Breaking IT's Glass Ceiling

A new Korn Ferry paper offers three rare examples of firms that have developed top female tech leaders.

The stereotype is still true: the heads of technology in Corporate America are overwhelmingly male.  Only 14 percent of the Fortune 500 Chief Information Officers are women, a decrease of 3 percent from 2013.

Despite the low overall numbers, however, some companies have cracked the code, installing women in top tech posts or developing a healthier pipeline of female tech leaders. These firms tend to have strong mentorship programs, says Emmeline Kuhn, principal in Korn Ferry’s CIO practice and author of a new report, “Breaking the IT glass ceiling.” These programs are usually not voluntary, either. “Certain individuals are required to sit down with high-potential female employees and make sure they’re assisted with what they need to improve and grow,” Kuhn says.

The report zeroes in on three women who are leaders in their respective firm’s technology efforts. Sherri Littlejohn, Wells Fargo’s executive vice president for internal innovation strategies, says that a key for the bank has been its decision to make its employee diversity data publicly available. Making the data transparent sends a powerful message about the bank’s commitment both to employees and outsiders, she says.

At M&T Bank, Chief Technology Officer Julieta Ross credits the firm’s decision to not only create female employee networking groups but also empowering them to help shape company policies. Ross says that one of the next projects for the networking groups is to help women aspiring to be tech leaders improve their general business acumen. “You are the spokesperson for technology, and you need to be able to speak the business language and translate from tech to non-tech.”

Key Bank’s Chief Information Officer, Amy Brady, credits her organization’s culture as a catalyst for helping the firm expand its rank of women tech leaders. The firm’s tech team is 40 percent women, higher then the national average of 25 percent. The bank emphasizes having deep dialogues with its customers about challenging subjects; and that ethos extends to the bank’s women’s mentorship program. Brady established a women-in-technology mentoring program and encourages open dialogue about gender diversity issues.

Over the long-term, education is the key to get more women and other diverse groups into CIO jobs, Kuhn says.

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