THE BLOG
07/08/2013 02:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2013

Only 8% of CIOs Are Women; Shockingly That's an Improvement

When it comes to women in U.S. CIO roles, the number has remained relatively unchanged. Eight percent of CIOs in the U.S. are women, a slight improvement from seven percent last year, according to the latest CIO survey from Harvey Nash. While this figure isn't too surprising, as women make up a relatively small percentage of the C-suite, (only 10 percent of CFOs and 4 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women) what is surprising is that so few women make up the talent pool in IT for many companies.

According to the report, 75% of U.S. CIOs polled stated that there are a lack of qualified female candidates for IT leadership rolls. In addition, 40% believed that the current percentage of CIOs being women (8%) is satisfactory.

While gender bias seems to be the culprit for at least some of that figure in the survey (17% of U.S. CIOs believe women are exposed to unintentional bias during the selection process which prevents them from advancing), the majority of that figure is due to the sheer lack of women in the junior and senior levels of companies.

"The number of CVs you get from male versus female in the IT space, from junior level to senior level, they are absolutely more male dominated across the board," said Anna Frazetto, senior vice president of international technology solutions at Harvey Nash USA. "As you move up the seniority chain it becomes even more difficult to find female CVs."

One of the reasons for the drop off in women to fill high-level positions is due to the male-dominated culture. The STEM fields--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--are dominated by men and the numbers haven't changed much in recent years. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found only one in seven engineers is female and employment growth in STEM jobs for women hasn't grown since 2000.

Marina Zhurakhinskaya, a senior software engineer at software company Red Hat, believes that a male-dominated environment can deter women from exploring STEM fields. "Many women I meet, as well as myself, have internalized sexist commentary we have heard since childhood in ways that make us doubt our potential and achievements, and make us apprehensive in joining male-dominated fields," Zhurakhinskaya said.

She believes that having few women at the top can also make it hard to retain women on their rise up the corporate ladder. "There are relatively few women in technology and there are relatively few women in leadership, so becoming a CIO requires a woman to beat the odds on both fronts."

GE CIO Jamie Miller is one of those women that beat the odds. She took over as CIO of GE in March from Charlene Begley, and believes GE's strong commitment to diversity, mentorship programs, and networking programs are some of the reasons that 25% of GE's IT professionals are women and 50% of GE's top business CIOs are women. She believes mentorship is a key factor in helping women advance in their careers.

"On a personal level, I've had many, many women over the years where I've taken a personal advocacy roll in their career, whether it's to make sure that they're getting opportunities that they deserve or getting put on slates that they otherwise wouldn't be put on," Miller said. "It's company, it's senior leadership, and it's personal- it's all levels."

Defense contractor Raytheon, which also boasts 50% of its business CIOs being women, also has a female CIO at the helm. Rebecca Rhoads, who didn't have a female mentor to look to when she was working her way up the corporate ladder, also believes that mentoring is essential to retain and encourage women in IT.

"Senior women need to be strong advocates for more women in senior leadership positions across all industries and in all functions," Rhoads said. "No matter how busy we are, we absolutely have got to mentor."

But the problem isn't just in a lack of women at the top, the problem starts as early as grade school, where young girls aren't encouraged to pursue math and science. The good news is, an increasing number of programs are beginning to emerge to encourage girls into the STEM fields. TechGirlz, was founded by Tracey Welson-Rossman in 2010 to help middle school girls gain the tools and encouragement needed to enter the tech field.

"These programs are providing a place for girls to learn about STEM in a community that is supportive, safe and is reaching them in a way that past curriculum has not been able to," Welson-Rossman said. "The programs are highlighting the issue and creating positive action towards correcting the lack of women in the STEM fields."

Programs designed not just for girls, but also women are also helping to bridge the gap. Will Little, CEO of Code Fellows, a bootcamp that teaches people of all ages how to code, recently started a female-only bootcamp after hearing that there was a serious lack of women software engineers. So far, the response has been strong.

"We've received hundreds of applications," said Little. "Within the dozens of interviews I've helped conduct over the past month, a vast majority of the women have expressed their enthusiasm for the class.  When I asked them why, the most common answer was because of the immediate network of other women in tech that will be available."

Frazetto believes that a top-down approach through mentorship and companies demanding a diverse slates of candidates, in addition to a bottom-up approach through programs like TechGirlz will help solve the problem.

"The bottom's got to meet with the top and the top's got to meet with the bottom," Frazetto said. "It's going to take a generation to get past this, it's not going to happen year over year. We're seeing some improvement in the survey, but I think we are going to start seeing more significant improvement in a few years down the road."