Bridging the IT leadership gender gap

The ‘broken rung’ has long restricted women from achieving managerial positions in IT, and the latest joint and McKinsey Women in the Workplace report finds underrepresentation in leadership roles is still a problem, and more so for women of color.

Teradyne CIO Shannon Gath, who has a passion for helping women in STEM leadership roles to be successful in their careers, emphasizes education as a vital starting point for understanding the challenges women face in getting ahead in IT. The Boston-based test-equipment manufacturer recently enlisted McKinsey to conduct education sessions with leaders across the company to help them understand specific issues women confront in advancing their careers.

Generate awareness of the nature of the problem within an organization is key, Gath says. “There are still too many people who don’t understand the problem itself and that it’s systemic,” she says. “If they’re not understanding there’s a problem, you’re not moving forward.”

More than simply mentoring

Mentoring programs have often been seen as the solution, but they’re not always effective. Lack of program structure, poor mentor and mentee matching, and inconsistent commitment between participants can impede effectiveness, says Dr. Christie Struckman, a research vice president at Gartner, who argues that these programs often intimate that something needs to be fixed in the women participants. Instead, mentoring programs should be “more about providing space to talk about career aspirations, supporting evaluating options, strategizing how to get opportunities, and providing assurance,” she says.

Gath sponsors a project at Teradyne to learn and adopt successful strategies from organizations leading the charge for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “We’ve heard of the different programs as we looked at mentorship and sponsorship, and all of them have their pros and cons,” she says.

Shannon Gath, CIO, Teradyne 


But when Gath and her team met with an organization that had been conducting what it called mentoring circles for about five years, something struck a chord. The mentoring circles gather women who are at around the same job level and are interested in growing in a certain area, and pair them with two executives as mentors. The circles meet on a regular basis for six months to do a deep dive on relevant topics.

Teradyne piloted this approach, targeting points at which leadership rungs are broken for women, with the aim of addressing the hurdle, Gath says. The key is using metrics to focus efforts where it’s needed most. “We looked at our data and said, ‘Those are the points,’” she says. “So we sent out invites to the women who fall into that ‘rung’ category with some suggested topics, and asked if they’re interested in any of them and want to participate in a mentoring circle. What’s so special about it is it’s exactly what we need for where we are right now.”

Gath knows that having the right match can make or break the experience of two-way mentoring. And sponsorships help open the door for only one or two women. “You don’t get the broader impact,” she says.

Through Teradyne’s mentoring circles, women are paired with two mentors, providing a better chance of connecting and getting value from the program. This approach also removes the pressure of a one-on-one relationship, and having women circled together with other women extends the benefits by helping them build a support network — something that’s vital to career development. “It’s connecting women who are challenged with the same thing you are,” Gath says. “So even after the mentoring circle is complete, they are your sounding boards going forward, and you should be able to carry that with you for the rest of your career.”

Avoid tokenizing the women in leadership roles

To support women in leadership roles, it’s important to avoid behaviors that marginalize them, according to Gartner’s Struckman, who says it can be a case of death by a thousand cuts, in which many small actions mount up to behaviors that tell women they’re not valued, something that can impact job satisfaction and retention. “Women aren’t going to stay someplace where they’re marginalized when they know they can get hired elsewhere,” she says.

But to address marginalization, you must first be able to recognize it, Struckman says, adding that organizations should work to ensure awareness about behaviors that create an environment where people feel this way. Struckman also advises confronting certain behaviors with clear expectations of what is expected (while not demonizing people), and communicating expectations publicly while supporting marginalized people privately.

For women in senior leadership positions, Struckman says it’s also important to avoid tokenizing them.

“Very often when there’s a woman in leadership, she is the only female,” she says. “She gets asked to lead the ‘Women in IT’ activities, serve as the primary recruiter and interviewer of diverse talent, and asked to mentor or coach a large host of other women.”

These additional responsibilities are rarely acknowledged and considered a ‘side of the desk’ activity, adding additional burdens on time and responsibilities. Instead, Struckman suggests having males serve as allies by acting in these roles where possible. “And where organizations offer things such as flexibility, it should be a talent retention policy that applies across the board, and not just a female retention strategy,” she says.

A positive culture sets the tone

Achieving gender equity takes a multifaceted approach stretching from talent acquisition and retention, to opportunities and promotions that help support women, explains The Hartford CIO Deepa Soni. The insurance company, soon to be recognized with a Catalyst award for its commitment to advancing women and equity, has adopted an organization-wide approach that includes accountability measures, addressing unconscious bias in talent management, and revising other processes. And culture is a vital piece of the puzzle.

Deepa Soni, CIO, The Hartford

The Hartford

Culture at The Hartford is the crown jewel that demonstrates it values equity, “where actions speak for themselves,” Soni says. The company is pursuing an aggressive technology and data agenda, and the plan is to ensure women are a big part of that, she explains.

“We’re strengthening our sponsorship, mentorship, and coaching, and stretch assignments and talent mobility,” she says. “These are all the tactics we’re taking to make sure we advance our women, from hiring them at the intern level to elevating them to the first management level, and getting them to senior leadership roles.”

Soni acknowledges these initiatives, and the results, are years in the making and take consistent commitment, but real progress can be made. “It’s a multidimensional approach coupled with a strong culture that actually amplifies the impact of these strategies,” she says.

Gartner’s Struckman agrees that culture plays a huge role in creating an environment where marginalizing isn’t okay, and where supporting and building each other up is the norm. If, for instance, the expectation is that to progress, you must work over 60 hours a week and at any hour of the day, then women won’t stay.

“Culture tells employees what is expected, accepted, and respected,” Struckman says, adding that we still live in a society where women shoulder most childcare responsibilities, preventing them from being able to drop everything and take care of work unexpectedly. “In some IT organizations, the ‘hero mentality’ is prevalent and rewarded specifically, and thus becomes the definition of what is respected in the workplace,” she says.

She also cautions organizations to pay attention to the managers of women when looking at how they’re faring in relation to promotions and opportunities. “When a woman doesn’t get promoted, most of the focus is on what’s wrong with her and what can be done to improve her,” she says. “But there might not be anything wrong with her. Instead, the lack of promotion is based on a bias of her manager.”

Although we don’t have a systemic way to evaluate bias, leadership needs to look out for it, she says. “If a manager fails to get their women promoted at rates equal to their male employees, that’s more likely a failure of the manager than on the females,” she says. To counter this hurdle, Struckman encourages managers to put more women into new experiences with intention. “When big projects or initiatives come up, we tend to give them to people who have proven themselves already,” she says. “But then we just keep giving the same opportunities to the same people. Women are amazing and competent. We just need to give them the chance.”

CIO, Diversity and Inclusion, IT Leadership, Women in IT