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February 19, 2014

Breaking the Glass Ceiling in IT Leadership

Over the past decade and a half, large numbers of women have joined the IT workforce, albeit mostly at the entry and junior levels. The percentage of women in middle and senior leadership positions are disproportionately low. Looking at this imbalance, one is forced to question the wisdom of the age-old saying "The cream always rises to the top"

Surely history has proved time and again that women in leadership positions, irrespective of industry or sector, are no less capable than men - Margaret Thatcher in politics, Indira Nooyi in FMCG, Marissa Mayer in IT are just few examples. So why then are so few women visible in middle and senior leadership positions in the IT industry? What are the invisible barriers and biases against women that are stopping them from gaining their rightful positions commensurate with their potential?

In my view, following are the few key factors:

  • Assumptions (often made subconsciously) by managers that women may not be able to take up critical/stretch assignments due to family and personal commitments. This leads to women with potential ending up with "soft" assignments where they don't have enough opportunities to prove their leadership capabilities. Consequently, they get trapped in a viscous circle and the professed "lack of ambition" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • In spite of their rapid entry into workforce across geographies, women face a key barrier - the lack of supporting ecosystem. In majority of instances, working women are the ones who take care of the home and children. Add to this mix inflexible work policies (e.g., no or limited work-from-home facility or extended leave policy) and/or lack of supporting infrastructure (e.g. daycare facility) and working women's situation becomes truly difficult. No wonder then, a significant number of women with high potential are left with no other option but to slow (if not totally abandon) their thriving careers midstream. Unfortunately, in most such cases, managers construe this as "lack of ambition" or "personal constraints" on the women's part, and don't really analyze the root causes and try to address them.
  • Another key factor that holds women back is "stereotyping". There is a significant lack of awareness of gender diversity at middle and senior leadership levels. Considering the low percentage of women at these levels, there is really no credible benchmark and awareness on the unique attributes women in leadership positions often exhibit (building relationships, resolving conflicts amicably, inspiring and motivating others, etc.). Furthermore, the same personality attributes are often looked at differently in men and women. So, for example, the "go-getter" approach in men is looked at as being positively assertive while if women use a similar approach, they are considered aggressive.  It is also a fact that, to an extent, women themselves contribute to the stereotyping. Many women have been raised in environments that dictate certain personality characteristics as becoming of women; or where sons have always been treated superior to daughters. For example, many of these women have been taught in their formative years that being submissive, always putting others before self and not being ambitious but accommodating are the superlative virtues they should possess. No wonder then, it becomes difficult for many women, with otherwise excellent leadership capabilities, to get rid of such limiting traits and beliefs.

So what can be done by IT organizations to truly level the playing field for women and men in middle and senior leadership positions? I am interested in knowing your views. Following are my thoughts on some of the solutions.

  • Over the next several years, IT organizations can actively focus on hiring or promoting more women in middle and senior leadership positions. The approach should not be seen as a favor to women but a belated attempt to right long-standing gender imbalance issues. Care should be taken that only truly deserving women are promoted or hired to leadership positions. And certainly, when looked at with an open mind and without any biases, there is no paucity of deserving women in the IT sector. The active promotion of women in leadership positions will enable the creation of role models who would inspire and mentor other women leaders to gain confidence in their own unique leadership capabilities. Ultimately, this will create a virtuous cycle resulting in an increasing number of women rising to leadership positions. Organizations should also proactively focus on enabling networks for women leaders at all levels - so they can actively seek mentoring and guidance on leadership aspects.
  • Organizations should also proactively enable gender diversity orientation education at all levels of leadership. Managers should be clearly aware of prevalent biases (even if subconscious) against women in leadership. Such a focus on gender diversity awareness will help create a more gender-neutral environment, where women with potential remain focused on enhancing their leadership skills rather than constantly looking over their shoulder at how their leadership traits are being perceived by their manager.
  • Every organization should create enabling policies and infrastructure using a two-pronged approach of entailing changes in the organization's workplace policies as well as a change of mindset among decision makers across all levels. Women-oriented policies (e.g. extended leave policy, working from home, flexi-timing where appropriate) and infrastructure (e.g. day care facility) is certainly the way to go. However, this is not enough. Managers at all levels should be sensitized that these policies are meant for both genders and imperative to create a more equal opportunity workplace. It should also be made clear that business results and value added would be the sole criteria for a leader's performance evaluation. And factors like the number of leaves taken, work from home hours availed, hours worked, etc. are immaterial.
I am sure you would have additional valuable insights on the said subject. I would be interested in knowing your views. You may please post your comment on this blog space or email me @