What Makes Women in Technology Great CIOs

October 05, 2020

Contributor: Susan Moore

The shift to digital business is aligning the stars for women in technology who aspire to be a CIO. How can more female leaders rise to the top?

Expectations of the CIO are changing. C-suite executives now expect CIOs to shape the digital business vision and participate in or lead the digital transformation journey.

These new expectations mean that a balance between traditional leadership traits such as strategic thinking, vision and risk taking (often perceived as “masculine”) and traits such as collaboration, coaching and team building (often perceived as “feminine”) is now highly desirable.

“ Resist the tendency to prove your technical skills”

Women should be at an advantage in the new business environment, yet only 11% of CIOs are women. Corporate culture is slow to change, especially in a male-dominated C-suite.

“Women CIOs are often the first female C-level executive beyond the chief human resources officer, and they do face unique challenges,” says Deb Curtis, VP Analyst at Gartner. 

“In addition to wearing the CIO hat, they must be prepared to carry the torch for advancing diversity efforts to influence corporate culture, as well as fulfill the long-standing role model vacancy for other women in tech,” she says.

Read more: 3 Actions for the New CIO

How women in technology build trust

Women in technology can prepare for success by demonstrating both traditional leadership skills and high emotional intelligence. Digital CIOs can delegate day-to-day IT operations to their leadership teams and focus instead on building trust and strong business partnerships.

“I’ve had multiple female CIOs as bosses,” says the male successor to the female CIO of a government agency. “They’ve each been inspirational, empowering, approachable and empathetic. They’ve also consistently been tough as nails, with high expectations for me. That balance of traits helped me grow as a leader, especially in terms of my emotional intelligence to establish relationships and network with peers.”

Remember: Your experience qualified you

First-time women CIOs often feel pressure to return to school for additional technical training to prove their worth to C-suite peers.

“You’ve been hired for your strategic thinking and business vision, so resist the tendency to prove your technical skills,” Curtis says. “Instead, count on your staff to have the answers.”

Read more: The First 100 Days of the Office of the CIO

Gain support from a male colleague

Senior women in technology often view their hiring as a big win for workplace diversity and inclusion. They assume the C-suite wanted a fresh perspective, but the same peers who interviewed them later complain that they’re “pushing changes too hard,” faster than they are ready to accept.

“ To accelerate your transition to CIO, you may need an ally”

“From our client interactions, we conclude that many senior male executives are unprepared to embrace working with a female CIO as a peer,” says Curtis. “To accelerate your transition to CIO, you may need an ally.” 

Ask a male colleague from the hiring committee to play an active role and visibly support your leadership, diverse perspectives and alternative ideas, beyond reinforcing your qualifications and experience, especially in executive meetings and interactions.

Visible and proactive support from a male colleague can help you to chart the interpersonal dynamics of a predominantly male C-suite and ensure long-term cultural fit.

Read more: How to Combat Marginalizing Behaviors in the Workplace

Guide behavioral change at the top

Although diversity is embraced in the hiring of a female CIO, the same behavioral traits that contributed to their selection often trigger resistance from C-level male colleagues in day-to-day interactions. Any outspokenness, questioning and risk taking, seen initially as desirable, may be later perceived as offensive. 

When hitting roadblocks in interactions with C-suite peers, it can be helpful to remind your male peers of the reasons you were hired.

“ Finally, pick your battles”

Take time to learn the history, culture, business and C-suite peer personalities in the company and use what you learn to drive behavioral change, starting in the executive ranks. 

Finally, pick your battles. Although progress may seem slow, behavior changes at the C-suite level set the tone at the top and will accelerate change down through the organization. Support and encourage male C-suite peers to build on the first step they’ve taken by hiring you.

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Recommended resources for Gartner clients*:

Women CIOs Wear 3 Hats by Deb Curtis and Janelle Hill

*Note that some documents may not be available to all Gartner clients.

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