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Big Data Needs More Women


By Marie Klok Crump

Big data continues to become a standard across all areas of our lives, not just business and industry. As Silicon Valley insider Dr. Anita Sands has said, “I think every company is now waking up to the fact that it’s in the technology business, no matter what product or service it sells, and trends such as mobile, cloud and big data are here to stay.”

Researchers analyzing this global rise in big data and information management have found compelling evidence that the chief data officer (CDO) position and related “data roles” are a new category where women thrive beyond the glass ceiling.

Gartner’s 2015 research around the office of the chief information officer (CIO) uncovered some gendered behavioral tendencies:

  1. Women CIOs are 9 percent more likely than their male counterparts to “be pessimistic about risk approaches” that don’t keep up with ever-growing digital exposure. In big data, being more aware of risk is a plus.

  2. Women CIOs tend to be substantially more optimistic about analytics’ potential than their male counterparts, particularly in predictive analytics (32 percent vs. 22 percent) and social and multimedia information (19 percent vs. 13 percent).

  3. The women in this study were far more likely than men to “adapt the metrics they use to prioritize and assess performance and value to their reporting structure.”

Another Gartner analysis looked at chief supply chain officers and the ability to retain women in that profession. Among its conclusions, the study stated, “We are losing critical assets we could be slotting into mid-career roles — the roles we struggle hardest to fill.”

Why aren't women in these roles yet?

A little more than two years ago, Gartner analyst Debra Logan predicted the question.

She first noted Forrester’s groundbreaking research establishing a strong correlation between annual revenue growth and whether that company had a CDO. At the time, 25 percent of those relatively new roles were held by women, compared to the neighboring offices of the more established CIO position — with only 13 percent occupied by women.

You don’t have to do many Google searches to find serious concern over the lack of women in leadership and technology roles. People have put forth assumptions as to why these gaps exist, but there isn’t any data to back them up — and it’s dangerous and offensive to make generalizations.

More CDOs and more women in the CDO office

Here’s what we do know, even though it’s anecdotal.

When we look at our clients, we see a clear majority of women. In fact, almost all of the champions with whom we work are women, with representative titles ranging from VP of enterprise global data to director of master data management business process.

It’s not just because they went to school for business intelligence or data analytics. It’s because they’ve taken ownership of business challenges. In the interest of the enterprise, these women reach across functions and departments to improve business outcomes. You could say they just “fall into” these roles as a result of exercising a force from within the group.

We refer to this as leadership from the middle. Given the overall newness of these positions, there’s not a strong history of male leaders and institutionalized gender bias. The role descriptions are still pure in the sense that they’re focused on the qualities people need to earn those roles, and these qualities are represented across many business roles.

That makes it easier for women to step into and thrive in these roles. The CDO and similar roles often grow out of a business function where there’s a higher ratio of women compared to the ratio of women in traditional IT roles. It’s not uncommon for us to work with leaders who built the majority of their business careers in finance or the supply chain and have lived the reality of data’s effect on business (and the resulting business interruptions).

The female presence in big data

Gartner predicts that, within the next three years, women and men will populate data roles in an even split. Logan estimates that there are currently 950 CDOs worldwide.

She says, “I'd like to be bullish and say in five years, 40 to 50 percent” of the world’s CDOs will be women. We are already moving toward that number — we see female business leaders today serving as change agents for an increased emphasis on data as a significant factor for business strategy and innovation.

These leadership positions within the data role tend to require fewer specialized technical skills. While the human resources capturing, manipulating, maintaining, and analyzing data tend to need backgrounds in tech, the ability to lead the efforts doesn’t require someone to know all the details of coding or systems; instead, it requires understanding how the business operates and how to drive positive outcomes for the business.

More important in these roles are skills that have been proven common in women: communicating, building relationships and nurturing teams, exercising diplomacy, exuding positivity, problem-solving and consulting with clients.

Strong data team members know how to listen and ask the right questions. They are skillful advocates for data, its importance, and its impact on the business. People in data roles should be both solution-oriented and process-focused. They will understand the degree to which data elements need to be governed. There’s a delicate balance between “overgoverning” the data and not sufficiently establishing or guarding the information.

Women typically possess these skills, which are serving them well as they increasingly move into data-centric roles. Data is a growing field that needs more women.

Image credit: Pixabay

Marie Klok Crump is principal partner at DATUM LLC, an information management solutions company providing data governance software (Information Value Management®) that demonstrates the value of data through natural integration with business functions. Marie provides the leadership, management, and vision for strategic growth including brand identity, strategic alliances, channel development, and operational excellence for the customer life cycle.

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