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Women CIOs: Will Their Numbers Soon Decline?

A 2011 study of women in IT suggests that the number of women CIOs may drop in the future, and lays out the reasons why.

A 2011 study of women in IT, conducted by the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies (CHECS), suggests that the number of women CIOs in higher education may actually decline in the future, due to a higher percentage of women IT leaders planning to take early retirement—or simply not wanting the top job.

The study tracked the level of representation of women at the CIO-level position and also in the position directly beneath that of the CIO, referred to as a Technology Leader (TL). The number of women CIOs in higher education has stayed level at 23 percent over the past two years, down from 26 percent in 2008. The number of TLs also remained unchanged from 2010, at 37 percent.

Looking at the long-term prospects for women in IT, however, the study paints a less promising picture. Here's why:

  • Age. Women who have made it to the top rung of their profession as CIOs tend to be older than their male counterparts. Seventy-six percent of responding women CIOs were 46-60 years old, compared with just 58 percent of male CIOs in the same age bracket. Women TLs also tend to be older than their male counterparts. The reasons for this discrepancy are unclear, but may have to do with women taking time off from their careers to raise families, only returning to the workplace after several years.
  • Retirement Plans. Not surprisingly, given the age discrepancy, 53 percent of female CIOs plan to retire over the next 10 years compared with just 46 percent of men CIOs. But older age does not explain everything. Women in younger age brackets also appear to be eyeing earlier retirement than their male counterparts. Among women CIOs aged 41-45, 20 percent of those surveyed predicted they would retire within 10 years, compared with just 7 percent of men. It's a trend that also shows up strongly among TLs. Among women TLs aged 46-50, 32 percent of those surveyed indicated a desire to retire within 10 years, compared with just 15 percent of men. Among women 51-55, the trend is even more pronounced, with 65 percent planning to retire within a decade, compared with 42 percent of men of the same age. As the study authors write, "Clearly, for those concerned about the gender balance in IT leadership, women’s retirement plans among CIOs and TLs in higher education cannot be ignored."
  • Career Aspirations. Plans for early retirement among women TLs may well be linked to a third, surprising finding of the study: Many women simply don't want the top job. Out of the 37 percent of TLs who are women, only 48 percent said they aspire to be CIO. Among men, who represent 63 percent of all TLs, 68 percent hope to make head honcho. Why so many women don't aspire to the top leadership position is not fully understood. According to the study's authors, though, the reasons include "lack of mentors, a perceived macho culture in IT, extreme demands of IT work, plus differences between the sexes in leadership styles and family responsibilities."

Taken together, these three factors threaten to undercut the significant gains that women have made in IT. In their conclusion to the CHECS study, its authors write: "Earlier retirement plans for female CIOs and TLs could drain the pipeline of future potential CIOs, and efforts should be made to understand what is driving women’s desires to leave higher education IT sooner, rather than later."

About the Author

Andrew Barbour is the former executive editor of Campus Technology.

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