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The State of Women CIOs in 2016

Sharon Gillenwater
by Sharon Gillenwater on Nov 9, 2016 3:09:28 PM


Is there a glass ceiling for women CIOs in the U.S.? Looking at the results from a Korn Ferry study as well as our own analysis of women tech leaders in the Fortune 500, it’s beginning to feel that way. At least, it seems there’s less of a shattering and more of a gradual crack.

Let’s look at Korn Ferry’s research first. The firm released its 2016 Analysis of the Largest U.S. Companies, a study of the top 1,000 U.S. companies by revenue. The findings show that the percentage of women in most C-suite positions is still dramatically lagging their male counterparts. Across the most prominent C-suite titles—CEO, CFO, CIO, CMO, and CHRO—less than one quarter (24 percent) of the top leaders are women.

Digging specifically into the CIO role, the percentage of women was even lower—19 percent across all industries. This is despite the focus Korn Ferry says CEOs and boards have on gender equality in the CIO role, a focus Craig Stephenson, Korn Ferry’s Managing Director of the North America CIO practice, expects to continue “for years to come as the CIO creates greater strategic impact across organizations.”

Intriguingly, the numbers range dramatically, depending on the industry. Energy companies in the Korn Ferry study show a much higher percentage of women CIOs—35%—compared to technology, where women make up just 11 percent of CIOs. Even the consumer industry, a longtime magnet for women, has just 18 percent female CIOs.

According to an August 2016 post in The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal,
the results align with a 2015 survey of senior IT managers by the Society of Information Management, which found that 88.9 percent of CIOs were men. The CIO Journal wrote, “At U.S.-based firms with a median annual income of $500 million, the typical CIO was a 51-year-old male who had been at his post for about five years, the survey found.”

Boardroom Insiders’ 2016 list looks specifically at female CIOs in the Fortune 500 and the numbers are different, but no better. In the Fortune 500, women have lost a bit of ground since 2015. Last year, 87 of the F500 had female CIOs, or 17.4 percent. As of November 1, 2016, the number dropped to 75, or just 15 percent.

It doesn’t improve when you look at the top companies. Among the Fortune 100, 20 percent of companies have women CIOs in 2016. That’s a drop from 24 percent in 2015.

Like Korn Ferry, we also looked at industries and here again we found a different line up. Consumer Products/Retail/Entertainment industries in the F500 have the largest concentration of women CIOs at 20 percent. Energy, which in the Korn Ferry study has the highest representation, is a mere 14 percent among the F500. Transportation has only 5 percent, but we found it interesting that two of the biggest airlines—American Airlines Group and United Continental Holdings—as well as two major rail lines—CSX and Norfolk Southern—have female CIOs.

So, should these numbers be a cause for concern? Is this an indication of regression, despite the stated diversity focus in the boardroom? Martha Heller, President of Heller Search Associates, sees something different. According to Heller, women with CIO skills are finding other options.

“IT is no longer the only destination for women who have an interest and skills in technology,” she said. “With technology permeating every aspect of a business, female technologists can go into marketing, product development, data science and more.”

And, Heller offered a reality check. “IT with its 24/7 culture and male-dominated culture is clearly becoming less attractive as a career to female technologists among so many other choices.” That may be especially critical to the 30 percent of F500 women CIOs whom we note have children.

Because of the small numbers of women, Heller thinks the actual industry breakdown may be a bit random, noting, “If 20 female CIOs move from utilities to insurance this year, we’ll see an entirely different breakdown.” But she pointed out that consumer-oriented businesses have always attracted more female leadership.

“I would imagine if you did a breakdown of female CEOs, you’d find more in consumer product, retail and entertainment than other areas. Women tend to make more of the consumer products buying decisions in their households, so those industries attracting more women makes sense,” she noted.

Our Fortune 500 breakdown took a look at some other attributes of Women CIOs in 2016:

  • 9 percent of F500 female CIOs are immigrants who hail from Canada, India, England, the former Soviet Union, Mexico, and Colombia.
  • 50 percent hold advanced degrees, including 28 percent who have MBAs.
  • 20 percent are lifers at their companies, having worked there for all, or the vast majority, of their careers.
  • Nearly all of them serve on nonprofit or industry association boards and 22 percent of them serve on corporate boards of directors.
  • Their top “leadership factories”—the companies where they most frequently worked early in their careers—are GE, Southwestern Bell/AT&T and General Motors.

And speaking of leadership factories, four of the female CIOs on our Fortune 500 list are former military. Colleen Dunn of Best Buy Co., Inc. served in the Marine Corps. Denise Clark of Estee Lauder Companies, Inc. was a Navy commander. Julia Davis of Aflac, Inc. is an Air Force veteran. And Meg McCarthy of Aetna, Inc. served in the Navy Medical Services Corp.

We also learned that Fortune 500 women CIOs, despite having demanding jobs, make time for their hobbies and passions, most of which revolve around being physically active. Their top hobbies include travel, running, golf, skiing, and sailing.

It would be a cliché to say that these are clearly talented, ambitious women—and fret over what the future holds. But Heller seems optimistic. Like Korn Ferry’s Stephenson, she, too, has found that executive committees recognize the lack of gender diversity in their ranks and are working hard to attract female CIOs, noting that companies are establishing mentoring programs specifically to allow women to develop into senior leaders. Strikingly, she said, corporate boards who appoint CIOs tend to appoint women.

“This is anecdotal,” she added. “But it seems that every time I hear that a CIO has been appointed to a board, that new board member is a woman.”

You can download our entire list of Fortune 500 Female CIOs for free. Use it to better understand and identify your prospects. 

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Sharon Gillenwater
Written by Sharon Gillenwater
Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.
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