How can women get to the top of IT, a field that traditionally has been dominated by men? Barriers undoubtedly still exist, say experts, but a willingness to put your nose to the grindstone and think fast on your feet can help women overcome those barriers.
Mary Mattis, vice president of research and advisory services at Catalyst, the nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of women, observes that more women are pursuing IT yet many are reluctant to compete for management jobs because the pace and demands are unending. Building a serious IT career translates into a life with little time for self or family.
Mattis also contends women are still excluded from the informal powerful networks that run many companies.
But that's not the whole story, says Sheri Anderson, who, as the top IT job at network software provider Novell Inc., oversaw the company's worldwide information systems and proved the glass ceiling can be shattered. Women are still trying to figure out the rules to get ahead, she says. They need to understand they can't figure it out from the rearview mirror, because the IT environment is changing so rapidly.
It's no secret the pace in IT companies can be grueling. But success for women means they must get used to not always being comfortable, according to Anderson. Many women are consensus builders when it comes to problem solving, she explains. That's wonderful if you have time, but often you don't have much time to make decisions. The ability to size up a problem and solve it quickly is a critical skill in IT organizations. You must get used to the idea that you won't always know everything you need to know to make a decision. Often, you must take chances. That's tough for many women, because it means not being right all the time.
Anderson's advice: Rather than obsessing over being right all the time, work toward having a success percentage instead. The ability to make instant decisions is a critical success factor.
Many women fall into the trap of trying to be what others want them to be. This is especially true for young women, says Anderson. This tendency, she says, stems from archaic cultural expectations that once forced women to conform to societal and family pressures.
Long ago, Anderson discovered the importance of being herself. You have to be who you are, she asserts. Don't let someone else tell you who you should be. Unfortunately, girls get a lot more messages about 'should' than boys do. Resisting it can be tough.
How do you deal with that invisible glass ceiling? Naturally, good old-fashioned hard work and persistence are still important. But those traits alone aren't going to win you a corner office. More important is having an open mind regarding your career path.
Anderson never viewed her path as a straight line. It looks more like a zigzag leading her to many unplanned lateral moves. Some people may perceive a ceiling as a barrier when, in fact, it's only an obstacle, she says. And obstacles can be overcome. When I couldn't go where I wanted to go, I went somewhere else, Anderson adds.
What do you do when you think you've hit an impenetrable ceiling? Ask yourself if it is really a barrier or just an obstacle that can be overcome, Anderson advises.
That's not to minimize the difficulties women face. But if you're up for the battle and don't allow yourself to get too comfortable, it's possible to snag the top jobs. Comfort is the enemy of ambition, says Anderson.