How women in IT make it to the top

Is a glass ceiling holding them down? Most don’t think so.

When Rose Parkes graduated from college in 1969, she had job interviews with recruiters from corporations and federal agencies. The private-sector recruiters, she recalled, wanted to know when she planned to get married and have children. The federal recruiters asked her about her career goals.

She chose to work in the government and has never regretted that decision. Parkes has risen through the federal ranks from computer intern at the Defense Department to her current position, chief information officer at the Energy Department.

Parkes is one of only five women among the more than two-dozen CIO Council members. But she and other high-ranking women in the federal information technology community think there is no limit to what women can accomplish today. They say the glass ceiling — an invisible barrier that is thought to stop women from rising beyond a certain level in an organization — is not apparent to them.

"I really do not believe that there is a glass ceiling today," Parkes said. She pointed to the large number of women who take part in the most visible activities and important initiatives of the $70 billion-a-year federal IT sector.

"The industry is changing," said Anne Altman, managing director of IBM Federal. "Ten years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find women in positions of authority in industry serving [DOD]. Today, that landscape has changed quite a bit." Karen Evans, the federal government's top-ranking IT official, said the glass ceiling represents a "very '70s type of thinking."

Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator for e-government and IT, is evidence that women can rise to the top in government IT. She passed the clerk-typist test and joined the federal government as a GS-2 summer employee at the National Park Service. "Twenty-three years later, I'm running the IT program for the entire federal government," she said.

New roles, varied experiences

Evans attributes her success partly to her willingness to learn new skills and take on new assignments. "I think learning is exciting," she said.

During her 28 years in government, Evans has been an accounting specialist, budget analyst, management analyst, systems administrator, software tester and developer, Web services manager, telecommunications analyst and more. She was Parkes' predecessor as Energy CIO before taking the OMB job. Evans also worked at the Agriculture, Justice and Interior departments.

Evans earned a reputation as a can-do employee. She took risks. For example, at the former Farmers Home Administration, she took charge of a new minicomputer system in the administrator's office, a job that could have proved disastrous because, despite its high profile, few people in the agency knew how to handle it.

Evans is one of several female high achievers in federal IT whose fathers were also federal employees. Another is Debra Filippi, program director for Net-Centric Enterprise Services at the Defense Information Systems Agency. Filippi said she got her work ethic from her father, one of her role models.

Earlier in her career, which she began as a computer programmer for the Navy, "it was not unusual for me to be the only woman in a meeting," Filippi said.

Now, however, she sees women in many roles, both uniformed and civilian. "My observation has been that there's no limit" on what women can achieve at DOD, she said.

Great bosses

Filippi and Adair Martinez, deputy CIO for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, cited great bosses as crucial to their success. Filippi said a great boss gives employees opportunities to grow on the job and does not micromanage.

Early in her career, Martinez, who started as an intern doing data entry for the Army Corps of Engineers, moved to the IT office that supports the House, then into the private sector, working for federal contractors and MCI before returning to government.

"I was in love with the government mission," she said. "I thought government would always look at my credentials and take them seriously."

Martinez said she has seen discrimination hampering women in her profession. "I think women have a very hard time" in some organizations, she said.

On the other hand, she added, "IT is its own glass ceiling." People who lead support functions such as IT, human resources and acquisition — so-called staff activities — seldom make it to the top of organizations, whether in the public or private sectors and regardless of gender. In competition for spots at the top, the managers of line functions — the organization's mission activities — usually have a leg up. It's unlikely that a CIO would be plucked from the top of the IT hierarchy and moved into a deputy secretary or other general management post.

But it has happened, particularly when the CIO join another organization. For example, Anne Reed joined the government as a presidential management intern with a master's in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and worked for the Navy, at first in financial management. She moved into IT because she recognized the need for improved financial systems.

In 1993, she became the USDA's deputy assistant secretary for administration, and four years later, the department's CIO. She left government in 2000 to join EDS, where she became president of the company's state and local government solutions group. Now she is president of Acquisition Solutions, a growing consulting firm in Oakton, Va., that helps federal agencies with procurement.

Reed said discrimination against women occurs. "You have only to look at the statistics," she said. "It is not an even playing field." But at the same time, she said, "I've always believed that I was in charge of my own career and my own fate."

Asked about the keys to her success, Reed said she has not stayed with one organization but instead moved throughout her career.

She also talked about the value of women joining professional organizations and activities so that they can demonstrate their abilities to a wider audience than they normally would encounter at their jobs. "You learn how to work in organizations more effectively" and can learn about new topics, Reed said.

Another woman executive who gained visibility as in the federal government before moving to the private sector is Kathleen Adams, senior vice president and civil sector director at SRA International, a large IT services company based in Fairfax, Va.

When she left the Social Security Administration in 1999 after 27 years there and at the Health Care Financing Administration, Adams had become well-known as the chairwoman of the CIO Council's Year 2000 Committee. Taking that post was risky because of the possibility that systems would fail Jan. 1, 2000, and it was extra work. Adams said many people advised her not to take it on. But she didn't hesitate because she felt "this is something that needs to be done." She said the experience was rewarding in many ways. "It afforded me the opportunity to meet a lot of people and see things from a different perspective."

The challenges Adams and her colleagues faced at SSA were bigger than those of their colleagues in the private sector, she said. "We had data like you wouldn't believe — terabytes and terabytes and gigabytes, just huge stores of data," she said. "So we tended to really put vendor products to the test. If a product could work there, it could work pretty much anywhere .... It was a great place to grow up, if you will, and learn how IT could be applied to business to improve service delivery and operations."

Adams said that although the IT field is male-dominated and changing too slowly, female SSA employees probably experienced less discrimination than women at other agencies because of SSA's history of having women in top jobs and its commitment to supporting a diverse workforce.

Additionally, she said she had good managers there. "You can learn a lot by working for managers who have really good managerial skills," Adams said.

The balancing act

Adams also gave her husband some of the credit for her success. "If you're trying to balance a career and a family in the IT industry, it's a little difficult to do that because it is such a demanding industry," she said. "Most of the jobs, whether you're in government or in the private sector, are very demanding. Most of them are not 40-hour-a-week jobs."

Many of the women interviewed for this article have husbands and children, but few have had conventional family lives. For example, the VA's Martinez did not marry until she was 42, and her daughter was born the following year. Her husband, who is retired, helps with child care.

Altman's husband took a three-year, part-time leave of absence from IBM when their teen-age children were younger to help with their care.

Maj. Gen. Janet Hicks, commander of the Army Signal Corps Center at Fort Gordon, Ga., said her husband has been a "Mr. Mom" since 1991, giving up his career as a home builder to help with housekeeping and parental responsibilities in their family. Hicks said her Army career means she may be deployed on short notice, and "we probably would not be able to have a family" if her husband could not be home for their daughter.

On the other hand, Kimberly Nelson, assistant administrator for environmental information and CIO at the Environmental Protection Agency, said that each time she has taken a new job since her daughter was born 15 years ago, "I made sure everyone knew that I was a mother." She said she tells prospective bosses that "you'll get a good 40 or 50 hours out of me each week," but she may not be available beyond that. "You manage expectations," Nelson said.

Most of the women agreed they have made sacrifices along their paths to the top. Carlaine Blizzard, a vice president of Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems and Solutions whose 21-year career has focused on DOD systems, said she gave up free time and some opportunities outside the office. For example, she said that she couldn't attend a wedding shower for her daughter.

Balancing career and family obligations is the most difficult challenge for women, Blizzard said, but she added, "you're always going to make trade-offs" when making career decisions.

Hicks said women who went before her broke the glass ceiling, although she is the first woman to command an Army installation in Georgia. Women are feeling much more comfortable in the Army because there are more of them now, she said, and she is not the only woman in a leadership role in Army IT.

"I don't think it has anything to do with women and men," Evans said. "I think it has to do with competency."

For Altman, it's about how badly you want something.

"I think women are less focused on crashing through the glass ceiling because I don't know that it really exists," she said. "They are spending more time evaluating what they really want, and can I have all the things I want in life, like family and personal time, and be the CEO."

Ferris is a freelance writer who lives in Chevy Chase, Md.

A word about the other side

The information technology industry does not have a reputation for being hospitable to women, especially those who aspire to enter the executive suite.

The industry is "one in which women have not risen to the top," said Kara Helander, western region vice president at Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit organization that advocates for the advancement of women in corporations. Women are even more underrepresented among corporate officers at high-tech companies included in the nation's 500 largest corporations than they are in the 500 companies as a whole, Helander said.

The main reason for women’s lack of advancement, according to Catalyst research, is that the IT business has an exclusionary culture and demands high levels of commitment from its executives. If a woman has children, she is less likely to be given opportunities for advancement in IT, Helander said.

Companies in other industries have systematically worked to develop women managers, she said, but IT companies have grown so quickly in the past few decades that they have not had time to institute training and mentoring programs. Without formal programs, people choose when and how to mentor others, and they tend to seek those who resemble themselves, she said.

Analysts at the Labor Department's Women’s Bureau reported in 2003 that men held 69.5 percent of the nation’s 347,000 jobs in managing computer and information systems.

National Science Foundation researchers reported last year that women’s share of IT jobs dropped from 33 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2002. In addition, women held 37 percent of computer science degrees in 1984 and only 28 percent in 2001, according to NSF figures.

As a result, the foundation is sponsoring the National Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Center officials are investigating ways to make computer science courses more appealing and effective for women and are studying how to get more women into graduate schools and academic faculty jobs in the field.

— Nancy Ferris


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