Much of the latest data on women rising to the C-suite in tech companies is less than upbeat. For example, a recent study by the Silicon Valley Bank reported that 57 percent of US tech start-ups have no women in executive positions and 71 percent say they have no women on their board of directors. Perhaps even worse, senior-level women in the United States are leaving the field faster than they are entering it, creating a waning pipeline of qualified female leaders. Yet, the news is not all bad. Three recent data points unlock some guiding advice that will help women rise faster and further in the field of technology.
Be strategic. The Silicon Valley Bank survey found that companies with at least one female founder have more women in the C-suite and on the board of directors. Extrapolating, women have a better chance for advancement in tech organizations that have female executives to pull them up into leadership. This corresponds with what we already know—we need other women not only to serve as role models but also to sponsor us. Being strategic in this sense points to two prescriptions. First, network with organizations founded by women and those with a track record of promoting women. Second, whenever possible, actively solicit help from female executives and recruit them as mentors and sponsors.
Be opportunistic. The study above also reported that the number of US start-ups with programs in place aimed at increasing female representation in leadership roles jumped from 25 percent in 2017 to 41 percent in 2018. This finding indicates that more tech firms are actively scanning the horizon for qualified female leaders. With that as the backdrop, now is the time to step up and solicit more responsibility and ask for higher-profile assignments.
In my work at Spencer Stuart, and previously as head of leadership development at Cisco, I’ve found that the best way for women to gain experience and rise faster as leaders is to prove themselves in a wider variety of roles across the organization. In doing so, look for opportunities to get beyond support silos like HR, and ask for leadership roles with P&L responsibility that give you a chance to demonstrate measurable results.
Be yourself. According to Deloitte, the percentage of women CIOs in large organizations today is much greater than the percentage of women CEOs and CFOs. While this is instructive for women in IT, the broader lesson can be found in the rationale. Women are succeeding in greater numbers in CIO roles because, according to the study, their unique strengths make them more suited to IT leadership and allow them to outperform their male colleagues.
If our natural inclination toward empathy, flexibility, emotional intelligence, and creativity can help us become CIOs in the Fortune 1000, perhaps playing to these same strengths can create broader opportunities for us in technology. This is simple advice for women to follow: showcase your natural strengths, and it may work to your advantage at the C-suite level in tech companies.
The road to the C-suite for women in tech firms is admittedly narrow at present—but it does exist. The best way to progress it is to look for ways to leverage the path of least resistance. DW
Cassandra Frangos is a consultant on Spencer Stuart’s Leadership Advisory Services team, former head of executive talent at Cisco, and author of Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make It to the Top. Connect with her on Twitter: @c_frangos.