Women in IT and in Charge

Female CIOs are increasingly recognized for their willingness to take risks, break down barriers and stand their ground in the mostly male world of IT.

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Count CIOs among the powerful women who will rise to the highest posts in their careers in 2007. Here are some who have already made it.

It's tough to change a collective mind-set. Just ask native Iranian Atefeh "Atti" Riazi, who tried to revolutionize the way New Yorkers rode the subway to work every day.

The infamous MetroCard project for converting rider tokens to cards with magnetic stripes stretched some 14 years and cost more than $1.5 billion. Riazi helped lead that charge in 1986 when she was in her mid-20s. "The public was angry; the system wasn't working properly," she recalls. "But it finally worked, and now you don't see many New Yorkers without a MetroCard in their hands."

That project helped launch Riazi into corporate stardom. Today she's CIO at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, the advertising agency behind some legendary brands. And Riazi is still trying to change the mind-set of consumers and peers, most of whom are men. What's the secret to her success? "For me, it is the ability to take risks, my ability to work with men on their level and my resourcefulness to some extent. Because I am very much attracted to ugly, painful projects" that no one wants, says Riazi, now 45.

Any woman who burned her bra in the 1970s can tell you that women's lib is a fickle affair: a hot item on the national and corporate agenda one year, lukewarm leftovers the next. But if milestones can be equated with progress, 2007 is shaping up as a good year for the fair sex. Hello, Madame Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Welcome, Drew Gilpin Faust, first woman president in Harvard University's 370-year history. (Faust takes the reins a year after her predecessor Lawrence Summers lost his job for suggesting that women lack an innate ability for science and math.)

Yet female CIOs like Riazi didn't get to their prestigious posts overnight. They spent decades building their careers through hard work, risk taking and the helping hand of a mentor. In interviews with 10 women CIOs from various industries, we found an array of leadership qualities that have enabled them to break through the proverbial glass ceiling.

First, though, let's be clear: Compared with the number of male CIOs, the number of women who make it to the CIO post is few. In fact, recent studies cite a decline in the number of women choosing IT as a career and attribute the trend to an overall IT recruitment slowdown. Women's enrollment in university technical programs has dropped from 35% in the mid-1980s to about 20% in 2004. Cutter Consortium, a trend prognosticator based in Arlington, Mass., says the dearth of incoming talent will almost certainly ensure that women in the field today will reach leadership positions, but it may also mean that fewer women become CIOs in years to come.

Don't Dwell on the Differences

Susan Schwab knows how it feels to be seen as an outsider and a threat -- and not just because she's a woman. As a 20-something hotshot management engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1970s, Schwab was put in charge of a data processing project even though she wasn't a member of the data processing department.

The director of data processing was most unhappy, Schwab says, and worried that she'd get the credit if the project went well and he'd get the blame if it didn't. So Schwab told him she'd transfer to data processing.

Then she earned the trust of the department during a testy meeting with the budget director. Schwab recalls: "The [CFO] was being kind of nasty, saying, 'How do I know you guys are going to do this? And how do I know you can get this right?' and I'm sitting there getting increasingly offended. I remember saying, 'Dick, we haven't even started the project, and you're accusing us of failure. C'mon, give us a chance.' He said something like, 'Oh Susan, I didn't mean you, I meant ...' As he was about to say 'data processing,' I cut him off and said, 'I work for data processing.' He shut up, and my data processing colleagues at that point believed me when I said we were going to sink or swim together."

Schwab, now 54 and CIO at 1,000-employee consulting firm Abt Associates Inc., has a knack for finding common ground and building relationships. But sometimes differences are just too obvious to ignore. June Drewry, global CIO for the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos., is often the only woman in a roomful of men at meetings.

"In some companies, egos are huge, politics is huge and people are very careful about who they allow in a room and who they allow to get close to them," Drewry says. "And honestly, people with that sort of mind-set often see women not as a threat, so we're allowed places where maybe a male would not be allowed."

There's no question that it takes courage and tenacity to break down barriers. When Drewry started her career at a New Jersey insurance company, her boss brought her to Society for Information Management local chapter meetings even though it was against the rules because she wasn't a member. "That was my first real exposure to what some would call the good ol' boys' club," Drewry says.

Rather than shrink from the challenge, she continued to attend meetings. "So now, I'm in a network of a bunch of older guys who all know each other -- very comfortable -- [and have] been going to these meetings for years. And me, feeling like a sore thumb. However, you get to watch them and, after enough of these outings, break into the network. Suddenly, they're happy to see you."

Drewry joined the chapter and now her network includes many IT leaders -- an asset for executives, especially when it's time to change jobs. "You tell your network, which is mostly men," she says. "They say, 'How are you doing?' Now you are saying, 'I don't know, I'm not feeling energized, maybe it's just time to move on.' When the recruiters call them, as they do all the time, they say, 'You might want to talk to June Drewry.' Opportunities start circling your way. This is something too few women learn, I think, and take advantage of."

Great Leaders Take Risks

Overcoming hurdles and seizing opportunities are common CIO traits. A 2006 survey conducted by consulting firm Compel Ltd. and Women in Technology International (WITI) suggests this phenomenon is as true for women as it is for men: Those who don't fear risk go further. The study found that women who ascend into the executive ranks relish risk; those who reach a midtier are more risk averse.

"It was striking how often these women CIOs talked about the importance of risk, the opportunity and challenge in high-risk projects, and their eagerness and enjoyment of it," says Patricia Shafer, who co-authored the study with Barbara Trautlein. "There was less of an inclination in the women managers to take on risk."

Women CIOs interviewed for this story support these findings, but their thrill seeking seems driven more by a strong need to make a difference than a desire for a bigger salary or a better job title.

Riazi, for instance, took on the MetroCard initiative knowing that it had "maybe a 5% chance of success." Her peers figured she would be fired within six months. But Riazi says she's attracted to high-risk projects that carry high rewards. "It transformed the way New Yorkers live and work. And New Yorkers are tough. It's not easy to change their habits."

Drewry also took on a risky project in the 1980s while at Mutual Benefit Life Insurance. "We looked at the process of insurance, which is pretty complicated and pretty detailed, and decided that if we used these 'new PCs' to put a client/server app in -- a whole new thing back then -- we could automate 40% of the jobs, bring down the costs, take all the routine off of our people and have them freed up to do better things," she recalls.

The project would cost millions, but the potential ROI over a three-year period was "very attractive." She and the head of underwriting made the pitch, took on the challenge and delivered within two years. "That was huge, and it made the press for us at the time," Drewry says. "Now, did I take it on because I thought that would get me ahead? I took it on because it was exciting. ... What drove me wasn't status or position but impact."

The chance to fix a troubled Philadelphia icon enticed Tasty Baking Co.'s Autumn Bayles to leave a principal consultant role at IBM to become the company's first CIO. The $168-million maker of Tastykake brand Jelly Krimpets and other snack cakes was losing money. "I did something that a lot of people thought I was nuts to do," says Bayles, who was trained as an industrial engineer and has an MBA from Wharton. "I walk in, and I look at everything and decide we're going to overhaul everything -- new data center, new everything -- and I did this all with reducing costs. A lot of people would say, 'Boy, I would never want to do a project like that because a lot of people fail.'"

The overhaul included implementing SAP AG. Now VP of strategic operations, Bayles hadn't done an SAP project before but had deployed Oracle Corp.'s JD Edwards and PeopleSoft projects during her 11-year run as a consultant. Schooled in crisis situations and accustomed to selling a solution to clients, Bayles knew how to make a compelling case to Tasty's board of directors.

The calculated risk paid off. A year later, the SAP implementation had helped cut IT infrastructure costs by 10%. Nearly three years later, the dividends are still pouring in, Bayles says, as Tasty perfects its demand-driven manufacturing model. Inventory is tight, resulting in fresher products and fewer returns. Profit increased nearly 7% in 2006 over the prior year, and strong cash flow helped the company reduce its debt by 20%.

When it comes to risk taking, headhunter Suzanne Fairlie believes women have more to gain -- and more to lose. "For the women who are successful in a world where there are not that many women, their success makes them more visible," says Fairlie, a former IT executive herself. "The negative stuff will stand out more, but the positive stuff will stand out more. You can use that to your advantage. Right or wrong, people remember me more because I am female."

This doesn't mean women go it alone on their way to the top. In fact, a mentor had to shove Mary Finlay up the career ladder. When Finlay's boss promoted her to CIO at Brigham and Women's Hospital, she tried to talk him out of it. Finlay didn't feel she was ready for such a weighty position. "He said, 'You are, and I'll be right behind you,'" Finlay recalls.

She excelled in the CIO role and now holds the same title at Partners HealthCare System Inc. "My confidence has come from being pushed in an area where I felt out of my comfort zone and then succeeding and looking back and saying, 'Poof! I did it, and I can do it again,'" she says. Loath to connect gender and success in the workplace, Finlay admits her experience has shown one difference between men and women: Women are often less confident about their capabilities.

"There have been times when I have found myself working -- really working -- to convince a woman that she is really ready for the next step," Finlay says. "And I have never had to do that with a man.'"

Midwestern-born Nancy Mitchell climbed the ranks at State Street Bank before leaving in 2003. Serving as an IT executive for its institutional investment arm -- a division with $1.7 trillion in assets under management -- she needed an advocate.

She recounts the time a boss put in a pay raise for her that was initially rejected. "He was told that I had the same job as these other people in the same position, and that is what they make," Mitchell says. "He said, 'Yeah, but she's doing two or three times the work of these other guys.' He was so angry he ... showed me all the emails that had gone back and forth." Later that day, she got the raise.

Mitchell learned that strong managers support their staff and respect employees' abilities, insight she used during her ascension at State Street. During the boom years of the late 1990s, IT at State Street was as volatile as the stock market. "It was, 'Hey, we've got five new clients, and now you gotta make it work,'" Mitchell recalls. "When that would come to my desk, I would just get everybody in my group in a room and say, 'One, we have to figure out a way to implement it in a way we can afford it. And two, we're going to have to put a couple of things on hold.' It was a collective approach. That style of inclusion is good because everybody has a stake in it."

"Good leaders are those who can engage the strength of the people in their organizations," Compel's Shafer says.

Family Matters

Many leadership qualities -- passion, risk taking, team building -- are not gender-specific. But the realities of holding a leadership position, working long hours and traveling extensively pose special challenges for women who have families. As much as roles are changing, women are still viewed as the primary caregiver.

"I come from a culture where the boys are always told they are going to be engineers and the girls are always told they are going to be married or become teachers," Riazi says, adding that her parents broke from this tradition and encouraged their daughters to pursue careers. "We learn in this society to be a woman. What does that mean? We need to define that." Or perhaps redefine it.

The Compel- and WITI-sponsored study found that the majority of the women CIOs interviewed were married with children. "It was very interesting to us that many had achieved these incredible positions and, more often than not, were married with children," Shafer says. However, this was not the case with the women we interviewed: They were married, sometimes more than once, or had significant others, but the majority did not have children.

"I see a lot of high-powered women in big jobs with fabulous families, and they do make time for their family. Can you have both? It's difficult," says Riazi, who is not married. "[CIOs] are expected to work much longer hours. We are expected to travel a lot. And with the technologies everywhere, even when you're home, you're looking at your mail or you're on a conference call and, especially if you are global, it is all hours."

Schwab, who is married but doesn't have children, agrees. "I will say there are probably some things that have been easier in my career because we don't have kids," she says. "Now, I don't want to send a message to people that says you can't do it with kids, because you certainly can. But when there was some systems crisis going on or some really intensive project that required a gazillion hours, it was flat-out easier to not have to worry about kids as well -- just a fact of my life."

Even the spouse or significant other needs some time. Bayles, who is not married, traveled quite a bit during her consulting years. But she made it a point to go home on weekends to maintain relationships. "The significant other needs to see you at least once a week, I figure," she laughs.

Bonnie Hardy, CIO of $100-million fisheries company Slade Gorton & Co. Inc., is one of the few interviewed for this story who has children. She says her household underwent a change when her job required regular travel. Her husband became a stay-at-home dad and assumed the lion's share of daily responsibilities for their two children. "Without that, it would have been far more difficult for me to achieve some of these things," Hardy says. "For three years, when I was doing [an] integration project, I was gone every other week."

Mary Finlay's husband is another stay-at-home dad watching two teenage daughters who are 13 and 14 years old. "I couldn't have or wouldn't have wanted to do what I do as a career if I didn't have that behind me and what my husband has done to support me on that front," Finlay says.

Clearly, becoming a CIO isn't easy for a man or woman. It requires a helpful hand from mentors, a passion and commitment for the job, and the courage to stick one's neck out. And it's a demanding job that will also put pressure on a CIO's personal life.

"It is much more a family struggle now," June Drewry says. "Maybe because it is no longer a woman's role [as primary caregiver], more and more companies are struggling with it overall and saying, 'We have to find the right balance for our people,' because everybody wants that balance."

But these women CIOs don't express any regrets. They may have made sacrifices, but they see the rewards. As Ogilvy's Riazi says, "Every decision I made until now was the right decision for me."

 

Linda Tucci is senior news writer for SearchCIO.com. Write to her at ltucci@techtarget.com.

This was first published in April 2007

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