International Women’s Day - it's time to stop talking and start acting, says London School of Economics CIO Laura Dawson

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels March 8, 2021
On International Women's Day, it's time to take action and shake up organizational thinking, says Laura Dawson, CIO at the LSE.


Sponsorships not mentorships are the key to encouraging more women into the IT industry and CIOs must recruit for attitude and behavior. That’s the view of  Laura Dawson, CIO at the London School of Economics, who believes a lot of progress still needs to be made before the tech industry can talk credibly about having diverse IT departments.

All the evidence suggests Dawson is right. While women make up nearly half of the global workforce, they represent only 31% of IT employees, according to data from analyst Gartner. The split gets worse the higher you climb the career ladder. Women hold just 16.9% of board seats worldwide, says consultancy Deloitte, while last year’s Harvey Nash and KPMG annual global IT leadership survey found just 12% of CIOs are women.

For her part, Dawson has held a number of senior IT posts in her career, including Head of Information Systems at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, IS Director at Save The Children UK, Global CIO at the British Council and Director, Data and Technology Services at the LSE, before becoming CIO there last September. So she's well-placed to have a professional and personal understanding of the issues at stake here. 

Gartner suggests tech chiefs need to lead organizations into a culture that is more inclusive and conducive to the growth of women in IT careers. Inclusive hiring can help build a pipeline of talent, it recommends, pointing to key steps, such as the use of diverse teams, recruiting from women’s universities and institutions, and attracting internal talent to work across teams.

But while Dawson recognises the pipeline is a critical concern, she also observes that lack of diversity has been a problem in the IT sector for decades. As noted above, survey after survey, year after year, conclude that women are under-represented in both the technology industry and its senior leadership roles. As such, says Dawson, it’s time for management to stop talking and start taking action:

I don't think it's shifted for years. I think, to some extent, it's got worse. We can talk for hours and hours about the pipeline. But I think part of the problem with it is the image of technology itself. We haven't changed that image, and we need to.

One of the key issues, believes Dawson, is how companies choose to recruit talent. CIOs regularly talk about the importance of business and soft skills, but when they go on the hunt for IT talent, their focus is often primarily on technical aptitude. She also suggests that bias arises because recruitment is left until the last possible moment. Time constraints mean that highly experienced individuals are always going to look a good fit for a technology gap that needs to be filled quickly – and with a preponderance of skilled males in the market, women with the right behaviors and aptitudes can be at a disadvantage and get overlooked:

When we recruit for technology, we write down what we want in terms of technical skills, and the people who are applying are writing about what they've got available in terms of technical skills. Then you recruit on that basis. We need to move away from that. We need to start recruiting for attitude and behavior and soft skills and business acumen, not necessarily the technical skills.

By implication, the only way to put an end to this blinkered approach is for IT leaders and their HR counterparts to be more bold in their recruitment. If you want to create a more diverse IT department, think far in advance about the kind of people your company wants to attract and don’t focus on experience alone, advises Dawson:

It's almost a fear factor. We need to be a little bit more forward-thinking, because when you recruit at the last minute you always go for experience. And when you want experience, you always go straight to the technical skills. So let's stop doing that and let's focus on potential. Pull it back a bit and start thinking about succession planning.

Promoting new thinking

Recruitment of new talent isn’t the only concern – promotion of existing capability is clearly an issue too. If just 12% of CIOs are women, then a huge slice of the population isn’t being given access to the kinds of opportunities that can lead to promotion into senior roles. Gartner suggests companies that want to reduce the gender gap should develop hired talent through coaching and mentoring. Other women leaders interviewed for International Women's Day articles have all cited the importance of mentorships. Dawson however suggests organizations need to be wary of seeing them too much as an obvious tool for tackling disparities in the IT sector:

I get so frustrated when managers say, ‘Oh, there's not enough women in technology, there's not enough black people in technology, why don’t we give them a mentor to help them?’. Why that gets me so angry is because what that's effectively saying is those women and those black people need help. I mean we do need to be mentors, but don't mentor because of the color of somebody’s skin or their gender; mentor because the skills require it.

There’s an issue of unconscious bias here, she suggests, with managers recognizing a lack of representation and working from the premise that the people who aren’t being promoted need help. Too many managers, in short, are too busy assuming people aren’t doing something right. An alternative approach – rather than mentoring, companies should sponsor their talent, posits Dawson:

Start recognising the talents that they've got and giving them the opportunities. And expose those opportunities, and don’t always give special projects to the usual suspects. Start being a little bit more risk-taking and doing what we should do, which is to be equal about the opportunities that you have in the business.

Dawson points to examples of where she’s been unable to attend senior meetings and has sent colleagues instead. The result is always the same: the individual in question gains experience, but gives a completely different take on the challenge at hand. In these circumstances, everyone benefits – Dawson gains time, her deputy gains experience and the business receives a fresh perspective. She encourages other business leaders to sponsor talent at every opportunity, something that she experienced early in her career:

I know what a good sponsor looks like because I benefited from one. I benefited from working for somebody who used to say, ‘you need Laura in the room for this’. And that's what we as bosses need to do – we need to be sitting there and saying, ‘you need this person in this room for this’. And not just taking it all on as managers and then then passing it back.

The time for affirmative action is now, concludes Dawson. If CIOs and other business leaders really want to encourage more women to take up senior roles in the IT industry, then they need to be far more assertive:

We need to just keep doing it and not be afraid. I think we, as leaders, have to do our homework as well. So stop asking women what we need to do about the gender gap, and start actually going and researching it yourself, and working it out.