Research: CIO gender diversity is good for business

Read this in-depth discussion with Deloitte on new research into diverse technology teams. Learn from the CIO of Fox Networks, who was previously CIO of Burberry, and learn key lessons on achieving high-performing IT.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Although the topic of gender diversity in technology has received much attention, there has been less research specifically looking at diversity and the CIO role. The huge professional services company, Deloitte, completed a recent study examining this important topic. It's called Smashing IT's glass ceiling: Perspectives from leading women CIOs (pdf).

Deloitte employs 85,000 people with revenue of $40 billion, so its attention to this topic is important. To learn more, I invited the study's lead author, together with a female CIO profiled in the research, to be my guest on episode 289 of the CXOTalk series of conversations with the world's top innovators.

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Kavitha Prabhakar is a partner at Deloitte, where she serves clients across financial services and the federal government. Fumbi Chima is chief information officer of the Fox Networks Group, which is the network business of the 21st Century Fox media conglomerate. Previously, she was CIO of fashion retailer Burberry and, before that, the regional CIO for Walmart Asia.

You can watch our entire conversation in the video above and read an edited excerpt below. You can also read the complete transcript.

Deloitte's research correlates gender parity with achieving business and financial goals. Rather than cast gender diversity as only an HR issue related to "fairness," Deloitte argued that diverse teams perform better.

This argument removes any conflict between doing well financially and doing what's right. As a result, Deloitte's research makes an important contribution to the cause of gender diversity on technology.

The following illustration from the report summarizes the main point:

CXOTalk Deloitte gender diversity
CIO Gender Diversity is good for business.

I must mention that Deloitte's perspective echoes comments from Stuart Sackman, the CIO and chief technology officer of human resources data and services provider ADP, which itself is a $12 billion company. During a recent CXOTalk conversation (not yet published), Sackman repeatedly emphasized the tremendous importance of "diverse teams" as a source of innovation and improved business performance.

The similarities between these disconnected CXOTalk conversations is striking. In both cases, people in a position to see their own data have arrived at similar conclusions on the value of diverse teams in achieving desired business outcomes.

Read the edited comments below and share your thoughts and experiences.

Tell us about your research into gender diversity among CIOs.

Kavitha Prabhakar: The Deloitte CIO program had their inaugural Executive Women in Technology event and forum. The focus of this was very much to bring leading women CIOs together to create a community for them to connect, network, learn, grow from each other, and really support one another. We launched this research in concert with that inaugural event.

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The focus of this research was to really do some analysis on what's going on. This topic is pretty widely written about, for sure, the diversity topic, especially in technology and gender diversity. But our focus was to really zone into the positive side of this story. What is it that is happening that is causing women CIOs to be more successful than not? What are the leadership traits we're seeing in these women CIOs?

This research communicates three things:

  • First, in general, the C-suite looks like it's more welcoming to women technology leaders when compared to other functions like CEO or CFOs. If you look at women CIOs, they make up about 19 percent of US top 1,000 companies, as opposed to CEOs at 6 percent and CFOs at around 12 percent. In general, the C-suite is welcoming to women technology leaders, so there's a positive story there.
  • Second, the focus on gender parity is not just about being fair. There is truly business value and competitive advantage to focusing on this issue. If you look at it, there's tremendous research that says, "When you have women in leadership positions, you have higher productivity." The companies truly outperform other firms. There are better team dynamics. Overall, financial performance is also excellent in such situations.
  • Third, the research highlights the qualities that women CIOs bring to the table: The power of persuasion, the power of influence. The willingness to take risks are higher in women leaders and in women CIOs, persisting after a failure and/or the ability to go deep on topics. These were some of the things we took away in our overall findings in our research.

How do the research findings relate to your individual experiences?

Fumbi Chima: I completely agree with the three topics that Kavitha said. I think the third one really around having CIOs as women, there is that element of being a lot more inclusive, building, actually, future leaders. Not to compare it with the opposite sex, but there's that element of nurturing. That's really what I think we do a lot more.

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It's about the inclusiveness because we work along with a lot of adversities. We have to go through those challenges, so those life experiences, those professional experiences, we culminate everything into how we make decisions and how we bring people along.

For example, I didn't start from an engineering background. I was an accountant, then I moved into strategy and technology, and then worked my way through. I think, being able to see that bigger picture, being able to help kind of go through the challenges and going deep and across, I'm able to bring in just that, the diversity of thought and challenging status quo. I think that's what people are looking for. That's what organizations are looking for at the moment. I think that's where women, actually, do a lot better.

Kavitha Prabhakar: The research shows that innovation thrives in environments where gender diversity is a big factor of teams.

Kavitha Prabhakar: There were two traits in which women outperform their male counterparts. That's a willingness to take risk, but then persisting after a failure. It's taking risks and, as Fumbi said, there are some fast failures, more likely than not, but the ability to persist after failure is also something that we have seen our women technologists do better.

What unique challenges do female CIOs face?

Fumbi Chima: For CIOs, the challenge is around the evolving technologies that are upon us. What does digital really mean, and how do you apply it to the business context?

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The whole gender piece is about having balance. It's having balance because we go deep. We're very engaged. We're very involved. But, at the same time, you also have a different life. I'm a mother; I'm a wife. I'm a sister; I'm a daughter. How do you bring all of that into yourself and also be very productive at work?

I think men do it better than we do because they don't have those --with all due respect -- the external responsibilities of, "I've got to go home and make dinner," or, "I don't go home and make dinner," but you have those spousal responsibilities because many of their spouses are probably at home and they have to deal with that. How do you place that balance?

At the same time, earning the respect that you have in a room full of men and being able to hear your voice. Having that voice to speak to people and being heard without being talked over, because we get a lot of those situations where people talk over you.

You have to decide whether you want to be assertive -- it's not aggressive -- to go, "You know what? I am speaking, and this is what I need to say, and you have to hear me even though there's 90 percent of you and there's only one of me." Having your voice heard.

The other piece, I think, is that many of us feel that we have to put 150 percent into our work, versus the other gender, which probably puts in half the time and still achieves, because we feel like we have to prove ourselves twice as much.

Kavitha Prabhakar: We look at this concept of a leaky pipe. We're losing women over time as they progress in their technology careers. I think 27 percent at entry-level is the representation and, as you go up levels to middle management, it falls down into the teens and, at the executive level, it's really the low teens at about 14 percent. The leaky pipe is a big challenge that we face in terms of how to create enough people interested in this field and sustain them.

There are lots of factors that get to that, as Fumbi said. First of all, the number of women who [enter] technology-related education fields is less [than men]. If you have daughters, nieces, granddaughters, encourage them to think about an education or an interest in STEM because we've got to make the pipeline of women coming up in these fields stronger. That's, I think, extremely important.

Women tend to be the primary care providers, so how can organizations take that dimension into account in their HR policies, with flexible work schedules? Really think about how you can retain women in the pipeline and keep them committed to it.

Mentorship is yet another dimension we can talk more about, Michael, but there too, it's all about sustaining. As they enter, how do they sustain to keep in the pipeline and reach the top levels of the organization?

Fumbi Chima: Being a CIO is about leadership and the vision, strategy, collaboration. Absolutely we can encourage people and encourage future girls. We've coined technology to be such a boring thing. It's so exciting. How we create that excitement in this industry is what we need to look at.

How can organizations address the problem?

Kavitha Prabhakar: The tone has to be set on the top. This has to become a business imperative. It can't be just about being fair. It cannot just be about HR policies. This truly is about the board and the management's agenda of every organization to have diversity and inclusion be part of their organization's mission and culture, overall.

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Then, holding your leaders accountable. How are you going to measure for this? How are you going to look at things like hiring goals for gender parity? How are you looking at pay gap between men and women? How are you ensuring retention? How do you make sure that high-performing women, are making it to top levels of the organization and are being called upon to lead the organization when opportunities or roles become available?

Fumbi Chima: It's not about HR. It's not. It's about how you do it. It's the tone at the top.

Also, though, other women have to bring other women along. To make sure that when we do see those hidden gems; when we do see those talents, we need to put them under our wings.

Sometimes it's not about the meritocracy. It's not about the promotions. It's about the support network. The reason that a lot of those women are leaving middle management after they have had the children. Yes, HR policy can help support that, but we do not have a broader support network that helps you through experiences and talks about those challenges.

Kavitha Prabhakar: One of my favorite quotes is, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women." [Laughter]. It's a Madeleine Albright quote.

We have to invite men to the gender parity conversation absolutely equally as we invite women to it. During my career, I definitely had very strong women leaders. There also have been men leaders who have pulled me up. I use that phrase very purposefully. It is. You are being pulled up and, doing that, doing that for others and paying that forward, I think, is very important, very important as we approach this issue.

What advice do you have for women and for corporations?

Kavitha Prabhakar: I think, with corporations, I won't rehash the point, but the tone at the top has to be something that the board and the management really, really focuses on; diversity and inclusion, and getting to the level that they find is acceptable. That has to be done by setting true goals.

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We had a human capital survey recently, which talks about 76 percent believe it absolutely is important and is a competitive advantage to address this issue. But, only 6 percent tied compensation to diversity outcomes and gender parity outcomes. It's interesting. We have to give it teeth, right? We have to measure it, we have to goal people, and we have to tie compensation to these outcomes. Otherwise, the change doesn't come. That's one point I would say.

The other thing is to look at your process. Deloitte, we do blind resume reviews to remove any level of bias in assuming that this resume is a woman's resume and, therefore, not eligible or there's probably not a likelihood that she is a great programmer in Python. It is really looking at specific things in your flow to see what is it that you can do better, like resume reviews for instance. There's a lot we do around candidate screening.

We really look at gender pay gaps. There's attention in many companies today on that. One small change in technique, as an example that I'll give you, is we used to look at what someone coming in was earning before we made the offer as opposed to the marketplace value of that role and how much we should pay the individual. By doing so, we have stopped perpetuating the pay gap issue. We don't bring in women lower than men for the same role because it's about the role. Really looking at your flow, your entire flow of hiring, growth, retention, and really bringing that lens, I think, is extremely important from an organization perspective to address this issue.

Hopefully, I'm being tactical in some of this, Michael, to give people something to think about. Fumbi, before we go to women themselves, I would love your perspective.

Fumbi Chima: I think you're spot on there. But, I think, sometimes the key issues also start with recruitment. The only issue I think that we need to think carefully on is that when you do the blind resume screening if the pipeline is small from the onset, you're not necessarily going to get all that feed into it. So, how do we deal with even getting the pipeline in the first place? I think that's where we need to challenge ourselves, challenge HR to actually go out and sometimes proactively seek people or candidates that may not look like us, feel like us, and have that diversity of both gender and race into the recruiting process.

Well, both the HR process and also the leadership. I think what I found to be most successful for us is, to your point, you tie it to compensation. If you tie it to my bonus or my pay every year [laughter]...

Summarize the most important lesson?

Kavitha Prabhakar: Women have the core leadership skills to be extremely successful in technology fields and, more so, this is a business imperative, gender parity, and not just about being fair.

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Fumbi Chima: Be available to take the risk. Focus. You're going to fail; fail fast. Have great support, but you must have that courage. Persistence is going to get you there. Go for it, ladies! We can all do it together.

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