What would a woman in tech do about the gender gap?

Executives from Canada, New York and Australia respond.

business women meeting leaders teamwork collaboration
Thinkstock

The tech industry has done a lot of soul- and talent-searching in recent years to try and improve upon its dismal track record of hiring and promoting women.

According to a McKinsey & Co. study, “only 37% of workers in entry-level positions are female... and women make up only 19% of tech senior vice presidents and 15% of CEOs.” Findings like those have many of the male-dominated boards and leadership teams at tech companies asking, “What should we do?”

My answer? Let’s ask the women of the tech world. Clearly, women CIOs, CTOs and chief digital officers (CDO) who have made it to the top have some valuable insight into reaching the IT industry’s highest levels as a woman. But would they each share similar insights and tips, or would their experiences and ideas vary widely? To find out, I posed this simple question to women IT leaders from around the globe:

What advice would you give to businesses looking to groom more women for the C-suite and to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles?

In their candid responses, shared below, it was easy to find consistent themes.  If you want more women entering and advancing in technology, you need to do three things:

1. Get rid of old, inflexible workforce models.

You can’t alter the makeup of your leadership team and workforce without change. Despite that inarguable fact, many tech businesses are hoping to change their gender balances while clinging to traditional workforce models and constructs for hiring, training and promoting.

Here’s what the women tech leaders advise. 

“Suspend notions of a traditional workforce. Be open to developing new custom organizational structures that are built around the strengths that individuals possess versus adhering to a structural construct. If you do this, women will naturally rise to the top. In addition to professional experience, many women have a predisposition for soft skills in abundance, which is particularly conducive to leading change and developing effective and cohesive teams. These strengths are incredibly valuable in today’s turbulent world of technology. Finally, be flexible. We are natural born leaders at work, but some of us also value playing a role at home — create policies that enable us to enjoy both in a manner that we don’t have to choose.”

Jessie Adcock, CTO, City of Vancouver,
Vancouver, Canada

“Be open to different operating styles and understand the type of environment that will satisfy the needs of the emerging, diverse work force. High performance, value-driven organizations are able to attract and retain higher quality candidates because they actively embrace a responsive, flexible approach to gender and cultural needs. An organization that is trying to change its culture needs to understand what the perceptions of the organization are and change these by ensuring its people and culture agenda and way of operating truly match its corporate messaging about inclusion and diversity. It needs to become a values driven organization from top to bottom and ensure that success is not only about financial performance but also about  gender and cultural diversity metrics."  

— Rebekah Horne, chief digital and information officer,
National Rugby League,
Sydney Australia

2. Be accountable for good talent management.

Is changing the current makeup of the IT workforce everyone’s job? Yes and no. Everyone can play a role, but the talent acquisition experts and business leaders need to step up their game to ensure their foundational work is outstanding. Without topnotch workforce planning, development plans and career pathways, a business won’t be able to recruit and retain strong talent of any gender. 

“Good talent management frameworks and leadership development need to be in place regardless of gender. Business should then be looking for the balance early on within these tools. Whether within talent mapping or development plans, results and pathways must have a diversity filter in order to address talent diversity gaps early on. Also setting up a committee to track and manage program results, such as mentoring and promotion pathways, helps ensure there is accountability and commitment to achieving results. CEO personal sponsorship is also a must!”

— Vicki Miller, GAICD, 
director, Springboard and Co.,
Melbourne, Australia

“Being quite deliberate about ensuring that there is an equal opportunity for existing or potential employees and proactively trying to attract different cultures and genders is also important if for no other reason that there are hard business metrics that will improve as a result."

Rebekah Horne, chief digital and information officer,
National Rugby League,
Sydney Australia

3. Insistently mentor and groom.

No one makes it to the top on her own, but decades of boys club behavior driving hiring and investing across Silicon Valley has made it unquestionably harder for women technologists and entrepreneurs to get noticed and supported. To make up for women's lost time and lack of access to senior leadership circles, businesses need to be proactive about mentoring and grooming female talent for leadership.

“I have always considered mentoring as the best example of 'Paying it Forward' in the technology business. In addition to exposing talent to best practices in a specific tech sector, mentoring offers one-on-one instruction and explanations of complex business processes as well as insights into paths and shortcuts to effectiveness and success. Exclusive one-on-one access to senior management is more than mere coaching. It teaches one how to survive and flourish in in an extremely complicated environment and that can be the difference between making it or not as a business leader. Great mentoring is also good for the business. It helps to preserve a company’s legacy of success and builds skills that serve as the foundation for next generation of business leaders and influencers.”

Debra C. Robinson, CTO,
Hearst Magazines

“It’s important to identify top female talent and actively groom and promote them within the organization so that they are set up to succeed. That said, it is equally and critically important to engage men and women throughout the organization to drive a cultural shift to value and reward contributions from a gender-neutral perspective.”

Rachel Glickman, CDO,
Playbill

Optimism about the future

With lots of advice to give, you might imagine these tech leaders would be less than optimistic about what the future holds for women and diversity in IT. But that wasn’t the case. These leaders see progress ahead and I will conclude with one leader’s hopeful outlook for more diversity ahead:

“I’ve worked in technology for several decades, witnessing time and again how powerful diversity can be in driving innovation and creativity. For organizations seeking to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles, my advice is to be open-minded and know that bringing different perspectives to the table can only help you in achieving your goals. I’m encouraged that I’ve seen this change over time and seen the fruits of it.”

Catherine Devine, CDO,
American Museum of Natural History, New York

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

SUBSCRIBE! Get the best of CIO delivered to your email inbox.