Women in tech: How the silent minority can break the glass ceiling effect

As part of our continuing Women in Tech series, we look at how breaking the glass ceiling effect requires CIOs to listen to the silent minority.

When Marissa Mayer was named president and CEO of Yahoo Inc., women in tech looked to her as a rare example of a woman breaking into senior leadership in the male-dominated tech industry. Mayer's female voice is a very rare minority within IT leadership. According to the recent 2012 Harvey Nash CIO survey, only 9% of U.S. chief information officers are women.

Nicole Bradberry Nicole Bradberry, CIO, Rise Health

"The IT industry is truly lacking enough females at the top," said Vicki W. Hamilton, a business technology executive who helps companies with their IT strategies. According to the Nash survey, about a quarter of CIOs have no women at all on their technical teams. About 35% of CIOs did not employ women on their IT leadership teams.

CIO Nicole Bradberry finds that the stark underrepresentation of women in IT could impact technical organizations, but career success could hinge upon effective communication styles. "Traditionally, male IT organizations can make women feel that they don't bring the right skills because the softer skills -- that are so key -- are minimized," said the CIO of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Rise Health. "Women bring a lot to the table. However, because they typically aren't as aggressive and outspoken, sometimes their voice can be squashed if they feel dismissed."

Lynn E. Anderson suggests that the glass ceiling effect might just come down to gender imbalances on teams, putting women in technology at a disadvantage. "Given I was generally the only female in the room, sometimes I felt my observations or comments were overlooked or not taken as seriously as my male counterparts," said Anderson, now the chief talent partner with The Metis Movement, an organization that focuses on helping nurture and retain women in technology. "You have to speak up -- no matter how uncomfortable you feel. You also have to get support from other women who understand how difficult it is to speak up when others don't see your point of view."

Harvey Nash reported that 77% percent of male CIOs feel women have no impact on decision making and 5% say women have a negative impact on decision making in their IT teams. Thomas J. Walter, a nationally recognized CEO and author of It's My Company Too!, said, "I don't think enough senior leaders, especially men, understand the value of a female voice."

Does a different communication style give CIOs the impression that women are either not supporting discussion or -- shockingly -- detrimental to it? In executive meetings, Anderson would focus on how the customer or employee is "feeling" or what they are talking about, while her male counterparts discussed concrete numbers around sales, profits and margin. 

"I believe the female voice includes the diversity and imagination of a core group of people, who care about how wonderful and innovative IT can be," Anderson said. "A new perspective can be represented at the table. It can be one that values relationships with customers, suppliers, employees -- and innovation like creativity, thinking outside the box and pushing for more."

Breaking the glass ceiling effect

Undoubtedly, as a group, women can bring a different perspective to technical organizations and are known for a distinct key skill set -- including soft skills and relationship building -- that are essential in any well-rounded team. However, their own socialization may be standing in the way. "We have this twisted notion, as women, that if we ask for too much, some guy is going to be turned off. It is actually the contrary. Men really admire strong negotiators in women," said Carolyn Leighton, founder of Women in Technology, Inc (WITI), in a recent interview on the glass ceiling effect.

"Women tend not to be as confrontational [as men]. In the lion pack, the male is confrontational, but it's the women that do the hunting. I'm absolutely convinced that women make better leaders than men," said Walter.

Traditionally, male IT organizations can make women feel that they don’t bring the right skills because the softer skills -- that are so key -- are minimized.

Nicole Bradberry, CIO, Rise Health

As any good leader, Hamilton suggests that CIOs use their understanding of women's communication styles to help their female IT staffers emerge as leaders. "Allow them the opportunity to present their viewpoints and thinking. Then, listen and take into account their recommendations. This collaborative effort will help organizations to grow and make better balanced decisions across all aspects of the company," she said.

"Women should be given opportunities to lead and showcase IT skill sets. Proactively build teams with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and empower leaders to emerge," said J.J. DiGeronimo, a technology executive and author of The Working Woman's GPS.

Walter feels that the silent minority won't be heard until the culture of IT adapts to one that is open to discussion without the kinds of immediate negative feedback that discourages women from speaking up. "It's critical for leaders to let women understand that women can be heard without risk of confrontation," said Walter.

What do you think? Will women always be the silent minority in the IT space? Is the glass ceiling effect caused by the different communication styles of men and women? Let us know what you're thinking in the comments.

Miki Onwudinjo is an editorial assistant at TechTarget and a fourth-year journalism student at Northeastern University in Boston. Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, site editor. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket.

This was first published in November 2012

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