by Jennifer Lonoff Schiff

Where Are the Women CIOs? Three Speak Out

Jul 24, 20128 mins

The number of female CIOs in the U.S. continues to decline. To find out where the next generation will come from, asks three well-respected women CIOs how more women can make it to the top of the IT ladder--and we asked what advice they have for aspiring women CIOs.

For the second year in a row, the number of women CIOs in the United States has declined, according to a recent survey of CIOs and senior IT executives conducted by Harvey Nash, an IT recruiting and outsourcing firm.

To find out why that might be the case, interviewed three well-respected women CIOs, representing three different industries: Helen Cousins, executive vice president and CIO of Lincoln Trust Company; Twila Day, senior vice president and CIO of Sysco Corporation; and Stephanie Reel, vice provost for information Technologies, Johns Hopkins University, and vice president for information services, Johns Hopkins Medicine. Do women CIOs—or aspiring CIOs—face unique challenges? If so, what are they?

Helen Cousins (HC): Women as CIOs do face unique challenges. No matter how far women have advanced up the corporate ladder, it is still a man’s world at the top level of most organizations. Being in technology, or any executive position back in the 70s and 80s, there were very few women, especially in international banking on Wall Street. I always felt I had to work twice as hard and put in twice the number of hours as my male counterparts.

Helen Cousins, executive vice president and CIO of Lincoln Trust Company
Helen Cousins, executive vice president and CIO of Lincoln Trust Company

While things have improved, I do think that women are more often asked to prove that they can commit fully to job, especially if they have a family since the mother is still viewed as the major caretaker of the children. You will often find that when speaking with successful executive women, they either have no children or they have a husband or partner who has taken on a lot of parenting responsibilities.

[Slideshow: Top Women in Tech]

My advice would be that if you are serious about wanting that top position, you are going to have to work hard at it and have many concrete successes along the way. What advice do you have for women aspiring to become CIOs?

Twila Day, senior vice president and CIO of Sysco Corporation

Twila Day (TD): A CIO must become more of a businessperson who understands how to apply technology to solve business needs. That being said, I would tell anyone interested in being a CIO they should learn everything they can. Volunteer for new projects at work. You [also] need great communication skills. Find ways of honing your ability to customize your message for the audience and in a way that is in business speak.

Stephanie Reel (SR): Understand the business you wish to work in. Read everything you can—and listen very carefully. Always tell the truth – and do what you say you are going to do. Set high expectations—and work hard to achieve them.

Helen Cousins, executive vice president and CIO of Lincoln Trust Company
Stephanie Reel, vice provost for information Technologies, Johns Hopkins University, and vice president for information services, Johns Hopkins Medicine.

HC: Have a goal and go after it. Always hire great people to work for you. Then help them to be successful. Form strong strategic partnerships along the way. Volunteer for assignments outside your specific [area]. Understand the business and what the challenges are: Be a business person first and a technologist second. Market yourself within your organization. Publish your success stories and back them up with analytics. Is there an optimal education path/degree you need to become a CIO? According to a recent White House report, fewer women are majoring in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)—and women make up only about 25 percent of those in STEM-related fields.

HC: I think a solid understanding of math and science in grade school and high school is a good foundation. Future CIOs should have an understanding of and an interest in the businesses they run, so a solid business degree will be necessary. [Cousins has an MBA.] Two skills that have helped me in my career are finance and marketing. I did not come up through the technical side of IT, but I have always surrounded myself with strong technical people.

SR: I think years ago it was true you had to have some kind of background in analytics or analysis or math or software development or software engineering. But I think that’s less the case today. In healthcare, a number of physicians have become CIOs. And that’s because they understand the business so well. And they understand the potential of information technology. They are enormously successful without any formal training in the IT disciplines, and I’m sure the same is true in other industries.

If you’re a really excellent business leader, making the leap into the role of CIO is not a difficult one. However, vendor management is an important part of my job, so it’s important to be able to understand what technology limitations are—and it’s easy to be sold a bill of goods if you can’t have a meaningful conversation with a vendor. Do you need an advanced degree to become a CIO?

SR: I have an MBA. I believe that my MBA has made me a much better leader, and much more able to have a meaningful conversation with my CFO or my CEO. I think my education, my training, has been helpful to me. I also think an advanced degree of some description provides some level of credibility. I think that’s true in almost any industry. I don’t think it’s essential, but I think it’s helpful. Are there certain industries—e.g., healthcare, education—that are more women CIO friendly?

TD: I don’t believe there is any industry that [isn’t] open to having a woman CIO. In fact, companies who may not currently have as many women in their executive staff may be looking specifically to add someone and the CIO role is an excellent role to do that.

HC: Any industry that affords both men and women a more flexible lifestyle will be one that women will more likely be drawn to. That being said, I think any industry that has a Board of Directors and a CEO that is looking for bottom line results, regardless of whether you are a male or a female, would be one that women can be successful in. I think it’s important to encourage women to apply to some of these industries. How important is mentoring – and have you mentored any female IT executives?

TD: Sponsors and mentors matter. Find people who are willing to sponsor you for advancements and mentor you by giving you great advice that can help you grow. I mentor both males and females. There are some female specific mentoring programs that I’m involved with such as Sysco’s women mentoring groups and the Women in Foodservice Forum. I’m open to mentoring anyone as long as I can dedicate the time to spend with them.

SR: I have taught at CHIME, the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, which hosts a CIO boot camp twice a year, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a very heads-down, heavy-duty emersion for three solid days and nights with people who wish to become CIOs. I’ve also mentored a number of people who were students. I mentor at least two people every year—men as well as women – for six months at a time, as part of a Hopkins leadership program, which is very rewarding.

HC: I have mentored both men and women during my career. Many of these people have moved on to very successful positions. I have always been in industries with more men in technology, but have had the privilege of working with some great women. One success story I can think of is Allison Young, who is now an SVP at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. Any final thoughts regarding what women – and men – CIOs can do to encourage young women to become CIOs?

HC: I think that while it is great for women to mentor other women one on one, it is important to expand beyond this. It needs to start in our grade schools and continue through high school.

Successful women should look at encouraging young girls to view technology as an exciting career and a place they can make a real difference. This goes beyond just encouraging girls to study math and science, it is to encourage young girls to be interested in business and telling them they have opportunities that are endless.

Women should explain that technology is not just ‘programming.’ It is about making a difference in organizations that can in turn make a difference in the world.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

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