Female and Considering a CIO Career? Leave That to the Men, Sweetie

    If you’re female, and you’re considering a CIO career track, here’s some advice for you: Don’t go there. You’re much better off in marketing, where there are plenty of other women. To put it another way: “Do you want to be the first woman on a pro football team? You may be in a lot of press, but is the locker room really any fun for you?” And here’s a tip for those CIO-hiring employers aiming for diversity: “Go fill your gender quota in marketing or something.”

    If you find that advice kind of stunning, consider that it comes from an executive recruiter who specializes in placing CIOs, who has years of experience working with CIOs, who co-founded CIO Magazine’s CIO Executive Council, and who has now written a book about the CIO career track. Oh, and consider that the person I’m referring to is female.

    That person is Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates and author of the new book, “The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership.” Full disclosure: Heller and I share some professional roots as former employees of IDG, having worked for a long time at sister technology publications. Also in the spirit of full disclosure, I will share the fact that although we have never met face-to-face, in the course of one 25-minute phone interview I became a huge Heller fan. She is unquestionably one of the most thought-provoking, insightful, articulate voices on the CIO experience that I have encountered in over 20 years covering this beat.

    So as someone who has written extensively and from the heart as an advocate of equal opportunities for women in the workplace, I found myself in the paradoxical position of valuing Heller’s paradoxical views on the topic of females in the CIO seat. The issue came up during the interview almost as an aside, when I asked Heller, in her capacity as a recruiter, how women are faring in the CIO career game. This was her response:

    Right now, 9 percent of CIOs are female. So when companies say to me, “We’d really like to have a woman,” it’s like, OK, now you’ve limited my talent pool to 9 percent of the CIO population, so understand that. There’s a real paradox here—I don’t even write about it in the book, where I talk about all of these paradoxes. I don’t talk about the gender paradox, but there’s a paradox here in that companies want diversity. There’s research that shows that diverse companies do better, and make more money. They want diversity, they want a woman in the role. However, the IT organization is still not necessarily conducive to women, because the culture is still very male. Do you want to be the first woman on a pro football team? You may be in a lot of press, but is the locker room really any fun for you? I think there’s some of that going on in IT.

    I tried to get a word in edgewise, but Heller was on a roll:

    IT is 24/7, and many women have more of the childcare responsibilities than their spouses do, so the 24/7 doesn’t work. Women wind up getting pregnant, and the plum projects go to somebody who isn’t pregnant—often a man. So it’s still a hard place for women to be. It always has been. But here’s the rub: If you’re a woman, and you care about technology and you’re into technology, go into marketing! Marketing is filled with women, and marketing organizations are spending huge money on technology right now. So it used to be, I’m a woman, and I love technology, OK, I’ve got to brace myself and go into this male bastion called the IT organization. Now, if I’m a woman and I love technology, I can go into so many different roles—I can go out to the West Coast and be the CTO of the next Zynga if I want to. The point is, it’s looking good for women, from the perspective of demand—lots of companies want female CIOs. But women don’t necessarily want to go into technology. And if they do want to go into technology, there are lots of more gender-comfortable places for them to go than there used to be.

    I asked Heller whether she tries to steer companies away from hiring a female CIO, and she said she does not:

    What I say to companies is, “The CIO role is rife with paradoxes, and you’ve got to find somebody who’s technical, and business-oriented, and efficient, and innovative, and they’re an introvert but they have to go out and meet with external customers, and they also have to take chances. It’s a crazy role—it’s a really, really hard role. Plus they’ve got to have a cultural fit, and lots of IT people have a different kind of cultural orientation than, say, people in sales. So you’re trying to make this person fit. Are you, seriously, also giving me gender as a criterion here?” That’s what I say to them. I’ll do it, but go fill your gender quota in marketing or something, where you’re going to find more women. But if you add that to the list, we can do it. It’s just going to take a lot longer.

    So there you have it. Whether or not you agree with Heller, you at least have to give her kudos for having the guts to call it as she sees it. I, for one, find that extraordinarily refreshing. I’ll share more of what Heller had to say in a forthcoming post.

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