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Blog

The Softer Side of IT

Tuesday, September 4, 2007 4:09 pm

According to a Gartner report released in March, gender diversity in IT is in crisis. In their self-described “maverick” analysis, Women and Men in IT: Breaking Through Sexual Stereotypes, Gartner analysts Kathy Harris, Diane Morello and Mark Raskino aimed to “expose the myths and realities of the biological and behavioral differences between men and women” and offer practical ways that CIOs, CEOs, project managers and business leaders can use the differences to enhance IT and business outcomes.

“Let’s be frank. Men and women behave, think and operate differently. To pretend otherwise, for example, to ignore there are two sexes in the workplace, is to ignore a fruitful and provocative input into IT team building, leadership, talent management, global projects and innovation,” the study states, which goes on to outline key gender-based traits that CIOs should pay attention to when building IT staffs:

  1. Women are better at listening with both the left brain and the right brain, which has implications for roles such as business analyst and team leader.
  2. Women are better at a range of language skills and they score better on social skills and understanding the viewpoints of others.
  3. Men tend to be better at complex mental visualization and pattern spotting, which has implications for certain aspects of engineering roles.
  4. Men take more risks and are happier doing so openly, which may make them more suited to innovation and competitiveness.

Gartner suggests that getting more women into the IT game isn’t necessarily the solution; rather, companies must begin adopting a politically-incorrect and entirely controversial attitude that men and women aren’t completely equal.

Changing the Game

According to Kathy Harris’ summary of her work on NetworkWorldAsia.com, “We believe the manifesto is to ‘change the game.’ Achieving gender diversity has not and cannot be achieved by ‘getting more women into the game.’ Organizations must change the game and must focus their concerns on designing their organization and processes to reliably sense and respond to the requirements of the business, its partners and its customers.”

Shifting business and IT drivers identified by Gartner for the next decade include a renewed focus on customer experiences, usability and productivity; an increasingly social Internet; stronger alliances and collaboration between organizations, vendors and outsourcers; increasing alignment of IT with business objectives; and continued innovation, imagination and execution for products and services.

In an interview with Mary Lou Roberts of IT Jungle, Mark Raskino, another co-author of the study, outlines some suggestions on how companies can begin changing the game by rethinking their management perspectives, including designing work teams that emphasize group dynamics over leadership centralization, creating mixed-gender teams, implementing cross-mentoring programs, and building work-from-home programs. They believe that by exploiting the gender differences between their workers, companies can develop more competent and productive workgroups where both sexes have an opportunity to flourish.

Raising the Bar

I think this is a particularly interesting study from Gartner. In some ways, I fear the underlying context people may take away from this is that women are destined for middle management: the gender glue between egghead male engineers, risk-taking male CEOs, and female clients.

After all, it’s well-known that women control or influence 80 percent of consumer spending decisions, but that 90 percent of IT products and services are designed by men. Having female business analysts, customer relationship managers, user interface designers, account executives, and product managers can definitely improve the gender imbalance as well as the quality of IT products and services.

And that’s a significant improvement over secretary (thanks, AMC, for Mad Men and the not-so-subtle reminders of just how far women really have come). But, is that it? I certainly hope not, and I’m encouraged by a recent editorial in the July/August <interactions> journal which calls for a new executive level of usability and design professionals: the Chief Design Officer.

The usability field is one area of the industry that seems more gender-balanced; typically, these roles embody the broad blend of soft communication skills, hard technical aptitude and business acumen that many women in IT have, and they require using the right- and left-brained thinking Gartner suggests companies should seek.

A Seat at the Table

A coveted position for any usability or interface design professional, male or female, the CDO sets the design strategy for an organization by using his or her clout to “keep boardroom design from taking place.” Balancing competing marketing, executive and engineering interests, the CDO is the perfect compliment to the Chief Technology Officer. The CTO brings technology solutions to the table, and the CDO ensures that those solutions are usable and professionally designed.

Considered an intangible investment by many, unfortunately, design often falls to the wayside. The <interactions> editors maintain that, “good design is natural and intuitive for top-notch designers; everyone else has to work pretty hard at it. In the balance of effort between design and engineering, it is always easier to lower design expectations than to lower engineering expectations; the product, after all, has to operate. With a CDO, the value of that balance becomes more evident.”

Why is design so important? Good design enables your users, readers or customers to bond with your product or Web site — it helps build trust by evoking a favorable emotional response. That bond can translate into loyalty and focused attention, which means that your message comes across more clearly.

Forward-thinking companies and governments are seeing this value and taking action. According to BusinessWeek, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Johnson & Johnson have all appointed vice-presidents of design in the past couple of years; and Nike, Apple and other design-savvy companies have recognized design at the executive level.

The United Kingdom even has a Design Council a national strategic organization funded by the government to promote the value of design. They influence national policy and the design of public services, provide design support to UK businesses, and conduct and share research on how good design can improve people’s lives. Interestingly, the Design Council has a gender-balanced workforce with an environment that strongly promotes work-life balance I’d argue that they’re an ideal model that embodies the “changing the game” attitude suggested by Gartner’s research.

Plug and Play?

On a side note, I’d also thrown in ample vacation time into Gartner’s list. A recent CareerJournal.com article cited Expedia.com’s annual Vacation Deprivation survey which found that a full 35 percent of employed U.S. adults aren’t taking all the vacation days they get in a year, and that only 14 percent plan to take off a full two-week vacation this year.

Apparently, the “long weekend” is becoming the de facto standard for Americans, instead of traditional one- or two-week vacations. Worse yet is that when they do take time off, they don’t unplug and break away from their blackberries and laptops. Vacations are critical for renewing energy and fostering creativity, and I think that organizations without vacation-friendly cultures simply can’t sustain innovation over the long term, no matter how many Nerf guns or Wii’s they offer as incentives to attract IT talent.

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