The secret to boosting women in IT? Men

Male allies can open doors, broaden networks and advocate for female tech pros. Guys, ready to step up?

row of three men and women seated on couch with laptops waiting for interview

Kathy Fuertes has steadily climbed the corporate ladder during her 27 years in IT, often with a gentle push from male colleagues who had her back.

Early on, as many of her male counterparts made the leap from programmer into IT management, they encouraged her to do the same. Years later, when an opportunity to cross over into business leadership came her way, it was a male ally who gave Fuertes the confidence to step out of her comfort zone and stretch for what she thought was an out-of-reach position.

"We really need to make sure women aren't holding themselves back, and men can play an important role in that," says Fuertes, now principal, head of information technology for the Institutional Investor Group at Vanguard. "Seeing how they viewed my general leadership competencies, my relationships, my empathy, and my ability to coach and mentor really made me take pause. They gave me confidence that I could take on a role even though I didn't have every box checked."

While much has been made about the importance of female mentors and peer groups for women rising in tech, girl power alone is not enough to guarantee success in what's still a male-dominated field. According to the Wall Street Journal's aggregation of publicly available data from nine leading tech companies, women on average hold 26% of those firms' leadership positions and only 18% of their technology jobs.

Based on sheer numbers alone, it's clear there are a lot more male than female shoulders to lean on for coaching, problem solving, networking and career advice for navigating the politics of corporate IT.

"The majority of IT positions are filled by men, and the majority of senior roles are still held by men, so the reality is men will be able to open doors to more opportunities," says Auguste Goldman, chief people officer with GoDaddy. That said, Goldman doesn't downplay the significance of having female-to-female peer and mentor relationships. "It's important to have both to gain different perspectives, but male allies can play a critical role in developing diversity and innovation in a company," he says.

Kathy Fuertes Vanguard

Vanguard's Kathy Fuertes says male allies gave her the confidence to stretch for new roles even though she "didn't have every box checked."

While a male ally can help advance a female technologist's career, nurturing alliances with male peers also gives women much-needed insight into the other side's business psyche, which fosters successful collaboration and is crucial for subsequent leadership roles, Fuertes says. "If you're going to be leading men, you don't want the reputation that you're not inclusive, and you want to understand how men tick," she says.

A boost up the ladder

Goldman, who sits on the Gender Allies Council of the Anita Borg Institute for women in computing, says male allies can advocate for women in a number of ways. Men can join their female colleagues in pointing out unconscious biases in male-dominated interactions, helping others recognize and correct behaviors that perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Men can actively share stories, with both peers and upper management, about positive work experiences with female colleagues. And most important, Goldman says, men can be instrumental in actively recruiting and sponsoring female IT talent for open positions and promotions.

Consider Raji Arasu, whose current high-profile post at Intuit landed on her radar screen by way of a longtime male colleague from her days at eBay and StubHub -- Nat Natarajan, now SVP, Chief Information Security & Fraud Officer at Intuit.

Based on their previous working relationship and his familiarity with her experience in driving change across functions, Natarajan coaxed Arasu to go to dinner with his boss Tayloe Stansbury, Intuit executive VP and CTO, to talk about an opportunity he believed perfectly matched her skill set.

"Based on our prior relationship, I thought, 'Why not?'" says Arasu, who joined Intuit in January 2015 as senior vice president, Platform and Services, and CTO-Dev. "The best mentors and sponsors give you confidence to take on risk and be okay with failure. That's not always natural for me, and many women deal with that dilemma. That's a role a male mentor or ally can play."

A wider, deeper network

Not only are male allies a conduit for new opportunities, they can also open up access to a larger, potentially more influential circle of contacts across the business. That was the case for Barbara Latulippe of EMC (now Dell EMC).

latulippe barbara 2016

EMC's Barbara Latulippe found that male mentors were able to help promote her data governance agenda across the organization.  

Two years ago, Latulippe took on the role of senior director, information management, assuming responsibility for data governance among other enterprise information management strategies. Her boss at the time, SVP and Chief IT architect Narayanan ("KK") Krishnakumar, and EMC's president of Global Services Kevin Roche were instrumental allies in her new role, she says, helping her make the right business connections to raise awareness about data governance and get buy-in for best practices.

"They were huge advocates and set me up with other male advocates across IT and the business," Latulippe says. "The passion and vision they brought for information governance set the tone and helped me build male allies across the company."

Latulippe's data governance initiative also benefitted from an advocacy effort from Carolyn Muise, EMC's vice president, Total Customer Experience, Analytics and Insight, who also thrived with the support of Roche and other male colleagues.

Muise, who came to EMC in 1993 as a QA engineer shortly after graduating college, said there were no women role models at the time. Instead, it was male allies like Roche who encouraged her over the years to take on new roles while advocating for her to be part of EMC's pipeline of successful women leaders.

For his part, Roche says he relishes serving as a male ally and mentor to female executives like Latulippe and Muise. Tapping into the rich pool of female talent delivers a diverse point of view that helps EMC meet the challenges of modern-day business, says Roche, whose first IT leader and mentor was a woman.

"My eyes were opened early on that there were different points of view and different approaches to issues and problems," Roche says. "It also made me realize that it was my role as a leader to promote women, and it forced me to practice skills that are important." On a more personal note, Roche says the issue is near and dear to him because he has an adult daughter now navigating her path in the workplace.

Getting males onboard

While being an advocate for female colleagues comes naturally to Roche, he admits it may be a challenge to get across-the-board commitment, especially among mid-rank male employees who are more focused on their own careers.

Getting male workers to see the value in different perspectives -- not just those of women, but of other groups that are under-represented in tech fields -- is part of the solution. Another aspect is making sure top male executives like himself practice what they preach. To that end, Roche says 30% to 40% of his direct reports are female or represent some other element of diversity.

At GoDaddy and Vanguard, there are active efforts to make men of all ranks aware of gender-diversity issues and involve them in the cause. GoDaddy, for example, has created a male ally subgroup as part of its 400-person GoDaddy Women in Technology (GDWiT) organization, which has 35 male members, Goldman says.

Vanguard also courts men to join its Women's Institute for Leadership Success (WILS) group and hosts events focused specifically on helping men become better allies for women. In fact, Fuertes says a third of the firm's IT WILS group are men.

"We try to bring together male leaders and give them an opportunity to share experiences and talk about what they do and what they see when they're leading women," she explains. "The men are interested in understanding their fellow crew members and want to be involved."

Once made aware of challenges, male allies at all levels can -- and want to -- be helpful, contends Rayona Sharpnack, founder and CEO of the Institute for Gender Partnership and the Institute for Women's Leadership.

It's crucial, she says, that women ask for male input. "Leverage the contribution of the ones who get it -- ask them to attend a particular women's event, ask them to mentor you, or to have your back in a meeting," she advises.

A female who's benefited from a mentoring or ally relationship with either of the sexes is more likely to want to pay it forward and play a similar role with up-and-comers regardless of gender. Catalyst, a nonprofit promoting the inclusion of women in the workplace, conducted a study that found 65% of women who received career development guidance actively mentor others, compared to 56% of men. The study, Leaders Pay It Forward, also found 73% of women who nourish new talent are directing their efforts towards women, compared to only 30% of men.

Amy Kardel, chairwoman of the CompTIA Board of Directors and co-founder of IT services company Clever Ducks, says the trust and confidence she gained from a pivotal male ally sparked her desire to play a similar role for others, regardless of gender. "Leaders help other leaders," says Kardel. "I've really become intentional about who's ahead of me that can help me learn and who's behind me that needs my help to learn."

For his part, Roche is making a conscious effort to devote time to women leadership events, raising awareness of their activities through casual conversations with colleagues, his company blog, and a quarterly webcast.

"I try to connect with listeners and tell them about my first boss or that I attended 15 women's leadership forums and start to make it okay to participate in these things," he explains. "I'm not there to preach, but to break down barriers."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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