Why Aren't Females Aspiring to Be CIOs?

Why Aren't Females Aspiring to Be CIOs?

What the research shows and the opportunities that lie ahead

The higher education chief information officer role has origins that date back around three decades. This relatively nascent position is evolving at breakneck speed, adapting to the rapidly changing information technology landscape and a higher ed space also undergoing unprecedented change. Research conducted for my dissertation reveals that major IT industry developments such as IT consumerization—the bring your own device (BYOD) movement—cloud computing, and the information security suite of issues are all impacting the CIO role in profound ways. These issues are triggering the reallocation of time the typical higher education CIO spends in a normal work week and redefining the skill sets and attributes successful higher education CIOs need to possess.

The few annual studies examining the role of higher ed CIOs (namely, from The Leadership Board for CIOs and the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies) found only about one quarter are female. Tracking these studies over the last five years reveals that the percentage of females in the role gradually increased to that percentage and now has leveled off.

Behind the Numbers

Why isn’t the proportion of females in this role increasing? Interviews and focus groups with female CIOs reveal that the answer to this question is not obvious.
Some posit that, in the early days of the CIO in the 1980s, the information technology field was dominated by engineer-types, many of whom were graduates of computing science or electrical engineering programs. These individuals were largely males who were banded together in common professional and personal interests making it difficult for females to participate.

Others would argue this phenomenon is merely reflective of the low proportion of female senior executives in higher education. On most campuses, the CIO role has risen in prominence as a senior administrator due to its perceived strategic importance. So, it is logical that the proportion of female CIOs would track with other senior management positions where males have dominated.

The technical skill set at one time key to a CIO’s success is no longer viewed in the same light.

Finally, some have suggested, many females are simply not interested in the role, due to the work’s nature and content. The function may fundamentally not appeal to many females who may see the level of politics and diplomacy at senior levels of the administration as undesirable.

The studies of higher ed CIOs note that, within the next 10 years, they will be retiring in record numbers. Many are baby boomers who rose through the ranks over years to that position. Now in their late fifties and sixties, they are preparing for retirement.

Consequently, an opportunity for an infusion of new blood in the CIO ranks is right around the corner. The timing may be right for females to change this gender dynamic.

If we were to acknowledge the “engineer mindset” may have dissuaded some females, research is bearing out that the CIO’s technical skill set­—at one time the key to success in the role—is no longer viewed in the same light. Today’s CIO relies on myriad skills to help facilitate institutional change to maintain or gain competitive positioning, improve customer relations and processes, and support the core business of teaching, learning, and research. Initiatives in these areas are being accomplished by leveraging technology solutions to effect change in partnership with other senior administrators and faculty. This activity requires excellent communication, collaboration, and leadership skills. Males and females alike are known to excel at these skills and possess the instincts to make the right decisions and temperament to network with a diverse mix of campus constituents.

Despite the “IT Doesn’t Matter” assertions made in 2003 by Nicolas Carr in the Harvard Business Review—which contend that IT will become a commodity and the CIO will no longer be needed—research reveals a CIO role quite different than the former role, which expended the majority of energy and thinking about the management of data centers and networks, and building software and systems. The new age higher ed CIO role will instead focus on partnering and collaboration, relying heavily on business acumen, trust generation, and inspiring teams. Females should seize the upcoming opportunity and, on equal footing with their male counterparts, assertively pursue the higher education CIO position.


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