women IT

6 pieces of advice for women aspiring to IT leadership

At EDUCAUSE's annual conference, a panel of four female IT leaders sat down for a frank discussion on gender bias and workplace advancement

EDUCAUSE is, at least in my experience, traditionally attended by and filled with content from mostly white men, so it was very refreshing to see an all-female panel offering advice for fellow women aspiring to leadership roles in IT.

The session addressed issues such as conscious and unconscious gender bias, how to identify role models and mentors, and how to build the skills necessary to lead an IT team.

The topic comes at a time of heightened tensions around gender bias and sexual harassment in the IT field, and the conversation was especially timely given the atmosphere of outspoken protest against gender inequality. Tech giant Google has faced huge internal backlash and an international employee walkout over the way it has handled–or hasn’t handled–accusations of sexual harassment against male executives.

Panelists included:

  • Celeste Schwartz, vice president for information technology and chief digital officer at Montgomery County Community College and 2018 EDUCAUSE Leadership Award Recipient
  • Sue Workman, vice president for university technology/CIO at Case Western Reserve University
  • Sharon Pitt, vice president for information technologies at the University of Delaware
  • Melissa Woo, senior vice president for IT and CIO, Stony Brook University

Moderator Steven Burrell, VPIT and CIO at Northern Arizona University, offered up a mix of pre-populated questions and audience-submitted questions.

1. Women continue to face significant obstacles on the path to IT leadership roles. What activities, initiatives, and efforts are particularly effective at raising awareness and creating positive change in diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Pitt: “At my own institution, I’m pleased that some folks within my organization started a Women in Technology group. As much as possible, I try to engage in diversity activities that happen [around me]. I think there’s a lot we can do, and you’d be surprised how the smallest effort has such a big impact, such as asking my staff to participate in HR activities around understanding and privilege.”

Woo: “On a local level, our campus is very devoted to diversity and inclusion. I’m lucky to have an HR professional on my team. We’re working to redefine what the ‘best candidate’ is–[we are building] a tool that uses AI to look at your job description to identify bias. We want to pilot it within central IT first to better position women and other underrepresented groups into roles where the job descriptions resonate with them.”

Schwartz: “In our institution, we really work hard to ensure there’s diversity, especially among our student workers. There are lots of young men in the IT field, so when we look to fill our help desk positions, which are normally filled via faculty recommendations, normally, young men apply. We’re working specifically with female IT faculty and asking them to identify women in their program and encourage those women to apply. We’ve found that young men are much more confident about applying for these jobs than young women.”

2. What advice do you have for men who may not know how to best support women who experience gender bias?

Workman: “Make sure you know the law and make sure you know what your institution expects. Always make sure you are trying to help in a healthy way. It’s a hard thing right now. Also, call it out–amplify a great idea that might not be heard in a meeting because it comes from a woman.”

Schwartz: “If you have special projects, make sure there are opportunities–it’s not unusual that a woman might sit back a little and wait to be asked. Sometimes men seem more enthusiastic about new projects. Make sure there’s a balance in any kind of special project. Make sure there’s an equal opportunity for men and women in PD–oftentimes men are much clearer about what it is they’re hoping for. Ask where a woman hopes to be.”

Pitt: “I’ve been pretty unapologetic about this. Two years ago I presented with [a colleague] who said one of her biggest regrets was that she tried to make things more comfortable for the men. I said [to myself], ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m going to raise this issue every day. We have a lot of white men in my organization and they’ve risen to the challenge.'”

Woo: “Just ask the women. It can be hard for male allies to offer help and address it without getting called out for inappropriate behavior. So ask.”

3. When looking for leaders at the highest levels, what skills and qualities are often missing?

Workman: “Decisive decision-making.”

Schwartz: “Transparency–as people climb the leadership ladder, they can feel as if they have to keep to themselves, meaning information-sharing relationships aren’t necessarily as strong as they could be.”

4. How do you create equity? I’ve been told I have to learn how to speak to my male colleagues.

Schwartz: “Being told you have to know how to speak to your male colleagues says to me there might be something wrong within the institution or department. People are people and everyone has their own approach to communicating with one another. As long as it’s respectful and honest … I feel bad hearing that question.”

5. What are the top 3-5 key skills that matter most on path to CIO?

Celeste: “Relationship-building. It’s not really about being the most brilliant technologist in the universe; it’s about knowing how to build relationships. Those relationships will make a difference in your success.

Pitt: “Communication. You have to be an effective communicator. You’ll have to communicate over and over again to multiple groups, and communicate clearly.”

Workman: “Initiative and innovation. You have to get people to follow you and you have to be a good leader. You’re not going to do most of these initiatives and projects; you’re going to inspire others to do them.”

Woo: “Empathy and cultural awareness.”

6. If you had to give women a single piece of advice today, what would it be?

Workman: “You have to love what you do.”

Woo: “You can’t always change what happens, but you can change how you respond to it.”

Pitt: “Take a moment to breathe. It helps you re-group, re-frame, re-center, and re-energize.”

Schwartz: “Follow yourself, your heart, and do not let go of the importance of integrity as you move forward with your work.”

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Laura Ascione

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