Women CIOs take the lead
WHILE THE number of women in top executive positions internationally remains low, there seems to be a less-daunting glass ceiling for the role of the chief information officer – the CIO.
According to a survey earlier this year by the Wall Street Journal, women make up nearly a quarter of CIOs (24 per cent) in Fortune 100 companies, compared to only 10 per cent of chief financial officers (CFOs) and 7 per cent of chief executives (CEOs).
The figure is lower for Britain – only about 10 per cent of CIOs there are women, says Judi Edwards, who has held the position at several companies, including Levi Strauss Europe, and is now a vice-president and executive partner at analyst Gartner.
Ireland, she says, is similar. Currently there are 18 female CIOs in the top 200 companies here.
Do women have a particular talent for the broad-ranging CIO role, a position that encompasses oversight of information systems as well as strengths in managing human relations and, ideally, a role in top-level strategy planning?
“Well, that’s tricky, because you need to be very careful as it’s very easy to overstate things,” says Edwards, on a recent visit to clients in Ireland.
“In any organisation, what we’re all looking for is balanced teams and, unfortunately, what you don’t see is a lot of young women going into IT. I hate generalisations, but women do have some unique skills, I think, which can make them especially good in the role of CIO.”
She has gained great insight into this particular issue, both from her 10 years of experience as a CIO, most recently with Burberry and before that Levi Strauss, Europe – and because she runs a regular women’s CIO forum for Gartner.
“My first CIO role was in 1996, and, as a woman, I was a very rare creature then,” she laughs. Her background has been CIO work in the retail sector, starting out as it adopted point-of-sale IT systems, an area she found very interesting.
“Ninety per cent of profit came in four weeks of the year (around Christmas), so systems had to be at peak.”
At Levi Strauss, she said, “you’re as much caught up with the circumstances of the moment”, not just focused on a specific sales period. She found the role exciting because she came in as CIO just as the company was preparing for global expansion, and she had the major job of helping design and construct a global supply chain.
In that role, she was part of Levi’s European board, where “it was much easier to contribute to the global business”.
At Burberry, the CIO role reported to the CFO – generally less ideal then reporting directly to the CEO, she says. Nonetheless, she notes the chief financial officer involved was “very visionary, and I felt I was able to make a difference even without reporting to the CEO. But most chief information officers report to the CEO, and it definitely makes the job easier.”
If the CIO reports to the CFO, the role can be suppressed, becoming more about managing IT rather than higher-level corporate strategy, she argues.
The primary role for any CIO, setting aside some minor business sector differences, is to understand the role of technology in the business and how it interacts with the business, she says.