Addressing 'second-generation' gender bias

Women are woefully rare in IT management positions, and fixing that demands a concerted effort.

Gender bias

What can be done about the startling statistic from the National Center for Women and IT that only 9 percent of IT management positions are held by women? In a recent Harvard Business Review article titled "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers," Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb explore the "second-generation" biases that hinder women's progress in becoming leaders and suggest actions to jump-start improvements.

Given that IT prides itself on innovation, leaders need to take action now to work toward equal representation. Here are three good places to start:

1. Develop an education program to address second-generation biases. Educate women and men by focusing on promoting awareness and understanding. The four biases are:

* A lack of role models. With only 9 percent of IT management positions held by women, there are few role models for women to emulate. Linda Kekelis, executive director of Techbridge, wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog post that role models "help dispel stereotypes.… Their enthusiasm conveys that these careers are personally and professionally rewarding."

* Gendered career paths and work. This bias centers on antiquated organizational structures and practices. "Feeling less connected to one's male colleagues, being advised to take a staff role to accommodate family, finding oneself excluded from consideration for key positions — all these situations reflect work structures and practices that put women at a disadvantage," Ibarra, Ely and Kolb wrote.

* A lack of access to networks and sponsors. Women have fewer people vouching for them, and women's networks — groups that provide assistance and support — are weaker than men's. In "Women Rising," the authors discuss the story of "Amanda," whose career begins to stall because she "lacks presence" and "isn't sufficiently outspoken." Her career and confidence regained their footing "when she was assigned to work with two clients whose [chief financial officers] happened to be women…. Each in her own way started taking the initiative to raise Amanda's profile. One demanded she be present at all key meetings, and the other refused to speak to anyone but Amanda when she called — actions that enhanced Amanda's credibility."

Given that IT prides itself on innovation, leaders need to take action now to work toward equal representation.

* Double binds. A double bind occurs when, no matter what action is taken, it will be wrong. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. As an example, the article discusses typical performance feedback given to women: "They need to 'be tougher and hold people accountable' but also to 'not set expectations so high,' to 'say no more often' but also to 'be more visible,' to 'be more decisive' but also to 'be more collaborative.'" Additionally, "behavior considered assertive in a man is seen as aggressive in a woman and thus denigrated rather than rewarded."

2. Create "identity workspaces" to support women's transitions to bigger roles. Create coaching relationships, leadership programs and peer support groups to help women's self-identification as leaders. "Identity workspaces" are needed to help keep women's careers on track for leadership roles.

3. Anchor women's development in a sense of leadership purpose, not perception. Emphasize substance over style. "Overinvestment in one's image diminishes the emotional and motivational resources available for larger purposes," Ibarra, Ely and Kolb wrote. "People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure and less capable of self-regulation."

Federal agencies have long emphasized workplace equality, and the IT community puts a special emphasis on meritocracy, so important building blocks are there. But 9 percent is unacceptable, and it's time to refresh and re-energize strategies to hasten closure of the gap.

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