Women CIOs: Making The Cut

By Allen Bernard

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In the 1970s, 1980s and even up until the early 1990s, most CIOs were men. Today, men still dominate the upper levels of IT management, but women are catching up and, if the number of women entering the IT pipeline continues at its present rate, there's no end in site.

Lucent Technologies, Office Depot, Radio Shack, all have women CIOs. Campbell's Soup, Gillette, and Johnson & Johnson have women CIOs. The IT departments of Avon, Citrix and Del Monte Fresh are run by women.

The list is long and getting longer by the day as more companies look to fill upper management positions with "diversity" candidates, said Bob Molnar, a former Fortune 500 CIO and now a partner at Highland Partners running its IT executive search division.

"I think companies are just becoming much more modern in their thinking about these senior-level positions," he said.

According to Highland's in-house numbers for the most recent quarter, based on promotions and new hires, 27% of all CIO positions nationwide were filled by diversity candidates. Of this number, at 15% to 20%, women, by far, make up the majority, said Molnar.

Rich Brennen, managing director of Spencer Stuart's IT placement practice, also places more women in the CIO's job than ever before. Of the major searches Brennen concluded in the last three years, 25% of those jobs went to women. This is way up from the late 1970s when he went from CIO's door to CIO's door as a salesman for IBM. Back then, if a CIO was female, he was surprised, he said.

Calling for Diversity

The why's and what for's of this trend seem to revolve around two converging lines: Company's are actively searching out diversity candidates for top positions, and there are more qualified diversity candidates available today than ever before.

"I've been doing this for 10 years and I would say over the last couple of years the female CIO has become just part of the norm," said Brennen. "It's not unusual."

While companies cannot specify they want a women in the top IT position (that would be reverse discrimination), both Molnar and Brennen say their clients stress diversity as one of their most important search parameters. And, perhaps, more importantly, neither are having a difficult time fulfilling this requirement.

As time goes on their jobs should get easier. A look further down the IT staffing ladder shows women there in abundance and this will lead to more women becoming CIOs in the future, said Patty Morrison, CIO of Office Depot.

"It's not a profession that skews one way or another (anymore)," she said, "like nursing and teaching that would skew very heavily to female and engineering that may skew more heavily to males. For IT at least, what I see from a pipeline standpoint, it's pretty even."

North and South

This trend, however, may not be evenly split geographically, said Victoria Usherenko a managing partner at Liaison IT, a boutique IT staffing firm in south Florida. For an upcoming conference of the group IT Women, she has found it a challenge to locate CIOs in her neck of the woods. Also, through the grapevine, she has heard there are more female CIOs in the east and mid-Atlantic states than in Florida.

"The information we're receiving from them is they see more women in those roles in New York, Pennsylvania, the east coast, than you find in the southeast," she said.

Bachelors and Bachelorettes

Interestingly, Molnar notes, this trend does not necessarily begin in college. A degree in computer science or software engineering, while certainly a good start to an IT career, is not a prerequisite for the CIO's job. Experience in IT environments is more important. Psychology, for example, is a very common degree held by CIOs.

Morrison's past experience and education reflects this. Graduating with a liberal arts degree, she spent the early part of her career in various non-IT jobs but eventually landed there and found a perfect fit.

"I never started out with any intention of being a CIO," she said. "I like marketing and analytics and sales and that kind of stuff and I had a teaching degree as well. That's where I was headed and I happened to land in an IT function because of the specialty I brought and have loved being in IT ever since."

All expect this trend to continue as women become more involved in IT in one way or another. And as the CIO's job continues its evolution from strictly a tech job to one that requires greater business skills and savvy, diversity candidates in general and women in particular will increasingly find themselves called up to fill these diverse and critical roles.