Women in IT: Research and timing on our side

Building support through research and gaining traction from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements will level the playing field for women in higher ed IT
By: | February 18, 2020
(Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash)(Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash)
Elizabeth Clark is deputy CIO at Harvard Business School. She will be a featured speaker at UB Tech’s Women in Technology pre-conference.

Elizabeth Clark is deputy CIO at Harvard Business School. She will be a featured speaker at UB Tech’s Women in Technology pre-conference.

Despite discouraging data and news, there has never been a better time to move the needle on gender proportionality in IT leadership within higher education. Let’s face it: It’s 2020 and numbers do not lie. The percentage of women in top IT leadership roles has remained stubbornly stagnant for years.

KPMG’s 2019 CIO Survey: A Changing Perspective registered women in technology professions at 22% worldwide, with only 12% navigating their way to a CIO spot.

Though better than industry in general, higher education CIOs also remain predominantly white and male; women’s lagging representation in that role has persisted, hovering around 24% for more than a decade.

Furthermore, women are still leaving IT at midcareer at much higher rates than their male counterparts (56% and 17%, respectively), and their reported experiences are riddled with troublesome trends.

Given such a chronically unfortunate state of affairs, what is the case for hope?

I believe we have two distinct elements on our side when it comes to making change and leveling the playing field for women leaders in IT: research and timing.

We can and should use the research at our fingertips, fueled by this historical point in time, to advance women’s leadership in our IT organizations.

Building support

Research abounds when it comes to unpacking gender proportionality in IT. From a variety of angles, scholars have given institutions ways to understand the lack of representation and what can be done to address it. With an environmental lens in mind, we know there are numerous cultural factors within organizations that are associated with women leaving the IT profession. Some of the major variables include the isolation women feel and experience in male-dominated work environments; the implicit bias built into the hiring and promotion processes; and the lack of effective role models available for women. In other words, if work environments are not sufficiently supportive, higher ed institutions risk losing top talent.


Read: 3 ways to mitigate gender bias in higher ed technology departments


At the same time, we also know a good deal about what helps bring talented women into the tech workforce—and what helps keep them there. Research has illustrated that removing bias from job descriptions and hiring processes increases the rate at which organizations become more diverse.

Once in the door, retaining women in IT requires practices such as establishing clear promotion criteria to move beyond the “personality penalties” that unconscious biases impose. Additionally, creating flexible work policies for all and establishing mentoring and sponsorship opportunities also help ensure that once in the door, there are opportunities for supporting women who want to excel in the high-status, high-pay and high-creativity field of IT.


Read: 4 ways to change the face of recruitment


Gaining traction

We have learned much about our organizations over the years, and we do have knowledge on our side. We also have timing. Social change like gender proportionality in the IT workforce takes time, and significant cultural shifts require some sort of forceful catalyst. The #MeToo and corresponding Time’s Up movements, which have gained traction over the past several years, have catapulted issues of women’s experiences into the spotlight, pushing forward the conversation around diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging. Whether you agree with them or not, they have elevated that conversation to the public sphere, and institutions are reacting and responding.


Read: Breaking through gender barriers in campus tech


Armed with research and with timing on our side, we are at a point where we have an opportunity to make a difference in our IT organizations. As IT leaders, we can use what we know about the problem and its remedies to bring about change.

Our academic institutions are ones where ideas are hatched and change can happen; we aim our sights on making the world a better place. Thus, this is indeed the moment for hope. We can and should use the research at our fingertips, fueled by this historical point in time, to advance women’s leadership in our IT organizations. If not now, when? And if not we, who?


Elizabeth Clark is deputy CIO at Harvard Business School. She will be a featured speaker at UB Tech’s Women in Technology pre-conference, presenting on “Agents of Change: Women Reshaping IT, One Story at a Time.


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