was able to get members working as a team and met the deadline.

Q. Did you ever hit a glass ceiling? If so, what did you do about it?

Yes. I looked for newer challenges and a different manager. Invariably, I learned that having a mentor helps guide you through the corporate maze and understand what is important.

Next page: Know Your Incompetencies

Executive Recruiter Judy B. Homer: Know Your Incompetencies

Judy B. Homer is founder and president of New York City-based JB Homer Associates, which specializes in the recruitment of information-technology and operations executives, including chief information officers. In presenting a short list of job candidates to a client, Homer says the firm tries to include a woman or other "diversity candidate." By being on a short list, a woman gets an opportunity to compete for the position. "There are women who have the potential, but may not have had the [CIO] title," she says. "But if they have an opportunity to be presented, the ball is in their court and the court of the client."

Q. What advice do you have for women interested in becoming a CIO?

1. You need to get a good education. If your intent is to be a chief information officer, you need to have dual skills; you need to think like an engineer and think like a business person. You have to understand business and treat technology like a business, and understand the financials behind it. I don't say get an engineering degree. If you have a liberal arts degree, that is perfectly fine. But continuously educate yourself. 2. Find someone within the organization to mentor you and help you navigate the waters. There are companies that are very assertive, some are very forgiving and some are passive-aggressive. You should build a relationship with someone who can help you understand the politics and open the doors for you [within a company].

3. Have unbelievable communications skills—both written and oral.

4. Be a team player. Establish working relationships with your peers, your subordinates, internal business clients. Manage up and sideways.

5. Deliver without leaving bodies—this does not matter if you are a man or a woman.

Q. What do you mean by "leaving bodies"?

Deliver on what you say you are going to do, and not leave a bloody mess behind. Some people deliver against all odds—and at the end of the day, it may not be the best possible thing. There is always part of a project—or whatever you are doing—that is stressful because things change midstream. How you handle that stress is important.

Q. Other tips?

6. Understand the business that you are in, and how technology can enable that business. Technology, for the most part, is an enabler, so the business people can do what they do very well. Don't lose sight of that. Do not be enamored by technology for technology's sake.

7. Be a good leader. The best leaders lead by example. You also need to have the ability to get respect of people, the ability to prioritize, and the ability to push back. To know when to say no, and not to overextend.

Q. What's the best way to say no?

The greatest leaders that I know have made their jobs effortless. They have enough free time to talk to people. They are not pushed. They do not come in frazzled. We have a tool, called a dynamic leadership solution, to help executives identify their unique abilities—their talents and skills. And I am a firm believer of staying within your unique abilities at least 60% to 70% of your time. And things that you are incompetent at—meaning not necessarily that you cannot do, but you are not good at, do not enjoy or are not passionate about—delegate them, and put together what I call a "unique ability team" around you. Your success is guaranteed. You have time to manage up. You have time to see the strategy. You are not running around like a crazy person. The true secret: Understand yourself, your unique abilities and what you do incredibly well. Delegate what you don't. And put together a unique team.

Next page: Know Build a Support Team at Home

Build a Support Team at Home

Q. How have things changed for women over the past 25 years?

There is much more awareness, outspokenness. And people say: "We have to hire diversity, and we cannot be gender-biased." Some companies, through their human-resources department, force [diversity] from the top down. One of the companies is Pepsi, where the CEO is a woman.

Q. How have things stayed the same?

There are industries that are much more male-oriented. A lot of women have opted out. And there is no way they can come back at the same level that they left. The situation is difficult. Many, many very talented women go into cottage industries or start their own businesses because they choose not to compete. So, some of the most amazing financial services firms in the world miss out on this tremendous talent and brainpower. And brainpower and talent are not about gender.

Q. What advice do you have for women starting careers in information technology?

Get involved in as many positions as you can—from infrastructure as well as applications. And also, if you are developing systems, try to understand the marketing, financial and sales ends of the business. Try to get as broad an experience as possible. That is advice not just for women—that is for everyone. And consistently keep your education going.

Q.Should business take a role to encourage more women into information technology?

There are a couple of ways you can encourage more women into I.T.

Number one: by example. There are women, for example, at very high levels at Pepsi—including the CEO. When I recruit for that company and show women from the outside how successful other women have been within that company, it's a very big sales point.

Also, from the woman's point of view, women want to have families and they pretty much have the responsibility of the family—though that is changing with more stay-at-home dads. But women have to have the ability to build a support team. The women that I know who are incredibly successful have been able to build a support team internally—whether that is a nanny or family member. And none of it is easy. Unfortunately, if you opt out, it is extremely difficult to come back at the same level. Q.Why is so difficult to come back at the same level?

There are very few companies that embrace you coming back in. There are people and companies that try. There has to be a constant support function at your home—with your family.

What impact do flexible working arrangements have on a woman's career?

Just because you have flex time or are working from home, does not mean you are not getting the job done. But there has to be X amount of face time, no matter who you are. Everything cannot be a conference call or on e-mail, because you can lose the relationship. Most divisions are global now, and in order to be successful, you need to be able to travel. By the same token, the business has to know you do not have to be on the road 100% of the time to make an impact. It's all about compromise, as with everything in your life.

Next page: Resources for Women in Technology

Resources for Women in Technology

Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
A nonprofit organization, based in Palo Alto, Calif., and funded by technology firms.

Association for Women in Computing
A nonprofit professional organization for individuals with an interest in information technology.

Catalyst
A New York City-based research and advisory group that promotes women leaders.

The Society for Information Management (SIM)
An international organization of information-technology executives. Its premier event is SIMposium.

Information Technology Association of America
A trade association, made up of over 325 corporate members, focuses on a wide range of policy issues including promoting diversity in the I.T. workforce.

Women in Technology International (WITI)
A global organization, made up of about 95% women, that offers career development, conferences and other programs. Its members come from all industries.