Breaking the tech ceiling

Women in top tech positions in higher education are paving the way for change
By: | Issue: August, 2017
July 25, 2017

Wendy Woodward had never worked in a high-tech environment when she accepted a position managing academic technology at Northwestern University. But she believed her corporate experience equipped her with the project planning, leadership and business process skills she needed to do the job.

“I’m not the most technical person in the room, but I understand business and how to translate that into technology,” Woodward says.

It wasn’t long before the associate vice president of information technology called Woodward into her office to commend her on improving the learning environment and encourage her to apply for a position as associate director of technology support services.

Sidebar: By the numbers: Women in higher ed tech leadership

Woodward landed the job and, with more encouragement from her new mentor, pursued a graduate degree and set her sights on becoming a chief information officer.

In 2015, she got the CIO job at Wheaton College in Illinois. “I was fortunate to have a mentor, another woman in technology leadership, who helped me understand this was something I could do and encouraged me to pursue it,” she says.

Women are underrepresented in technology leadership across all industries, making up just 19 percent of CIOs, according to a 2016 analysis by management consulting firm Korn Ferry. In higher education, the picture’s slightly better, with women accounting for 22 percent of CIOs in 2017—but that’s down from 28 percent in 2016, according to the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies.

Sidebar: Writing better job descriptions

More women than men attend college and work in higher ed. “But the number of women in tech leadership in higher education is imbalanced,” says Wayne Brown, the CIO center’s founder.

Role confusion

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the small numbers of women in technology leadership stems from confusion about a CIO’s main roles and the skills needed to be successful in the job.

Brown asked CIOs, administrators who hire CIOs and tech leaders (defined as those who work under CIOs) about the top five skills tech leaders need—and 82 percent of management teams ranked technical knowledge number one.

In contrast, less than half of the CIOs rated technical knowledge as an important skill. Technology leaders considered technical knowledge the least important skill. Both CIOs and the next-level tech leaders chose leadership and communication as the most important skills.

Woodward believes she encountered discrimination when applying for CIO positions—not because of her gender but because of her skills.

“I had one college president say, ‘You’re not a CIO, you haven’t done anything in technology,’ ” Woodward recalls. “I had to explain that, no, I haven’t run a network or programmed but I know what users need. I can communicate well, provide leadership, see the big picture and get the work done, which is what this job is all about.”

Sharon Blanton, who has served as CIO in five different colleges and universities, attributes some of the confusion about CIO responsibilities to the wide range of possibilities.

Currently at The College of New Jersey, she has found responsibilities to be different in each institution. The role reflects institutional priorities and existing organizational structures, she says. “There is no one-size-fits-all job description for a CIO.”

Improving gender balance

Paige Francis, associate CIO at the University of Arkansas, says the perception of what CIOs do—and the skills they require—needs a makeover.

Rather than focusing on it as a high-tech career, it ought to be thought of as a leadership position and as a “career with a lot of opportunities and one of the highest entry rates for salary,” says Francis, who has held CIO positions at Fairfield University in Connecticut and Northwest Arkansas Community College.

For starters, the notion that technical skills are paramount could deter women from pursuing tech leadership positions. Women earn just 18 percent of computer science degrees—a 19 percent decline since 1984, according to a 2016 report from Accenture and Girls Who Code. Brown’s CIO center reports that just one-fifth of female CIOs have technology degrees, compared with about one-third of male CIOs.

It’s not just a perceived lack of relevant education that keeps women from pursuing roles in technology leadership.

Job descriptions written with unconscious gender bias, lack of diversity among application review committees and interview panels, and a shortage of mentors may also deter women, says Bernadette Williams, information technology program manager for UNC Charlotte and co-leader of the Women in IT Constituent Group organized through Educause.

She advocates for “blind” applications that allow hiring committees to review applications without knowing the name or gender of candidates. She also encourages schools to diversify their interview panels.

Outdated job descriptions that prioritize technical skills over soft skills must be updated to reflect the realities of working in technology, Francis adds.

“Nine times out of ten, in the job descriptions that I post, if it pertains to services or solutions or integrations across campus, the technology piece is going to be secondary,” she says. “I’m not going to list a whole bunch of systems, because I live under the assumption that we may use one system now that is fantastic but that could change in two years. We need people who are nimble and willing to learn.”

Mentees and mentors

Women preparing to step into technology leadership roles must seek out professional development opportunities. Some institutions host educational events—the University of Nebraska, for example, runs an IT conference with sessions on advancing women in technology leadership. UNC Charlotte started a women in IT group for staff and students.

Still, there appear to be few targeted efforts to encourage women to apply for technology leadership positions. Among aspiring CIOs, both male and female, 22 percent were pursuing advanced degrees, 52 percent were enrolled in other forms of continuing education, and 70 percent were participating in on-the-job training, the CIO studies center found.

Blanton, who has undergrad and graduate degrees in instructional technology and higher ed administration, took continuing education classes in topics like UNIX and CISCO networking.

“I never intended to be a programmer or a network administrator but I wanted to know enough to be able to understand the language and have meaningful conversations,” she says. The CIO studies center also noted an emphasis on mentoring, with 91 percent engaged in such relationships with their CIO or other executive—an element that is especially important for women.

“Mentors will give you the frank, direct feedback you need to help you grow on your path and will be your champion when you’re not in the room,” Williams says. “Because the numbers of women in IT are low, a lot of women in higher ed may not have the opportunity to meet other women tech leaders in their institutions.”

It’s not just the aspirants who should be thinking about mentorship. Women currently in tech leadership roles have an obligation to support those coming up behind them, Woodward believes.

“There are a lot of amazing women out there who are changing the direction of technology in higher education,” she says. “The more women succeed as technology leaders, the more visibility we get, the more we keep chipping away at the misconceptions.”  

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.