It’s no secret that men outnumber women in the IT industry, especially in senior leadership roles.
Just look around the office, in meetings and at industry conferences and events; in some cases, there many only by a handful of women in the room. As a woman who writes about this industry and attends conferences on a frequent basis, I’ve witnessed this first-hand. So why are there fewer women than men in IT careers and leadership roles? There are many theories as to why this may be so, but the thing we learned interviewing the 20 female executives for this feature is that many don’t view themselves as being “women in IT” but instead consider themselves as “people working in IT” that also just so happen to be women.
Lynn Harris, author of Unwritten Rules: What Women Need to Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations, aims to address some of these issues in her book.
“I spent a couple of years researching for this book and trying to answer the question of why there aren’t many women in senior roles and leadership positions,” Harris said. “I wanted to see what was causing this behaviour in the first place by looking at the structure underneath (the organization) and see what’s causing there to be a (gender) imbalance at the top of organizations.”
In her book, Harris outlines what she refers to as “unwritten rules.”
With women’s natural biological role as a bearer of children, she says women often must either choose between having kids and looking after them as the primary caregiver, or returning to work shortly after having a child. She also argues that gender stereotyping within organizations still exists and in some instances, there are extreme perceptions of women in business, such as coming across as “too soft, too tough, or never just right.”In order to establish a more gender-balanced organization, Harris says businesses should take on an organization-wide approach, where they’d decide if they’d like to utilize more female talent at the top. If they decide they want more female talent in the workplace, businesses can make the goal a part of their business strategy, she added.
“The approach in the book for women is to understand what they’re up against and to help develop them in certain ways with regards to professional development,” Harris explained.
When it comes to aspiring to be in a senior role or leadership position, Harris says both women and men must realize they’re accountable for their personal development.
Often times, when it comes to mentoring or finding a coach to help, women are “passive” and often wait for someone to offer them a mentor or coach.
“In order to stay successful and move up, women must really take control of their own professional development,” Harris said. “Women need to take charge and work in developing both external and internal mentorships to really gain control of their career. It’s also important to be clear about what it is they want out of the (mentoring) relationship in order to make the most out of it.”
One organization which is working to make a difference is CATA WIT (Women in Technology Forum). The organization serves as a forum designed to help increase and support female participation and advancement in the IT industry. The organization has chapters in B.C., Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and has about 250 members across the country.
Suzie Labonne, the Toronto chapter president at CATA WIT, says in the Toronto chapter, the organization has about 80 members.
“CATA WIT aims at helping women in technology-related careers,” Labonne said. “There’s a need to create role models and to help girls and women to encourage them to have a career and progress in IT.”
Just last month, the organization, in collaboration with the CIO Association of Canada, launched a new eMentorship program. This is a program that pairs women in the IT industry with CIOs for one year.Currently, the program is only available in Ontario as a pilot project, but Labonne says there are plans to extend the program into other areas of the country over the course of the next year.
“When it comes to mentorship, any mentorship program, whether geared towards men or women, helps people progress in their roles more quickly and they get better jobs,” Labonne said.
The eMentoring program currently consists of 23 mentors, both male and female, in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and pairs the mentor with a mentee who has either five years of IT experience, or one to four years experience in a management position.
Most of the contact between the mentor and mentee is done electronically through mediums such as e-mail and phone. If participants wish, they may also meet in person. To apply to be a mentee in the program, Labonne says applicants can go to the CATA WIT Web site and download an application, upon which their candidacy will be evaluated.
A formal commitment is required on both parties’ fronts, which means the pair will need to have at least one live conversation on the phone or video conference once a month, and they’ll need to exchange at least one to two e-mails a week. There is also a small $30 fee required to help cover some of the administration fees, Labonne noted. In order to be considered as a mentee for the program, Labonne says the applicant must be a member of CATA WIT.
Susan Doniz, an associate director for shared services at Procter & Gamble, also serves as the marketing leader at the CIO Association of Canada. In addition to this, she’s also a mentor in the eMentoring program.
“I see this (eMentoring program) as a learning experience for me and the (mentee),” she said. “There’s a certain sense in giving back and helping other people succeed.Often times a mentee will show you things and share things with you in a different light and they’re not afraid to tell you how the world really is.”
Doniz says she’s been working in the IT industry for 15 years and if she had been aware of a program like this before, she would have taken advantage of it.
“It I were aware of a program like this, I would have joined,” Doniz said. “I think that if I had a mentor, I would have been far more successful and not have to had bumbled through a lot of situations.”
On her advice to others, Doniz says to take on challening assignments and not be afraid.
“The necessary thing to do is to get yourself into scary, challenging assignments because that’s how you’ll grow in the company and as an individual in your career,” she advises.
A balanced life
“It’s all about balance and being really strategic about what you’re there to do,” Gernon explained. “I always took the perspective that my family and my career were the most important things to me and I planned all of my time accordingly. I’d create a system for myself around my family and career so I could attend school trips (with the kids) and also deliver results in the boardroom.”
Prior to starting up Profit Consulting, which focuses on helping CEOs and presidents grow their businesses through strategic planning, sales and marketing optimization, Gernon spent 17 years working at Microsoft Canada in a variety of roles.
These positions included enterprise financial services rep, running the company’s corporate marketing, developer and ISV (indepedent software vendor), enterprise marketing and partner group teams.
Upon graduating from the University of Waterloo with a degree in applied physics and just before joining Microsoft, Gernon worked at a small consulting company.
She said at the time, this company hired unversity grads into sales, marketing and consulting lead roles. She was then hired to the company as a practice lead.
“I was given the opportunity to start in a leadership role right away,” Gernon said. “I was one of a few women in the company and all of the senior leadership happened to be men. The position gave me good experience in sales, marketing, leadership and people management at an early age.”
“At this time I joined Microsoft, there weren’t a lot of women in leadership roles so I saw this as a challenge and was attracted to it because it seemed like it was a hard thing to do(obtain a leadership role),” Gernon added.
“I wanted to break the ground for women behind me so they could also travel the road more quickly,” she said.
Gernon says she would advise anyone who’s looking for a job in IT to make sure what they want to do for a career will be something they enjoy doing.
“My advice to others would be to decide how you want to spend your day and do it with passion and enthusiasm.”