Good news! A tech role where women are gaining ground

The role of chief digital officer (CDO) is opening the door to the c-suite for women. Both strategic and technical, the CDO role is one that women appear to be fully embracing.

women in tech leadership
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At last we have some good news about the number of women in IT. As someone who is frequently asked about the gender gap in technology, I am eager to see positive results. Now a ray of light is shining through and, what’s more, it’s not shining down at the bottom ranks of the industry. Women are gaining ground at the top of organizations and inside the c-suite as the chief digital officer (CDO) role becomes more common and more central to business strategy and success.

The CDO surge

Not too long ago, the title of CDO was hardly heard at all. Today it’s an emerging role with a rapid growth trajectory. Just a few years ago, only a small percentage of businesses had a CDO role in place. Now, just two years later, almost 20% of businesses have a CDO, which demonstrates a quick and substantial leap—one that took the CIO role a decade to achieve. The CIO role also appears to be much slower than the CDO role when it comes to embracing women executives. A recent report from Gartner revealed that only 13 percent of businesses have a female CIO while over 25 percent of CDOs are women.

Those numbers reflect what I am seeing across the business and technology sector. Typically, if I were to talk to 10 CIOs, nine would be men. The CDO ratio is more evenly split. Why are we seeing more women in the CDO role? What can other areas of technology learn from digital to attract and retain more women? Let’s take a look.

A more balanced candidate pool: Marketers

The CDO role is a strategy role first and a technology role second. An effective CDO plans and leads digital technology (mobile, social, big data and cloud) initiatives that transform processes, products and services to meet the evolving demands of a digitally savvy customer base. It takes operational, technological, financial and customer engagement experience to succeed as a CDO. And it’s that last factor — customer engagement — that has made marketing one of the main hunting grounds for CDO talent.

Digital technologies are delivering powerful tools for understanding, monitoring and connecting with buyers. Marketing departments, where the ratio of women to men is often closer to even, are embracing digital technologies and their leaders are gaining some of the key skills and broad business and IT insight needed to be effective CDOs. The higher number of women in marketing and marketing leadership, especially when compared to IT, has been a key factor in expanding the pool of female CDO candidates beyond IT departments.

The work-life balance factor

The digital career path is also proving to be more adaptive to professionals seeking to balance family needs and high ambitions. Technology has long been an area from which a substantial leave of absence is hard to recover. Because technologies change so quickly, it’s hard for all tech professionals to stay current when they take time out of the workplace. That has made advancement to executive ranks much harder for women.

But now we have the CDO and the multiple paths that can lead that position, from marketing and operations to finance and technology. It means women (and men too) who have had breaks in their careers can still make it to the top of the technology field without having to come straight up through the IT department.

Digital has more pull

Another key factor attracting more candidates of all genders to digital is its profile. For many new workforce entrants, digital owns the “cool” factor. Digital is seen as an exciting field that is driving big, important change through social and mobile technologies. Information technology, on the other hand, is often assumed to be where the no-frills, utilitarian tech work is done. IT is the department that keeps the infrastructure humming and the network secure.

Today I am seeing more young women embrace the digital path to career advancement, and I believe the higher, hipper profile of digital work will continue to attract young talent of both genders. Millennials were raised in an era where social media and mobile technology helped spark revolutions and change political outcomes. It’s a part of how they work, live and connect with the world. Fluent in Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr, they are a generation that wants to connect to something bigger. I see the CDO role as a powerful leadership model for digitally oriented millennial workers who have the ambition to both lead and embrace the challenges and opportunities technology offers.

Keeping the CDO track strong

So how do we keep the momentum? How do we keep women rising and thriving in the CDO role while also expanding that success across an industry where lack of female participation has been the norm for decades?

In my opinion, it starts at the top and at the bottom. Up at the top, the technology industry needs current leaders to mentor rising stars to provide career path support and guidance and to initiate cross-organizational discussions and programs that nurture future CDOs, CIOs and CTOs. In addition, businesses should look at increasing workplace flexibility and re-entry training for those who have taken time out of the workplace.

At the bottom, it’s about working with colleges and high schools—even middles schools—to get young women engaged in technology and business leadership programs. Take advantage of the dynamic profile digital has right now and market technology careers to young women and men. Internships should be made available to high school as well as college students as those who get an early foot in the door can turn into some of the most loyal, productive and ambitious employees a company has. Besides, getting tech-brilliant students into the workplace gives both businesses and interns insight into how business and technology work together.

Over the past 12 months, there has been huge increase in demand for digital skills, and that trend is expected to continue and strengthen. It’s a powerful opportunity for women with technology and business skills to embrace leadership roles and drive transformative business change as the composition of IT leadership transforms and diversifies for the better.

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