Leadership in Tech: Here are 4 pathways to getting more women to the top

Three women engaged in a meeting around a table: Improved gender balance in functional tech leadership is better for business.

Improved gender balance in functional tech leadership is also better for business. Image: Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Sam Burman
Partner, Heidrick & Struggles
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Society and Equity

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  • Female representation among functional tech leadership, e.g. chief technology officer or chief information officer, has been slow to level up.
  • Improved gender balance among C-level roles is better for businesses as it unlocks consumer spending and gives companies a competitive edge.
  • Organizations can redress gender imbalances by focusing on internal talent development, considering hybrid roles, improving inclusivity and casting the net wider when recruiting.

Gender balance within functional tech leadership remains an unfulfilled promise, heightening the challenges of chief technology officer (CTO) and chief information officer (CIO) succession planning for chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief human resource officers (CHROs). Depending on which data set you use, typical female representation within functional tech leadership sits in the 15-25% range. While it has been moving in the right direction, it has been slow and needs much improvement.

Considering that women effectively control roughly $31.8 trillion in annual consumer spending, and with that figure set to increase as more women enter the workforce globally, the need for balanced gender leadership is even more apparent.

As technology evolves, companies without a diverse tech leadership will lose ground to competitors, including their attractiveness as a destination for women in tech. So, what can forward-looking organizations do to find female talent for their CTO and CIO roles? My advice: think about functional tech executive hiring in a less conventional way.

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Grow talent internally

Executive succession planning is fundamental to achieving gender balance, and CTO and CIO positions demand particular focus.

TrustRadius’s 2021 Women in Tech report found that women face additional barriers to promotion in tech, including the lack of clear career paths, coaching and mentors within their companies. You can start to change that in your organization by sponsoring female talent onto tech leadership pathways.

Building confidence in candidates is key as it can be lacking among women in tech roles, causing them to undervalue their skills and overlook themselves for promotion. Coaching can help develop self-belief from the start of their careers, setting them up for senior tech roles.

Diversity targets for the technical function are useful, but with a disparity of gender balance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, talent development needs to start before women reach the workplace. Sending women tech leaders into schools, universities and sponsoring schemes that promote tech careers to female students can encourage girls to pursue STEM careers and step onto the ladder towards CTO or CIO.

Once opened, aim to keep the pipeline flowing by fuelling the drivers of female talent retention, such as flexible scheduling, flatter management hierarchies, equal parental leave and creating a supportive structure to allow those who choose to have children to thrive.

Building a pipeline of female talent is a core strand of a succession planning strategy, which creates contingencies for different contexts and time horizons. Doing so includes long-term planning to develop multiple generations of diverse leadership pools, continuous mapping of external talent with leadership potential and succession planning for emergencies.

Overcoming stereotypes

TrustRadius reported that 39% of women in tech cited gender bias as a barrier to promotion; 26% were regularly outnumbered 5:1 by men in meetings. Such lack of representation can make it harder for candidates and hiring panels to envisage women in the CTO or CIO chair, reinforcing gender bias in company culture.

It also reduces the mentorship and sponsorship opportunities for up-and-coming female talent, obstructing their promotion path. Mentorship is important and sponsorship is critical. Appointing internal – and ideally external – sponsors adds significant value in developing female talent. There are also various “women in tech” industry groups worth joining – such as T200, which are global in scope and focus on C-suite level women in tech, as well as supporting the next generation of leaders.

While the long-term strategy rests in appointing more women into tech leadership internally, in the interim, building more visibility for existing female role models in tech will help reduce gender stereotypes. That can be achieved through celebrating external female tech leaders, encouraging men to become allies for female talent and promoting inclusive mindsets and behaviours as part of the corporate culture. When everyone works to create an environment of inclusion and access equity, women feel a stronger sense of belonging.

To attract more diverse candidates, you need job advertisements that don’t alienate potential CTOs.

Sam Burman, Partner, Heidrick & Struggles

Hire for hybrid roles

Across technology, digital and data, we’re seeing a trend for hybrid leadership roles, such as “chief product and technology officer” and “chief digital and information officer.”

These compound roles are typically less technically focused and are far more transformative and strategic due to the breadth of responsibility. They require strong collaborative skills and empathy for customers and colleagues, often an innate skill of women leaders. Forming such hybrid roles will let you consider an expanded slate of diverse candidates.

To attract more diverse candidates, you need job advertisements that don’t alienate potential CTOs. Often the specifications for tech roles are loaded with unconscious bias, technical terminology and experience requirements that dissuade female candidates from applying if they don’t tick every box.

To combat this, build a role specification for all the skills you need, not just the technical ones. Then hire primarily for potential rather than past performance, focusing your recruitment processes on the abilities and aptitude of applicants rather than purely on their previous roles.

Open the criteria aperture

In the post-pandemic landscape, work processes have changed. People don’t need to be in the same room – or even the same country – to collaborate. A helpful tactic is to focus on the major tech hubs in your region. For example, in Europe, the biggest tech centres are London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and Amsterdam. Cities such as Barcelona, Lisbon, Copenhagen and many others are now building on strong tech talent foundations.

Equally, certain metropolitan centres are known for particular industries – such as London for fintech and Berlin for eCommerce – allowing you to segment your search further, depending on which industry sectors are most relevant. This approach enables you to build a targeted search strategy, which affords you a better chance of unearthing experienced and suitable female tech talent.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Despite the current gender disparity in tech leadership roles, the imbalance can be redressed through a conscious, less conventional approach to talent search.

When rethinking recruiting processes, it can help to work with an experienced partner. For instance, in the last five years, Heidrick & Struggles has placed more than 700 IT executives, of whom 25% were female.

We’ve learned that by 1) casting the net wider, 2) considering candidates with relevant experience in unrelated industries, 3) building an internal pipeline and 4) creating an inclusive environment for female tech talent, you can find the right functional tech leader for your organization and reap the myriad business benefits of a more gender diverse leadership team.

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