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Want to Keep More Women on the Path Toward IT Leadership? Here’s How.

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By Kris van Riper and Kathryn Stewart March 10, 2017

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Kris van Riper is a practice leader at CEB and Kathryn Stewart is a senior analyst at CEB.

Compared to other functions within the federal government, women are vastly underrepresented in IT leadership positions. According to the Office of Personnel Management, women currently represent 38 percent of all federal leaders. However, they represent just 28 percent of IT leaders at the GS-15 level and 23 percent of federal CIOs in Office of Management and Budget’s CIO Council.

This imbalance is problematic not only because of the internal signals it sends on federal diversity and inclusion priorities, but because it also creates a challenge in delivering externally on citizen services. As IT shifts from serving as builders of internal IT products toward builders of citizen-facing digital service experiences, it’s critical to have IT leaders reflect the citizens they serve.

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Through our research we have found challenges with retention significantly contribute to IT’s gender imbalance. Keeping women in technology fields is difficult. According to a study in Harvard Business Review, 56 percent of women in technology roles leave their employer mid-career. The most significant departure rate is in the first few years of their career, but the drain of female technology staff is evident across all levels from the most junior to the most senior. The study also found women in the high-tech industry leave their jobs at more than twice the rate of their male peers.

In studying ways to improve the retention of women in IT, we uncovered two strategies IT, HR and diversity leaders should employ:

1. Highlight flextime in the employee value proposition.

CEB found one of the most important predictors of retention for women managers is satisfaction with workplace flexibility—or the ability to be able to work remotely and have some control over working hours. In fact, 47 percent of women managers who report they are satisfied with workplace flexibility also report a high intent to stay in their current roles.

However, only 17 percent of women managers who are not happy with their workplace flexibility have a high intent to stay. We tested several retention drivers in our research, and that 30 percent difference is the most significant—and shows workplace flexibility is a powerful retention tool.

Flextime policies are an important part of the EVP for many federal agencies. This may contribute to the fact that the representation of women IT leaders is slightly higher in the federal government than in the private sector. But IT leaders cannot take this for granted. They need to continue to highlight flexible working arrangements in interviews and job descriptions as an important differentiator when competing for talent.

2. Promote mentoring programs for women in IT.

Mentoring is a critical tool for engagement and retention of emerging leaders. The most effective mentoring programs provide participants with guidance and visibility to future career options. According to our research, women who have high visibility into future career opportunities are five times more likely to report a high intent to stay at their current organization than women with low visibility.

Providing mentors for emerging women leaders in IT is especially important given the lower share of women they see in IT leadership positions. Some leading organizations have created individual and group mentoring programs for women in IT that not only provide mentors but also include guest speakers and peer-to-peer networking to encourage connectivity across the community.

Federal IT leaders should focus on proven strategies to diversify their pipeline of future leaders. The issue requires a long-term investment horizon but is one that has the potential to provide long-term benefits to the IT leadership pipeline.

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