More Higher Education Female CIOs Will Be Needed Within the Next Decade

The percentage of higher education female technology executives will hit a new low in the next 10 years.

by , / October 14, 2010
Illustration by Tom McKeith. Copyright e.Republic. Illustration by Tom McKeith

Editor’s Note: This article is based on higher education technology leadership and CIO research conducted by Wayne A. Brown from the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies Inc. ( The survey was sponsored by CDW-G, Dell, edu1world, Excelsior College and SunGard Higher Education.

Women have historically been under-represented in the technology profession, especially in executive roles. But one bright spot for female CIOs has been higher education, where the gender difference hasn’t been as great. In fact, the percentage of higher education CIOs who were women (23 percent in 2010) is close to the percentage of women receiving advanced degrees in computer and information sciences in 2006-2007. Our latest research indicates, however, that the situation may be poised to take a turn for the worse.

Over the past three years, our studies show that the percentage of female higher education CIOs has declined. This reduction tracks a general decline in the representation of women in technology. According to the report, Women in IT: The Facts, between 1991 and 2008, the percentage of women working in technology jobs decreased from 36 percent to about 25 percent. While the percentages for higher education may still appear high when compared to other industries, there is cause for concern about a future decline in the percentage of female technology executives in higher education.

Moving Up

A traditional pathway to the CIO role is movement up through the ranks of technology professional positions. With this in mind, we’ve examined the numbers, ambitions and plans of male and female CIOs and those in technology leader positions, the jobs in the next organizational layer down from the CIO. In 2010, 37 percent of the technology leaders were women. This percentage is greater than the overall percentage of women in technology positions — about 25 percent — in 2008, according to Women in IT: The Facts. The relatively large representation of women in the technology leader group might suggest that higher education provides a favorable environment for women interested in technology and that higher education has a healthy pipeline of women headed for CIO positions in the future.  

Nearly 50 percent of the current CIOs in higher education plan to retire within the next decade, which creates a great opportunity for individuals in the technology leader group to move into these positions. Planned retirements of female CIOs significantly outnumber those of male colleagues in the six- to 15-year time frame. This is at least partly due to the greater representation of women in the 46-to-65 year age classes. The excess of female retirements in the next decade suggests a potential decline in representation of women in the CIO role unless there’s a strong supply of replacements.

Missed Opportunity

In our population, there’s a relatively large pool of women technology leaders available to move into CIO positions, but it isn’t clear that they will do so. There are several factors suggesting concern. First, the female technology leaders in our study reported plans to retire in the next decade at a much greater rate than their male counterparts.

The relatively earlier overall planned retirement time for women is due at least in part to the different age distribution of male and female technology leaders with the most women represented in the older age classes of 46 to 65 years old. The younger classes were proportionally more male. This age/retirement difference is likely to mean that by the time the female CIOs retire, there will be relatively fewer female technology leaders in the population to replace them.

In addition to the planned retirement exodus of female technology leaders, our survey indicated that fewer women than men in this group expressed a desire to move into the CIO role. For example, 75 percent of males want to be a CIO, but only 45 percent of females do.  

This data indicates that more female higher education CIOs are planning to retire in the next decade, but while there are females in the pipeline represented by the technology leader class, those women are planning to retire in greater proportions and fewer of them aspire to the CIO role. Our conclusion is that while higher education may be a favorable environment for female technology leaders, these factors may point to a significant decline in their numbers over the next decade.

More Mentors Needed?

We also asked the technology leaders who wanted to become a CIO about who was helping them prepare for the role. Overall, the No. 1 answer was “no one.” In 2009, there was a significant difference between the numbers of women and men who had mentors. In 2010, more women had a mentor, but the difference between the genders was not as great. These results indicate that we may have an opportunity to help recruit more women into the CIO role by providing better mentoring opportunities.

Many of the factors influencing gender representation in higher education technology leadership seem to mirror those operating in the technology profession more broadly. It has been shown that a small — and sadly declining — percentage of women  want to pursue a technology degree or want to enter the technology career field, according to a 2010 Computerworld article. The lack of a significant base of female technologists is the beginning of a shortage that only becomes exacerbated over time.  

The second factor that could have a detrimental impact on female CIOs is that a large percentage of women may choose to leave the technology work force in their late 30s, reported a 2008 Harvard Business Review article. In fact, one study found that more than 50 percent of women in technology jobs left the work force when they were middle managers, according to Computerworld. There are several reasons given for this exodus, and some of them may be in play with technology leader females who say they do not want to be a CIO.

Women have been better represented in the higher education technology executive ranks than numerous other industries and functional areas. However, the lack of a significant female technology base, an early exodus of women from middle management and early retirements conspire to drive the percentage of higher education female technology executives to a new low. ¨

Wayne Brown is the founder of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies Inc., and Polley McClure is the vice president for information technology at Cornell University.


Wayne Brown Contributing Writer
Wayne Brown is CIO of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.
Polley McClure Contributing Writer

Polley McClure is the vice president for Information Technology at Cornell University.