Editor's note: The following is a guest article from Gartner drawing on analyst insights about the gender gap in technology.
It is well-documented that women are underrepresented in IT executive positions, and the chief technology officer (CTO) role is no exception. Just 9% of organizations have a female CTO, according to Gartner research, which is an even lower tally than the number of female CIOs (14%) and chief data officers (16%).
Diversity and inclusion are strongly related to better business performance and more successful teams. Gender-diverse technology teams produce more deliverables with fewer errors, demonstrate higher levels of innovation and provide stronger support to their peers.
Yet, progress for gender diversity in IT continues to lag — even more so for CTOs than those in other IT leadership positions.
Knowing why the CTO role is perceived as unattractive to female candidates is critical for helping address the pipeline problem — a key factor contributing to the CTO gender gap. Women interested in pursuing the CTO career path should understand how they can better prepare and position themselves for the role.
Here are some steps that today's IT leaders can take to address the CTO gender gap.
Address entry-level recruitment issues
CTOs do not spring fully formed from any given technology talent pool. They are either promoted internally from a technical position, or they are hired externally — often holding roles as CTOs, CIOs or senior IT executives at other companies. Yet in each of these jobs, women are in short supply.
Whether a company tends to promote from within or hire from outside, the number of women at senior levels is wholly dependent on the recruitment, retention and career progression of women. So, the first step in getting women into senior IT roles is to make sure enough women are recruited at entry level positions.
Revise entry- and mid-level technology job descriptions to attract more women into those roles. Remove long lists of detailed requirements, such as obscure programming languages, and replace them with desired traits like adaptability and creativity.
Look at sources of tech talent other than male-dominated computer science degree programs. Programs such as mathematics, physical sciences, business or social science can offer strong entry-level talent that is more gender-diverse.
The CTO role is evolving to require more focus on business value, leadership and people skills. After 10 years, experience will be more important than academic qualifications.
Retain IT talent beyond the mid-manager level
Retention is a major issue impacting IT diversity, with women in technology jobs quitting their careers at more than twice the rate of their male peers.
Fewer women in middle management means fewer women who eventually gain the qualifications for CTO roles. Increasing the number of women who reach the highest levels of IT requires focus from senior leadership.
Of the women who make it into today's technology workforce, approximately 41% leave their careers over time because of a non-inclusive work environment.
Ensuring women have the same opportunities as men to get their first step into management roles is a critical success factor. Provide experiences for all IT employees to increase their breadth of knowledge of the organization and personal network of leaders.
As appropriate, recommend women for international assignments, key program initiatives and leadership development opportunities. If female employees seem suitable for training or promotion and they don't put themselves forward, find out why.
Are they feeling discouraged or underconfident? Are they struggling with time management? Or are they simply lacking the aspiration?
Mentoring is also crucial to retaining women in IT. However, sponsorship is more important for career advancement. A sponsor can focus on raising a female employee's visibility and ensure that the right opportunities are available.
Encourage women to be more involved in industry networking groups, local-area networking events, women's events and other opportunities where they can meet individuals with similar interests.
Accommodate attendance at conferences and forums where they can increase technical, business and leadership acumen.
Invest in inclusiveness to drive innovation
Diversity should not be limited to gender, nor to just the CTO role. IT leaders should ensure they seek diversity in gender, personality and experience when hiring anyone responsible for technology innovation.
For entry-level roles, consider candidates from a variety of STEM degree programs — even disciplines such as social science, business and psychology. Sometimes graduates who have studied artistic subjects bring valuable creative skills to an innovation team.
Focusing on diversity and inclusiveness throughout the entire IT career lifecycle will help CIOs create teams that are more productive, innovative and collaborative.
An early investment will benefit the enterprise for many years to come as IT leaders of all genders and backgrounds gain the skills and experience to succeed as CTOs.
Samantha Searle, Ph.D., is a principal analyst at Gartner, covering research that helps organizations succeed in driving technology innovation.