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Forecast for more female tech leaders 'optimistic'

The recent string of sexual harassment scandals in Silicon Valley may have reinforced the technology hub’s reputation as an unfriendly environment for women — but that’s not slowing the demand for female tech leaders across industries.

Ask Eric Sigurdson. A consultant at employment agency Russell Reynolds Associates, he matches candidates for senior IT leader positions with big corporations looking for tech and leadership skills. Many are explicitly seeking to expand diversity, including gender diversity, in their workplaces. His word describing the climate for women in technology: “optimistic.”

“We recruit a lot of women, particularly to CIO roles and to divisional roles,” Sigurdson said. “The first thing [companies] ask for or the last thing they ask for is, ‘We need a diverse candidate in this role if we can find them.'”

He finds them. Sigurdson put Kristy Folkwein, who was CIO at Dow Chemical, into the IT chief position at food processor ADM. He put Mary Gendron, from Hospira, into Qualcomm; and Adriana “Andi” Karaboutis, from Biogen, into National Grid.

Even companies in industries known for employing few women are seeking female tech leaders. Take industrial manufacturing — women make up 24% of its total workforce, 18% of its managers and just 12% of its executives, according to a Morgan Stanley study published in May.

Sigurdson recently spoke to a billion-dollar manufacturer in Wisconsin about female candidates for tech roles. And it is willing to look beyond the insular manufacturing world for them.

“They can learn the industry,” Sigurdson said. “They can figure it out. Frankly, they’ll bring an outsider’s perspective to the organization that can be really welcoming. And it’s being driven in large part because they need diversity on the leadership team.”

Sigurdson, who was in sales and marketing roles at IBM in the 1980s and 1990s, was taking a page from Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of the tech goliath. During his tenure, Gerstner launched a task force that sought to understand differences among groups of people to appeal to a wider set of employees and customers. That resulted in greater gender and ethnic diversity within the company’s ranks.

Ensuring that there are more female tech leaders — and that more women and minorities are represented in IT — starts with recruitment on college campuses, Sigurdson said.

“That’s your funnel for diversity,” he said. “You have to have a good representation from all different classes of people to be able to 20 years later have executives that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”

To learn what one coding boot camp is doing to promote gender diversity in technology, read this SearchCIO report.