Reaching the boardroom isn't the end of the battle

The challenges for female IT professionals to win a place on the board are well documented. The good news is that things are improving… slowly. But those women who gain a seat too often realise that is only the start of the battle. By guest blogger Isobel Brown, client relationship director at IT recruitment specialists Modis.

Last week Sheryl Sandberg finally secured her seat in the Facebook boardroom. She had been the company’s Chief Operating Officer since leaving Google in 2008. Facebook may pride itself on being a forward-thinking company, but it took eight years to appoint its first female board member, and four years to acknowledge Sandberg as the right candidate. Making it into the board room is an important milestone, but winning the room’s respect will be Sandberg’s next and perhaps equally arduous battle.

Gaining authority in the boardroom can be a struggle for any professional – male or female. They must be confident in their position, understand the dynamic, and be willing to challenge it. But too often, women feel they have to overcome old, invalid stereotypes and justify their presence, instead of focusing on their unique attributes and bringing a fresh perspective to the boardroom.

Many middle-aged men who still dominate boardrooms view women, at the back of their minds, as less technologically-minded and financially astute than men. (This doesn’t come down to misogyny. 

Studieshave shown that, at the back of their minds, many women agree.) No-one can deny that there are fewer women than men working in technical fields – according to the latest ONS figures from August 2011, less than 16% of IT professionals are female. The reasons for this imbalance are still debated, but in my experience, it is less a question of technical capability and more about the industry’s traditional lack of appeal for young women.

But with technology now a driving force in many businesses, that situation is changing. The time when IT professionals were purely technical experts isolated from commercial decisions has passed. In a recent Modis survey, Generation IT 2012, 45% of IT leaders said they value most highly those hybrid practitioners who can exhibit all-round business understanding alongside technical excellence. 90% said communications skills were vital for future IT leaders. In the 21st century, the model IT professional – from the junior ranks to the boardroom – needs a broad suite of business skills, ranging from technical knowledge to softer skills. Women are ideally placed to embody this.

Sandberg and female board members should not only be unquestioningly confident in their technical abilities, but where they can add real value is by bringing a different perspective to the boardroom. In part as a woman, but mostly just as an individual with different experience, working practices and outlook on the business. There are inspiring women already doing just this in the corporate world – from Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, to Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard. Women in the boardroom should not be defined by fighting stereotypes, but make the most of a wide range of other skills that have helped them reach the top. These broader skills are increasingly valued in a modern IT professional, and in a modern boardroom.