by Kris van Riper

The gender gap: How to build a pipeline of women IT leaders

Mar 29, 2017
CareersIT Leadership

Increasing the share of women leaders can create competitive advantage for IT teams

women in tech leadership
Credit: Thinkstock

Compared to other corporate functions, women are significantly underrepresented in IT leadership positions. According to CEB data, women currently represent 38 percent of all functional leaders in North America. However, they represent just 28 percent of IT leaders.

The potential for negative public scrutiny is a primary concern stemming from this gender gap, but there is another often hidden concern: An IT gender gap can create challenges in effectively delivering on customer services. As IT shifts from serving as builders of internal IT products towards builders of customer-facing digital service experiences, it’s critical to have IT leaders reflect the customer base that they serve.

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Take the retail industry, for example. Retail has the highest levels of women in IT and women in IT leadership. In the retail industry, women represent 35 percent of all IT employees and 38 percent of IT leaders. Retail leaders tell us that there are competitive advantages to having women influence the design and build of digital customer experiences, as women represent such a large share of their customer base.

There are other business benefits to creating a more diverse and inclusive team culture. CEB data reveals that workers in highly diverse and inclusive organizations show a 26 percent increase in team collaboration and an 18 percent increase in team commitment. Additionally, employees who are part of organizations with high levels of diversity exert 6 percent more discretionary effort and report a 7 percent higher intent to stay than their peers in organizations that have low levels of diversity.

Despite the benefits of increasing diversity, it’s proven a challenge for many IT organizations. One reason is that it’s difficult to keep women in technology fields throughout their career. According to a study in Harvard Business Review, 56 percent of women in technology roles leave their employer mid-career. The most departures happen in the first few years of women’s careers, but women leave across all levels—from the most junior to the most senior. Also of note: the study found that women in the high-tech industry leave their jobs at more than twice the rate of their male colleagues.

2 strategies to improve retention of women in IT

IT leaders share the responsibility for keeping women in IT roles with HR and diversity teams. There are two strategies this group should employ to improve retention of women.

1. Highlight flextime

One of the most important predictors of retention for women managers is their satisfaction with workplace flexibility. This includes their ability to work remotely and have some control over their working hours. CEB data indicates nearly half of women managers who report being satisfied with workplace flexibility also report a high intent to stay in their current roles. However, of those who are not happy with their workplace flexibility, only 17 percent have a high intent to stay.

For some companies, creating a formal flextime policy is the first step. Those that already have formal policies should start or continue to highlight the policies in interviews and job descriptions. Leaders should also emphasize in interviews how their teams actually use flexible working arrangements, ensuring candidates understand that this is not just a benefit that exists on paper, but also in practice.

2. Promote mentoring programs

Mentoring is a critical tool for engagement and retention of emerging leaders, as it provides guidance and visibility. In IT, providing mentors for emerging women leaders is especially important given the lower share of women that they see in leadership positions.

It also helps mentees better understand the career paths of female leaders, which is an important retention driver for women. According to CEB research, women who have high visibility into future career opportunities are five times more likely to report having high intent to stay at their current organization than women with low visibility.

A few leading organizations have also taken an additional step to create individual and group mentoring programs for women in IT. The combination of those programs ensure women not only have mentors, but that they also have access to guest speakers and peer-to-peer networking to encourage connectivity across the female community.

Despite the benefits of gender diversity for the IT team, the company, and the company’s reputation, increasing the share of women leaders in IT has proven difficult for many leading organizations. But the IT leaders who are successful will not only have better pipelines of female talent, but also the potential to create competitive advantage in terms of broader engagement of employees and customers.