How the Federal Government Can Bring More Women into IT Leadership

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Finding leaders means hiring people with potential. Here are three recruiting tactics to do that.

Kris van Riper is a practice leader at CEB, now Gartner.

As many private-sector high-tech firms are facing scrutiny on the topic of gender balance in IT, there has been growing interest in understanding the current state of this issue within federal IT. The federal government is not immune: Women are relatively underrepresented in IT leadership roles. 

According to the Office of Personnel Management, women currently represent 38 percent of all federal leaders and 48 percent of federal finance leaders at the GS-15 level. But within IT, women represent just 28 percent of IT leaders at the GS-15 level and just 23 percent of federal chief information officers in the Office of Management and Budget’s CIO Council.

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However, to increase the number of women in IT leadership roles, leaders must take a long-term view.  They can’t focus solely on succession planning at the leadership level: They also need to invest in the quality of the pipeline of female employees who could become future leadership candidates.

To achieve more representation of women in IT, recruiting is critical to developing a more balanced pipeline of talent that can serve as potential candidates for future IT leadership positions. There are three proven recruiting tactics that IT leaders can employ to improve the representation of women in IT: 

Prioritize a Broader Set of Strategic Skills 

Changes in the role of IT departments in the federal government may create an unexpected opportunity to improve gender diversity across IT teams in the future. As IT becomes a critical enabler of digital services for citizens, it will become even more important to have a cohort of IT leaders that reflect the customers they serve.  In making this shift, an increasing share of the competencies required for IT leaders to be successful are strategic skills, not just technical certifications.  

CEB, now Gartner, has identified the key competencies that drive high performance in IT leaders based on our research of more than 2,000 IT professionals across 75 organizations. In analyzing the performance of IT professionals, we have found that high performance is not predicted by a long set of technical certifications, but instead by broad competencies in areas such as influence, analytic ability, teamwork, learning agility and stakeholder management. When looking to fill roles, IT leaders should consider candidates with experience both inside and outside of IT, in areas such as vendor management, project management, customer experience design, digital marketing and social media. This, in turn, helps improve the pipeline of women candidates, as we’ve found many of these fields also happen to have a broader representation of women than traditional computer science roles.  

Revisit the Language of Position Descriptions to Address Unconscious Bias

Many organizations include language in their IT job descriptions that have an unintended bias toward male candidates. To increase the recruitment of women in IT, one leading consumer brands company created a best-practice toolkit to make job listings more neutral. Their job advertisements now feature more collaborative language and inclusive pronouns. Moreover, they reflect the potential for growth and highlight mentorship and training opportunities so that female candidates know that they will be supported in the role. At this company, women leaders in IT are involved in all steps of the job advertisement writing process to reduce the presence of unconscious bias and are well represented as interviewers during the hiring stages. As a result of these changes, the firm has had an increase in the number of qualified candidates who apply for open IT roles and an increase in the number of female employees within their IT function.

Invite Qualified Women to Apply for Internal Opportunities

Many leaders—regardless of function—assume that when a leadership opportunity opens, all qualified candidates are equally likely to apply. However, research from Hewlett Packard shows that women typically do not apply for a position unless they feel they meet 100 percent of the stated criteria in the job description, whereas men are likely to apply for a position where they meet only 60 percent.

To bring more women into the recruiting process, leading government CIOs proactively encourage all qualified internal candidates to apply for an open position. The final candidate selection is ultimately focused on selecting the most qualified person, but by encouraging more candidates to apply, CIOs can ensure they are considering all who are interested and qualified. 

IT teams that want to create improved gender balance in the long-term should address these three immediate recruiting opportunities to create more diverse talent pipelines.  Organizations that do this successfully will be able to proactively seek out qualified women for the IT pipeline now so that they are prepared for roles that will open in the future.

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