Avoid the Gender Trap

By Anna Maria Virzi Print this article Print

Women are severely underrepresented in all top corporate leadership positions, including chief information officer, but don't let the numbers spook you, say three CIOs, an executive recruiter and a global consultant. Savvy companies are starting to recogn

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

This article was originally published on 2006-12-20
Executive Editor
Anna Maria was assistant managing editor Forbes.com. She held the posts of news editor and executive editor at Internet World magazine and was city editor and Washington correspondent for the Connecticut Post, a daily newspaper in Bridgeport. Anna Maria has a B.A. from the University of Rhode Island.
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.