Less than one fifth of Fortune 500 CIOs are female, research finds
CIOs and gender diversity: are we doing enough for women in tech?
Recent research by talent creation experts Revolent has found that just 19.2% of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) working at Fortune 500 companies currently identify as female, with the average length of tenure for women set at around 3 years and 3 months, a full year and a half shorter than their male counterparts.
Revolent specialises in creating new cloud professionals to solve the growing skills gap in tech by diversifying the talent pool and making lucrative jobs in niche technology markets accessible to all. With a management team comprised of over 50% women, and around 30% of Revols identifying as female, the research was conducted as part of the organisation’s wider diversity and inclusion mission. The campaign set out to take a closer look at the gender gap in the technology sector, focussing specifically on the role of the CIO.
Drawing on publicly available data collected through LinkedIn, the team at Revolent used these findings to investigate potential barriers to women in tech, and what the industry can do to continue to narrow the gender gap in the industry.
The research was conducted by finding job titles through LinkedIn and company websites. Unless stated otherwise in pronouns, the list of CIO’s that were found at the Fortune 500 companies were split into a male and female list. Length of tenure was based off LinkedIn data and then calculated into a mean average.
All information correct as of April 2021.
Where are the women in tech?
The data suggests that women in tech are not reaching CIO level, primarily because they are dropping out of the industry. The average age of individuals working in CIO positions is 55; however, an alarming 50% of women are dropping off the tech career ladder by the age of 35, a rate 45% higher than their male counterparts and 30% higher than other types of roles. There are already studies to suggest the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this number, however the full impact of this is still to be seen.
The gender gap in tech is now a widely documented issue, and while there have been positive steps towards equality in the sector, the numbers found by Revolent strongly suggest that there’s more work needed to truly level the playing field. Getting young women and girls into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects at formal education level remains a struggle, with decades of culturally-ingrained sexism still to be overcome.
“In most of the organisations I have worked with there aren’t any formal or centrally-led initiatives specifically supporting women. It actually feels as though equality and parity for women in the workplace has fallen off the agenda in most organisations. This may be because we have seen small increases at the most senior levels so the issue is somewhat masked. The problem is most prevalent in the middle layers of the organisation, which is where a pipeline challenge comes into play. This gap and lack of available female talent then has a knock-on effect contributing to the slow rise in female CIOs, as does the perceived readiness of those women to proceed to C-Suite.”
The result of this historical lack of female representation in STEM is that, while there may be more roles available to skilled women in tech today, there is now a scarcity issue when it comes to hiring, according to Revolent’s CIO, Mark Hill:
“The demand for female talent at the moment is larger than the available supply, which could be a factor in why we’re still seeing more men fill CIO roles or stay in that role longer. In over two decades in the IT industry, I have personally worked with just two female CIOs. But were they around at the beginning of my career? No. At the start of my career, there were no women in tech for the first 10 years or so. Then things started to change, but women seemed to be restricted to support or Business Analyst roles. There were barely any female developers, and certainly none on the infrastructure side. But this is changing rapidly, and more women are coming into technical roles, which is a welcome sight.”
According to Accenture’s ‘Resetting Tech Culture’ report, if all companies championed diversity and inclusion equally as well as the top 20% do, then we could help retain a staggering 1.4 million women in tech by 2030.
One key part of levelling the playing field is looking at the impact of parenthood on women, in particular. Simply offering parental leave to both men and women, for instance, and normalising the former actually taking that leave, could see an incredible 385,000 women retained across the industry.
The bigger picture: diversity and AI
The lack of diversity in senior tech roles becomes yet more critical in the context of Artificial Intelligence (AI). If the majority of IT leaders and the teams supporting them are men, the risk of unconscious bias seeping into potentially life-altering code increases massively.
If, for example, a bank’s loan-approval AI is created by a predominantly male team, there could be a bias against females built into it. We’ve seen this happen before, after all. In 2019, Apple’s credit card was operating on algorithms that were inherently biased against women, with Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) being offered a credit limit almost ten times higher than his wife in one staggering example.
And this issue isn’t exclusive to gender. Concerns around the AI used on Google phones were raised when it failed to recognise black males. The reason? The black community was not involved in the development of that AI, creating a bias which could have a devastating effect on society as a whole.
The great disconnect in tech
There is no doubt that diverse teams benefit companies. The evidence is there, so why are we still seeing such a disconnect globally? Mark Hill suggests it could be down to company culture.
“More gender diverse teams are better than all-male teams by far. It changes the dynamic, creating a kaleidoscope of perspectives and experiences, and changes the culture completely,” says Mark. “But this requires a huge culture shift quite often to create an environment that is inclusive for people to come into, not just for women, but across all underrepresented groups.”
There’s no magic bullet for changing company culture; it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a series of gradual, calculated changes, and championing of ED&I initiatives from board-level down. So the question is, how do we get this culture shift in motion?
From huge, established businesses to enthusiastic start-ups, the answer lies in taking action and making sure historically marginalised groups have a safe space to voice their concerns, share their experiences, and reach positions where they can start to truly make a difference.
“This was a huge focus for our team and I’m really proud of the culture we’ve created,” explains Nabila Salem, President of Revolent. “We started by conducting a series of roundtables to encourage people to talk about their experiences in a safe environment, to share how we can make things better with a focus of being constructive, while allowing people to be as honest as they could be.”
But in structured situations like these, people aren’t always ready to share their thoughts right off the bat. To spark discussion and put participants at ease, Nabila recommends presenting the group with a statement that individuals can engage with. The tendency here is that people will soon start to share their experiences and views as they relate to that particular statement. The conversation evolves naturally from there, with guidance from those leading the roundtable.
“A lot of the time, for the men in the room, especially those for whom this is their first job in tech, we would be discussing issues they’ve not thought about as it’s not their lived experience. And creating that visibility is valuable. It creates a sense of empathy among the team, and fosters a better understanding of what people need to feel heard and really thrive in their roles.”
Next steps: how we can support women in tech
There needs to be more targeted work done to not only bring women into the industry, but make them feel welcome, supported, and empowered to progress into these senior roles, all the way up to CIO if that’s the ultimate career goal.
“Be mindful of which opportunities you may be giving to members of your team, ensuring these are in the best interest of that colleague from the perspective of progression and establishing credibility,” highlights Rachel Jones. “Are the opportunities you are directing at your female colleagues going to give them the best chance to achieve leadership credibility?”
If women are experiencing barriers in their return to work in tech, whether that’s as a result of unequal distribution of childcare duties or otherwise, then the onus is on us to help them navigate those waters. When women are marginalised like this, the entire ecosystem loses valuable talent.
Revolent are suggesting three key ways the tech industry can rally to support women across the ecosystem:
From the perspective of recruitment, we need to actively hire more women and increase visibility of women in tech for young girls while they’re still at school dreaming of what they want to be one day. Simply put: if they can’t see it, they can’t be it.
This, combined with an in-house mentoring program would also give women the support they need to not only kick start their career journey, but navigate the rocky road to those senior roles.
Take a deep dive into your hiring practices, with a keen eye on the kind of language you’re using on job descriptions. You might not know it, but some words are gendered. If you’re looking for a ‘ninja’ or ‘rockstar’ in your job ads, for example, you might find the ratio of applicants skewed in favour of men. To attract a more diverse pool and especially women consider using tools like Textio to help you analyse the language in your job descriptions, and find a diversity hiring partner with the specialist skills you need to create a richer, fairer talent pipeline.
Be a champion
The key to long-lasting change is inclusive leadership. That means fostering a company culture where everyone is not only heard, but feels safe and able to speak about their experiences, issues, and aspirations for diversity and inclusion in your organisation. It’s about showing your commitment—as a company and an individual—to feel valued and like they belong. From attending training to educating employees and asking for feedback on what you can do better, being a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion will not only benefit your workforce, but the wider industry and ultimately society as a whole.
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