Women in IT: How deep is the bench?

Superstar women lead IT at some of the biggest global corporations, yet the path to the top isn't clear for the next generation.

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That's how it worked for Kathleen Healy-Collier, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in healthcare and is preparing the oral defense of her Ph.D. thesis in health administration at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Healy-Collier is the administrative director -- essentially, the IT director -- at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, which is part of a five-hospital coalition in Memphis. She says that she sees more and more women in healthcare making moves like hers.

"I've been in the industry for 18 years, and when I started out, it was totally male-dominated," says Healy-Collier. "If you go back even further, 30 years, healthcare systems were all 'man's work': in the back room, with paper-based records." The only integrated data systems tended to be financial or production tools, which appealed to a narrow audience. It's no surprise the CIO or IT director role went to a traditional IS or MIS graduate, most often a male.

Now, healthcare is undergoing a massive shift, and healthcare IT systems are changing as well. "Organizations discovered that you can't just put IT on top of medicine; you need an understanding of the underlying critical workflow," Healy-Collier says. More often than not, the people with that clinical background are females.

"Administrators, executives, doctors and nurses -- they are able to connect the dots for more technical people," says Healy-Collier. And they enjoy the work and are drawn to it in the way that wouldn't be true with a back-office IT function, she says. "Clinicians tend to be the ones who understand those systems best but also to be the ones genuinely interested in that kind of interactivity and connectivity."

Xerox's Zahra Langford is one tech employee who enthusiastically embraces the concept of hybrid skill sets. Praised by Vandebroek (her boss's boss) as "an amazing, amazing woman," Langford started out as a theater major and then became interested in set design, which led her to Web design. She did OK for herself freelancing in Silicon Valley until the tech crash of 2002.

At that point, she went back to school "to try and get technical credentials for what I was kind of doing already," she says. She earned an MSI in human-computer interaction from the University of Michigan in 2005 and went to work for Xerox, where she had interned. An interaction designer, she is in her third post at Xerox.

African-American and openly gay, Langford is a minority within a minority within a minority who on the face of it might seem an odd fit on Xerox's Rochester, N.Y., campus. But the company's range of affinity groups have made her and her partner feel welcome, she says -- and they've helped her develop professionally.

"One thing the caucus groups do provide is a cross-company network," Langford explains. "If you want to be a VP, you need exposure to different parts of the organization, and Xerox is so large, if you just hang out in your own department, you're not going to move forward in a constructive way."

Mentoring from women at the executive level -- Vandebroek, in particular -- makes a difference as well, Langford says. "I had access to Sophie even as an intern. She was very involved in connecting with people and asking them to consider Xerox for the long term. She helped me realize this place is pretty special."

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