Women in IT: No longer a nice-to-have

As pressure to diversify rachets up, companies are reaching out to lure women into IT. Here’s how to go about it

If you’re in IT -- and reading this article about women in IT – the odds are that you’re male. After all, just 24% of the U.S. IT workforce is female, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, quite a fall from its high point of 36% in 1991, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. This is at a time when women make up more than half (57%) of the professional U.S. workforce.

But odds are that you’ll keep reading, as male IT executives increasingly seem to care about encouraging women to join the profession. In a recent study by Harvey Nash, nearly three-quarters (71%) of CIOs globally said they recognized the gender imbalance in their organizations.

The trend is also seen outside of IT, at the highest ranks of corporate professionals: A report by Institutional Shareholder Services from this fall found that the percentage of women nominated for boards at large U.S. companies has doubled since 2008, to 30% this year.

It’s noteworthy that there are fewer women, on average, on the boards of software and services companies (16.3%) and hardware and equipment companies (13.6%) than the S&P 500 average, which is 18.7%, up from 16.3% in 2011. 

Nevertheless, the reason for the interest in attracting more women into technology is likely tied to the push for diversity in general. “Managers frequently mention to me that diverse IT teams foster greater innovation and collaboration, which is so important for the digital age,” says Harvey Nash, CEO of the namesake recruiting firm in a blog post.

Here are four ways in which IT organizations can attract and retain women professionals and help them flourish in their careers once there.

1. It starts with a change in attitude: recognize that hiring women in good for the bottom line.

More companies realize that attracting women to the company is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a business imperative, says Colleen Doherty, assistant vice-president in human resources at Cognizant Technology Solutions. “A lack of diversity will get a business nowhere fast, in terms of growth and innovation,” Doherty says.

There is no end to the studies verifying exactly that point. According to Fortune Magazine’s analysis of data from Factset Research Systems, the financial results of the biggest companies in the U.S. with female CEOs beat the stock market, averaging a return of 103.4% during the woman’s tenure, compared with the average 69.5% return for the S&P 500 stock index over the same period. Revenue also flourished; the 51 companies in the Fortune 1000 with a female CEO, generated 7% of the total revenue for the entire group. Studies by Credit Suisse Research and McKinsey & Co. show similar results of companies with women on their boards performing better than those with all-male boards.

Not to mention, Doherty says, clients and partners increasingly expect to see a diverse workforce in the companies they do business with and are even putting diversity questions in their RFPs. “The global awareness about diversity is at a fever pitch,” she says.

2. Beef up recruiting efforts, both internally and externally

With that ammunition, IT organizations can make a push to establish internal groups that support their women professionals, or at the very least, identify external groups for them to join. At Cognizant, Doherty formed Women Empowered as part of the company’s larger diversity and inclusion initiative. The group – which has expanded globally in the five years of its existence – aims to attract, retain, develop, communicate with and create networking opportunities for women in the company.

In addition to recruiting efforts, the group sponsors “lunch and learns,” mentor programs, meetings, external speakers and speaking events with clients. There is a Women Empowered newsletter, and Doherty is working to create an app for women to download on their mobile devices. The trends at Cognizant are improving, Doherty says, as the company is seeing more women at the associate director, director and vice-president levels now than in 2012.

External groups for supporting women professionals abound. Recruiter Harvey Nash hosts three groups: one intended to attract college and high school women into the profession; one to support pre-executive women in their IT careers; and one for women in senior IT leadership roles. CompTIA also hosts the Advancing Women in IT community, as well as an online resource center for women entering the profession or desiring to advance their careers.

3. 'It takes women to hire women’, so give current female IT workers a larger role in recruiting and retention

Anecdotal evidence suggests that women workers will tend to feel most comfortable in companies in which women are already present. When Doherty first joined Cognizant five years ago, she says, “I was much more comfortable having a conversation with [chief finanial officer] Karen McLoughlin than a male executive at that time,” she says. “It takes women to hire women, and having a ‘Karen’ in the position she was in was critical to making this work.”

For this and other reasons, “proactive succession planning to develop the next generation of female IT leaders is essential if meaningful change is to be achieved,” concludes the Harvey Nash report. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that sometimes women need more encouragement than men to move to that next level. Scott Seese, CIO at eBay, for example, says he is passionate about developing the next generation of women leaders at the company and has begun holding events to encourage the professional growth of women in the organization.

4. Think long term: That young woman you hire today could be your CIO down the road.

According to the Harvey Nash survey, the CIO of the future will look quite different from today, if you consider that the CIO of tomorrow is coming from the ranks IT workers who are in their 20s and 30s. While just 7% of this year’s survey respondents were female, for instance, representing a drop of 2% from the year before, that trend is not likely to continue. When these IT managers, senior architects, analysts and associate directors mature into leadership roles, the recruiting firm estimates that 13% of CIOs will be women.

Whether your goal is to increase innovation, boost profitability, improve collaboration or simply have your IT organization better reflect the workplace as a whole, attracting and retaining women professionals is clearly a move toward the future.

Brandel is a freelance writer. She can be reached at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This story, "Women in IT: No longer a nice-to-have" was originally published by Network World.


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