Technology vendors lead the way in appointing new cadre of CIO - and they happen to be women

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth December 8, 2022
Seven major enterprise technology vendors have women CIOs, as diversity awareness grows in the tech sector

Leadership change management showing people forming arrow shape © WHYFRAME - Shutterstock
(© WHYFRAME - Shutterstock)

Adobe, Cloud Software Group, Netskope, Nutanix, Salesforce, Schneider Electric, and SUSE are some of the most important names in enterprise technology, and seven vendors that all have CIOs that are women. In 14 years of watching the CIO and CTO roles, I cannot think of a time when one vertical market had such a healthy number of female technology executives. 

So what has changed? And what does this mean both for the enterprise technology sector and for diversity in the CIO role? diginomica spoke to a trio of these leaders about their roles, as well as industry experts and asked if there is a substantial change taking place. 

Important as gender is, the main reason for this trend is down to a change in the CIO role and its remit. As Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at cloud technology provider Nutanix, says: 

My job is to blend operational expertise with technology, so it is a multi-faceted role, and in that sense, these tend to be characteristics of female executives. They are not, though uniquely female characteristics.

Yalda Mirzai, a California tech native was EMEA CIO with CA Technologies from 2017 to 2020 and is now Global VP of Technology and Innovation at B-Corp consumer goods firm, Danone, and she agrees with Pfeiffer. Mirzai says:

It is dangerous to make generalizations as leadership characteristics are not gender exclusive, but to be a leader, you need a very high level of emotional intelligence (EQ), and women tend to bring that to the table.

She says the number of women CIOs within enterprise vendors is a reflection of a wider change in society: 

This macro level correction was inevitable given the heightened level of consciousness in the tech society to level the playing field.

As well as the societal shift, there is a change taking place within vendors, which attracted Ilona Simpson to join cybersecurity technology provider Netskope earlier this year, following a career in manufacturing, supply chain and utility organizations. She says of her EMEA CIO role:  

Investment in technology is growing, because of its importance in products, business and operating models. Being at the forefront of shaping technology as an industry which in turn will enable many businesses, and influencing the future of an essential domain for organizations and for the society (in my case cybersecurity) is about having an impact at a very different level. It‘s intense, challenging and highly rewarding.

She believes the role of the CTO is becoming more important, and therefore working in a technology provider will equip her with the skills to become one. 

Gender roles

Because the skill set needed to be a modern CIO has changed, the women CIOs at the helm of major technology companies believe their gender is less important. As Simpson says: 

I was not hired for the cosmetics of being female. They were looking for a specific skill set and experience.

Pfeiffer at Nutanix adds: 

I have spent most of my career not really thinking about my gender, but thinking about what I was interested in.

She says that tokenism does exist and that women CIOs can use this to their advantage. Pfeiffer adds:

I would not be on the boards I sit on if one of my characteristics was not that I am a woman. But, it is not why I got the job; it is why I was considered. And I kept the role through my performance.

The coach John Madden talks about everyone using their unfair advantages in life. With technology companies, I had the opportunity and advantage to be considered. We must use whatever unfair advantage we have.

Former CA Technologies CIO Mirzai talks of a heightened consciousness in society and a levelling of the playing field that needed to happen, and there is little doubt that is taking place across the business landscape. Pfeiffer agrees and adds: 

Because of the way the world and attitudes are changing, there is more of a desire to have diverse leadership boards. The millennials and Generation Z care about the environmental, social and governance (ESG) stance of the firms they purchase from. People are buying with principles, and that is important.

Boards are setting targets for greater diversity in senior leadership teams and the wider workforce. The dynamic of the technology business has changed, risk is shared, and collaboration is key and this, again, has led to changes in leadership methods, which has benefited the right type of leader. Mirzai says: 

Leading technology firms have realized exponential growth by building upon ‘customer success’  and tapping into that requires a whole lot of empathy. That leadership sensibility, to reach the hearts and minds of organizations and their customers is currency.  That is the CIO of today.

Barnaby Parker, CEO of Venquis,an international technology recruitment specialist, says diversity targets are both good for the business seeking a new CIO, and for the recruitment provider: 

Quotas are a differentiator and will lead to more women CIOs. There is lots to be said for bringing in a wider perspective at the recruitment process.

Mirzai  adds that the technology sector has not been afraid to tackle the diversity agenda: 

When you see one, two, three incredible female leaders, it accelerates the possibilities for other companies to follow suit, and this dynamic builds upon itself. We all know the statistics, diversity is good business in the boardroom and arguably all the way down to the break room.

Impact on recruitment

Inevitably this cultural shift is impacting the recruiters and the recruitment process. As diginomica reported recently, the annual Nash Squared Digital Leadership report found a slight improvement in diversity, with 14% of leaders being women and 23% of respondents' technology teams now being women. Bev White, CEO of Nash Squared, says of this: 

"The diversity from a gender perspective is improving, and that is great. But it will take until 2060 to get to an equal balance. So we have got to focus more on this.

Parker at Venquis says that job specs have changed to both reflect an increased awareness of the importance of diversity, but also the new skills organizations require: 

The role of CIO is a true leadership role rather than one of technology governance, so that broadens the audience of who you can attract.

This has led to some early improvements in the pipeline. Despite these clear improvements, attracting candidates is just part of the job. 

Longer term

The C-suite is where the longer-term direction of diversity will be set, but as Pfeiffer at Nutanix says: 

Being committed to and achieving a diverse workforce is difficult. Every year we hold ourselves to certain standards, but we have to learn along the way. We were tracking percentages across the firm, that is important, but we didn't initially understand the role of equity and inclusion. Now I am focused on these, and we have a pipeline of women, different ethnicities, and a pipeline towards executive leadership.

Mirzai adds that as a senior leader, your organization expects you to be doing something towards greater diversity, no matter your gender. She says: 

I have a KPI to ensure I have diversity in my own leadership team by gender, culture and disabilities, and we try and measure ourselves on multiple levels of diversity.

She says that one aspect of diversity gaining interest has the potential to be the tide that raises all diversity boats: Mirzai says: 

Gender becoming tracked has benefited all forms of diversity. What is important is that it is being done, it is conscious, and it is deliberate.

My take 

Over the past couple of years, I have spent a great deal of time in the data community, within which diversity - at all levels - is healthier than in technology. As is said above, the role of the CIO has become a true leadership role, one that involves being a great team builder and an advisor that can understand all areas of the organization and then orchestrate technology to benefit the business. 

This has been taking place since 2010, in my opinion, and it has benefited women CIOs; the major enterprise technology vendors should be saluted for recognizing the new type of leader they require and not being afraid to be more diverse. The challenge now is for another vertical market to match and then overtake the tech vendors.

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