The Glass Ceiling: Barrier or Challenge?

I've always been struck by how neatly many IT women seem to fit into one of two categories that I call "Woe Is Me" and "Says Who?" When women in the first group bump against perceived gender barriers - the condescending boss, exclusion from the boys' club or the fact that no woman has ever led a big project - they whine. Those in the second group perceive those barriers as challenges and overcome them.

This isn't to condone gender bias in IT or to recommend that we ignore it. But it has always been fascinating to me the way some women seem to fixate on these barriers, while others focus on the goals beyond them.

I was recently reminded of this dichotomy by a new study from Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit research firm dedicated to advancing women in business.

The report, "Careers in High Tech: Wired for Success," was based on comprehensive interviews with 19 women and 11 men considered to be part of the current and next generations of IT leaders at 10 high-tech companies, including AOL Time Warner, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Nortel Networks and Yahoo.

Here's what these IT leaders look like: The majority are 40 to 44 years old (seven are under 35). Twenty-seven have bachelor's degrees, and 14 have graduate degrees. Eight are minorities, but none is black or Hispanic. Eighteen have children.

Most report directly to the CEO or the level immediately below. They have titles like group product director, vice president of software development, group manager for optical Ethernet, senior technical director, vice president of global services, and vice president of strategy and corporate operations. These are people who are making things happen in U.S. technology.

Catalyst had hoped to shed some light on common career paths of successful women in IT. Instead, it found that the women themselves discouraged that kind of approach. Most warned against a preconceived set of steps, saying that the IT industry is changing too quickly for any preplanned strategy to work. In fact, the study busted the myth that the most successful people plan their careers. It turns out that some plan, but most don't.

The study also found that a technical degree isn't a prerequisite to success in IT. Fewer than half of the IT leaders who participated in the study have math, engineering or computer science degrees. So the fact that young women tend to shy away from technical studies - long used to explain their absence from IT's executive ranks - may not be such an important factor, according to the Catalyst report.

"There is no necessary or preferred starting point for careers in high tech," the study reports. "Several went direct to the goal, others followed a circuitous route, [and] still others began their careers through discovery and experiment."

Though they couldn't come up with a road map, male and female IT leaders agreed about how to power yourself down whatever road you take. While IT men often gain these types of insights from mentors, women - who often lack mentors - may not. They suggested the following:

- Dig deep into your chosen area of expertise in the first five years of your career.

- Build a track record in a given functional area and establish your credibility.

- Learn to manage a small group.

- Increase the scope of your people management skills, the size of your team and the complexity of the task for which you are responsible.

- Consciously explore other functions.

- Gravitate toward the visible, difficult, strategic tasks.

- Deliver, deliver, deliver. Performance and results are paramount.

Participants also talked about the importance of flexibility and social networks. They said IT is an open and fluid environment, so you need the flexibility to jump in when you see opportunities. Keeping in touch with past employers and colleagues is critical, they said, because you can never tell where that next opportunity is going to come from.

Many of the respondents said that finding a mentor is the key to discovering how the system works. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the women said they would have done some things differently.

"I would have learned how to work the system sooner," said one. "I didn't understand the importance and power of politics," said another. "I could have been far more effective in using networks. I could have better understood how to use or get resources."

But among all these interesting insights, the one I was most struck by was how women who are IT leaders reacted to the glass ceiling: They either turned what some would perceive as disadvantages to their advantage, or they simply refused to accept the barrier.

"For much of my early career, I was the only woman," said one. "But it was always an opportunity for me. It gave me a level of visibility that I wouldn't have had."

Another woman said that the glass ceiling is "like an invitation with me. If someone says, 'You can't do that,' then I go [do it]."

These are the attitudes that make an IT woman into an IT leader, and these women's successes prove it.

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