Women CIOs break the glass barrier, say mentorship can help

Women CIOs are not as rare as they used to be. Yet, the numbers are still small. Organizations should create support ecosystem and encourage mentorship, say top women CIOs in our Women’s Day Special.

Women CIOs break the glass barrier, say mentorship can help  - CIO & Leader
Even though the topic of gender diversity in technology has received much attention in the boardroom and many organizations are taking steps to improve C-suite diversity, it is no secret that the number of women in technology leadership roles continues to be abysmally low. According to a Nasscom study in 2018, India’s technology industry currently employs nearly 3.8 million people, of which nearly 1.3 million or 34% are women. This number is much higher than the overall female share (24%) in India’s total workforce. However, the concern is while over 51% of entry level jobs are taken up by women, only over 25% of women reach managerial positions and less than 1% is in the C-suite.
 
So, how does that pan out for the women in technology who are in the C-suite, namely the Chief Information Officers (CIOs)? 
 
The number is still small. But unlike say just five years back, today, there is a critical mass of women CIOs. On this International Women’s Day, we try to find out why it is so and if they have faced challenges being women, while carrying out the responsibilities and growing through the ranks. 
 
Challenges abound
The biggest, challenge, according to Priya Dar, CIO, Godfrey Phillips India is lack of enough women in C-level positions.
 
“The challenge is that there aren’t enough of us, be it in the boardrooms or at CXO level, or as HODs and so on. So, we need more presence of women among the decision makers. We need to recruit more women, give women more responsibility and groom women for that seat on the board,” she says. 
 
Priya Dar, CIO, Godfrey Phillips

The challenge is that there aren’t enough of us, be it in the boardrooms or at CXO level, says Priya Dar, CIO, Godfrey Phillips

In most cases, it is seen that networking opportunities and promotions go to men in tech careers at a higher rate than to women. Likewise, company events and trade gatherings often provide platforms where male tech workers exhibit sexist attitudes and behaviors toward their female colleagues, even questioning their domain knowledge. 
 
“While women can overcome gender-based challenges in IT by focusing on their skills and staying current with industry trends, the cultural norms still need to change in employment, family and educational settings,” says Dar, adding that a change in mindset would help eliminate the problem of gender discrimination, so every woman can feel confident, supported and safe as they pursue their dreams.
 
Many organizations are yet to recognize, harness and embrace the different lenses and approaches offered by a diversified workforce, says Aruna Rao, CTO, Kotak Mahindra Bank
 
Aruna Rao, CTO at Kotak Mahindra Bank and Group Companies agrees that societal pressure is the sole family caretaker while managing a high pressure career–preventing many Indian women from staying and thriving in technical roles. “The expectations of being a wife and mother leave little time to develop and hone an ambitious career in technology,” she says.
 
Businesses are not yet sensitized about the need for diversity. “Many organizations are yet to recognize, harness and embrace the different lenses and approaches offered by a diversified workforce. This natural tendency to 'stick to the comfort zone' of similar employees often leads to limited opportunities for women in the workplace and in senior roles,” says Rao.
 
She also points out that female leaders continue to face societal and self imposed biases which can cause them to even avoid coming to the table or keeping a distance in their careers. 
 
The issues that Rao and Dar highlight are corporate issues in leveraging women per se and are not restricted to technology roles. 
 
I am not sure why we see many more women in HR, Marketing, and Compliance even Finance at least in the starting positions, but not in IT, says Nirita Bose, Head-IT, Axis Asset Management Company
 
But Nirita Bose, Head-IT, Axis Asset Management Company sees lesser number of women coming to IT. She says when her company is hiring for IT, she sees very few applications from women. 
 
“I am not sure why we see many more women in HR, Marketing, and Compliance even Finance at least in the starting positions, but not in IT,” she says.
 
“I think people perceive IT to be a very male dominated area. And of course the obvious pressures of work life balance take a toll as you move up the rungs. I think we need to build a more positive perception of the IT field to encourage more women to join,” she adds.
 
But just sensitization and pep talk may only help to some extent. The organizations, which have majority of male employees over the years, are not geared up with the right support system to actually convince women to, say come back, say after a gap. 
 

A strong supporting mechanism and encouragement from colleagues play a big role for women getting back into the workplace and to rise to senior levels, says Lisa Zinn, Group Head, Global IT & Business Services at Apollo Tyres

“A strong supporting mechanism and encouragement from colleagues play a big role for women getting back into the workplace and to rise to senior levels which otherwise can become the biggest challenge,” says Lisa Zinn, Group Head, Global IT & Business Services at Apollo Tyres. 
 
It is time organizations actively implemented programs that encourage women to join back in the workforce, after a gap, or a maternity leave. 
 
According to Rao, large percentage of women takes up STEM education in India, and gets recruited from the campus.  However, the number of women who drop off at middle management levels continue to be high.  “Improved mentorship programs can help in decreasing this. Also, more flexi-hours and work from home programs provides these women leaders stay in the corporate world during the years that they need more support for work-life balance,” she says.
 
A study by McKinsey found that organizations that have diversity in the executive committees posted operating profits that were 56% higher than organizations with male only executive committees; hence a diverse work force makes good economic sense. The way forward for enterprises is to recognize this and institute women friendly policies and measures.
 
Mentoring can create the difference
Despite challenges, most women CIOs say that they can get ample opportunities to stand out from the crowd.
 
With the shift in the CIO role where IT is required to drive digital business initiatives, three things that clearly come out as strong lessons are: women CIOs should constantly upgrade their skills - toying with different technologies, including the latest disruptive ones that suit their business needs; choose a mentor or a trusted confidante who can help her grow more quickly in her career; and finally, effectively communicate, or in other words articulate their IT specific needs that can bring to table greater business value.
 
The corporate world is always looking for the best talent in technology and in leadership, believes Rao. She asserts, “One needs to constantly up-skill and have the thirst for knowledge, and this is particularly true for technology professionals.  The right opportunities will always be available for the best candidate, woman or man.” 
 
However, hard skills can only take you this much and not more. To succeed, most women CIOs believe that mentoring does play a very important role. 
 
Mentoring isn’t just about bringing talent along so that they understand the workflow and process norms of a company; it’s about culture and nuances of learning a profession, communication skills, leadership skills and growth as a professional and as a person. It’s also about a building a deeper connection with someone who has ‘been there, done that’ and lived to tell the tale. The most successful mentoring relationships foster mutual respect, trust, communication and career growth, believe experts.
 
For women to be more empowered in the workplace, it is crucial to have structured mentorships where women can learn from each other as well as expert men in the field. 
 
Emphasizing the importance of mentoring, Zinn says, “An organizational system of strong male and female mentors is needed to coach women through the career journey, teaching them to leverage their own core talents. This coaching model should also include awareness training to line managers of how soft skills can reflect differently between men and women hence enabling them to judge talent and potential on an equal scale across the sexes.”
 
“It is important therefore for women CIOs to seek out strong mentors, both male and female, who can guide and encourage your growth and remind you of your strengths and aspirations and also nurture relationships, personally and professionally, which will support and grow you through your career journey,” tips Zinn.
 
Dar too opines mentoring is the key to get more women into leadership roles. Mentors are helpful because, in addition to expertise in their field, they have a network of business professionals and, most importantly, they are willing to share what and who they know. People who mentor are likely to have had mentors at some point who helped them understand their industry better, hone their strengths or sharpen skills.
 
Often times, the expectation from CEOs and others across the business is that their women CIOs will step up and embrace the leadership reins. It’s a matter of CIOs accepting the challenge of being both an advising expert and change leader. Communication plays a vital role here.
 
Women CIOs, who are helping accelerate the digital journey within their enterprise, should make sure that they develop a vision for their organization, just like their male counterparts. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it they should articulate that vision before the management. Communicating assertively is an area where women CIOs often falter. As Rao offers a piece of advice to technology leaders, “Women should think of themselves as leaders and CIOs, not just female CIOs.”  
 
Women CIOs should spend time with the management at executive committee meetings. They should associate with the clients and prospects to stay relevant to business. This will help them develop a strategic influence. Towards this end, Zinn believes, budding women CIOs and IT leaders should commit to career goals and stay true to themselves.
 
The times, they are changing
While the representation of women in the CIO community has been increasing over the years, much is left to be done. With ‘digital’ taking the center stage and technologies such as cloud, big data, AI and IoT becoming increasingly mainstream, one can clearly see a big shift in the CIO’s role today, which essentially is gender neutral.
 
A recent study by consulting firm Deloitte brings some good news to women technology chiefs, stating that the percentage of women CIOs is far higher than that of female CEOs and CFOs. The Deloitte analysts reasoned that this was evident because technology teams can benefit from women’s unique combination of leadership skills, such as empathy, flexibility, persuasiveness, assertiveness and risk taking.
 
Likewise, Tina Nunno, VP and Gartner fellow, in her research, notes that while there are positive similarities between women and men in the CIO role, as they share similar reporting lines, priorities and technical challenges in the enterprise, a few variations in gender data show that women are embracing technology trends in the same way as their male counterparts and, in some cases, even more so and this is especially true in the digital era.
 
It is therefore little surprise that despite being dominated by their male counterparts for decades, women CIOs today are bouncing back today. They aren't just maintaining the status quo and ‘keeping the lights on’. Many are driving innovation at their organizations with projects focused on digital transformation and other disruptive technologies, helping in transforming IT from a cost center into a revenue driver, playing a decisive role at the board level and formulating strategy for their organizations. 
 
As Melissa Woo, CIO at University of Oregon, mentions in a recent report, “As female CIOs, we have to be visible, approachable and make sure we're working within our communities to show other women that they can do it, and we support them.” 
 

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