GUEST BLOG: Women on the IT ladder - is CIO the next step?

In this contributed blog post Lisa Heneghan, head of UK CIO Advisory at KPMG UK, discusses how the changing demands placed on CIOs may lead to more women in the c-suite

The recent Harvey Nash/KPMG global CIO survey found the number of women in senior IT leadership roles has risen by a third in the last year, with a third of CIOs also reporting that they have a formal diversity initiative in place.

With Theresa May set to become the second ever female Prime Minister in the UK and the number of women on FTSE 100 boards rising to 26%, some would say that the IT sector is lagging behind in terms of representation at the top level.

However, the number of women in IT leadership roles is in fact improving. In the last two years, around 200 organisations have appointed more women into senior IT positions and this should be recognised as progress.

This inevitably raises the question of why there are now more women than ever taking up senior roles in the tech industry. One of the key factors is the CIO role is changing and that is playing into the hands of women. IT is no longer about managing castles of servers, it is about being an enabler and business strategist. This requires very different attributes, which women have inherently.

Female attributes such as collaboration, being able to manage suppliers and partners to deliver solutions, managing a closer relationship with business functions, marketing, sales and driving consensus amongst teams are all key skills for the modern CIO. Women are also strong at communicating and building relationships, and their emotional intelligence enables them to understand and respond to stakeholders’ needs.

However, technical IT skills continue to dominate in the competition for advancement, and skills like collaboration and strategic planning are still being overlooked. So many talented women often decide that rather than persist in a culture in which they face systemic obstacles, it is time to look elsewhere.

This issue varies from country to country. For instance, our CIO survey found that the number of women in IT leadership in the UK lags slightly behind the global average (11%). Norway, the only country with women occupying over 25% of senior IT roles, is well known for having a quota system for getting more women on company boards. Although quotas are clearly effective, bringing more women into the global tech industry is a much more complex issue.

I believe that having role models at the top level and in the public eye is vitally important. People like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise are giving women in the industry visible figures to aspire to and help change the perception of tech as ‘a man’s world’.

More female role models will naturally inspire more young women to take up technology education and in the future push for a career in IT. But, women require diversity programmes that support in multiple ways throughout their career.

At KPMG we have a programme called ‘IT’s Her Future’ where we focus on supporting and advancing women in technology by providing sponsorship, mentoring, leadership development and technical confidence. We look to inspire women to take leading roles, and empower them to be architects of change across the technology industry. We are already seeing a year-on-year increase in representation of women within Technology Advisory, and we’re doing many exciting things to show our female practitioners that a career in technology will allow them to grow and realise their full potential.

These sorts of initiatives will help in facilitating women’s rise to the top. I believe that the ‘support’ element could have a significant impact on retention. And if you can retain your talented women, you can then start to help move them to the top.