How To Get More Women Executives in IT

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How do we get more women executives in IT? Use tactics from the NFL and a financial services firm.

By Rebecca Parsons (CTO, ThoughtWorks)

In general, when you look at statistics for women in advanced tech careers, at every stage in the pipeline -from undergrad to grad to into the workforce, as well as junior to management to upper management- you have a significant drop-off in women continuing to pursue these opportunities. If you look at the numbers, you see a limited and shrinking pipeline. Women also drop out at a greater rate than men.

The technology industry is still very much male-dominated, but it is significantly better than what it once was. We haven’t yet figured out how to change this culture, but are we starting to see more women taking on IT leadership roles. There are several qualified women and many more who are up-and-coming, but organizations often don’t look hard enough. People may not intentionally exclude women, but if their immediate circles don’t include women, they don’t go out to find them.

One of the ways to increase women in executive IT positions is to make sure people who are sourcing these positions are doing so as broadly as possible. One interesting example is from the NFL when several years ago, the league put in a requirement that the hiring pool for head coaches had to include African-Americans. Subsequently, the number of African-American head coaches significantly increased. Organizations should have to make sure their hiring pool includes women.

Another example comes from a financial services firm. This organization was disappointed at the level of women in the director and senior director positions.  To change this, they developed a book containing the background of all the women at the feeder level to the director level, as well as the current directors.  All new positions at the director and senior level were matched against the book to select qualified women. These women were subsequently included in the pool for the positions. That was it. No quotas, no pressure; just the requirement to look outside the pool of usual suspects.  Like the NFL coaches, the representation of women increased significantly in only two years. To me, these examples demonstrate the power of intentional sourcing.

At ThoughtWorks, we tell our search firms, “Don’t come back with just a list of male candidates.” Many organizations don’t like to do that. There is quite often internal pressure to hire the first qualified person. If faced with a perfectly qualified man, they will go head and hire him. But in fact, their search could include qualified women, which will ensure more qualified women are in IT.

Additionally, as you get to more senior roles, it is important to look not just for mentorship but also, sponsorship. Women are over mentored and under sponsored. They need sponsors who can navigate the politics of the organization, and who will throw out the name of a qualified woman for an opening. This *means sponsoring mid-level candidates, *so they can to move up to the senior ranks. *It also means speaking out in a meeting to say, “Hey, why don’t you consider this woman as well?” Sponsors truly advocate on their behalf.

Something very interesting occurred during a recent study at Princeton with blind orchestra auditions.  It displayed how women in orchestras significantly increased when the identities of the musicians auditioning were concealed. It was simply putting a curtain in front of the auditions, and more women were included in the orchestra. Again, there were no quotas, and no pressure to hire women. These examples show how we do not yet have a level playing field, and they also show that simple solutions can make a significant impact on the representation of women.

The industry today is a far more acceptable place then when I started, but people are still in shock when they hear of a woman CTO. It is still unusual to see a woman in my position. There are not enough women in IT, but what’s the right number? The goal is for IT to be seen as accepting of anyone with a passion for technology.  For this to happen, it is crucial for those who are in IT leadership positions to be role models for others, and more public with their position. Once the shock of seeing a woman CTO goes away, and men begin to recognize and champion women technologists, women executives will increase.

How else do we get more women execs in IT?

 

rebecca-parsons-profile About the guest blogger: Dr. Rebecca Parsons is ThoughtWorks' Chief Technology Officer. She has more than 20 years' application development experience, in industries ranging from telecommunications to emergent internet services. Rebecca has published in both language and artificial intelligence publications, served on numerous program committees, and reviews for several journals.