I facilitated a posh CIO dinner earlier this week of 23 male CIOs and one female. The conversation raged around the future of CIO in the digital economy but when our female CIO had to leave, slightly earlier than the published end time, one of the other guests congratulated her on being there at all and called for a round of applause: which she graciously acknowledged in a queenly way.
The guest who called for the applause was well-intentioned and I suspect everyone else joined in through a mix of support and awkwardness. Knowing her though, I’m certain that our female CIO would have absolutely hated it, feeling that having made it in a man’s world against the odds she requires no special treatment or acknowledgement and only wants to be judged on her skills and contribution.
My colleague Helen Toogood, formerly VP of New Ways of Working at Unilever and who has studied the issue more closely than anyone else I know, runs our “Talented Women in IT” development workshop. She points out that most men and even some women are missing the point by not addressing the talent angle.
She points out that most often we see the lack of women in corporate leadership as a minority or diversity problem. If we do that the solution becomes a matter of opening up the ranks to increase their numbers rather than considering what is missing at the top because of their lack. If we do that we quickly focus on the different values, skills and approaches that women usually bring, and opening up our teams to that can create a culture that is better balanced and more supportive of individuality and scarce talent in both sexes.
I believe most people can see the logic of this, but the problem endures and we persist in squandering and mismanaging female talent in IT leadership. Last week we completed the first phase of an in-company CIO Academy for a global financial services company. We had the top 14 of their next generation IT leaders: 6 nationalities, 13 men and one woman. This is perfectly usual. We have recently run two similar Academy courses for another of our global clients with 10 next generation leaders on each: 5 nationalities, 9 men and 1 woman.
You might assume that female CIOs (there are quite a few of them around) are more attuned to the problem and much more aware of talent drain this creates. In my experience this is not generally the case. Many talented women assume that their own success (tough though it was) is proof that women with the right stuff can achieve as much as their male counterparts. They appear unaware that they are conforming to the prevailing male dominated culture and may have subverted some of their greatest strengths. They can sometimes appear strangely unsympathetic to their female subordinates.
Actually, it comes down to individual CIOs, and others in corporate leadership. Two of the very best CIOs I have worked with over the last 10 years, both male, consider it their greatest achievement to have brought through the largest number of female FTSE CIOs into their major roles (4 and 5 respectively, and still counting). They discovered quite early that the female talent pool is less over-fished than its depleted male counterpart; their own careers flourished partly because of it.
And finally, Dame Steve Shirley, founder of F International (which floated as Xansa) and probably the greatest IT leader I have ever worked with personally, based her whole business model on “resting” female talent. These were women with small children who needed to work flexible hours and from home long before this was fashionable and when it was barely technically feasible. Her greatest achievement in business was the day she made 17 of her earliest business partners millionaires, most of them women.
You will have talented female IT leaders in your team and they may be hiding their issues from you. They will cope but they will pay a price for it in suppressing some of their greatest qualities, and so will you. Take a look at our 24-hour workshop and consider what a terrific investment it would be for your company.
Brinley N. Platts | Chairman | CIODEVELOPMENT
M: 07973 745 640
Transforming IT executives into business leaders