Women Advance in the CIO Ranks. So Where Are the CEOs?

A corporate glass ceiling is shattering, but there may be others above it.

If you work anywhere near technology, that sound you hear is the glass ceiling cracking in America’s largest companies.

More women are stepping into the role of chief information officer in the largest 250 publicly-traded companies. On January 20, Wal-Mart named Karenann Terrell as CIO, succeeding Rollin Lee Ford.

Just 11 days earlier, Xerox appointed Carol Zierhoffer, 51, to the CIO post at Xerox, replacing John McDermott. (In fairness, the glass ceiling at Xerox was shattered long ago with the hiring of CEO Anne Mulcahey in 2001 and Ursula Burns in 2009.)

While female CEOs are closely tracked, that hasn’t been true of CIOs — a position in which women have quietly made major strides. A database of Fortune 500 chief information officers maintained by Boardroom Insiders shows women filling 48 CIO spots at Fortune 250 companies, compared with 13 female CEOs as of October 2011.

“No one seems to realize that 19.2 percent of Fortune 250 CIOs are now women — up from 10 percent just a few years ago,” writes Sharon Gillenwater, Boardroom Insiders’ founder and principal. Women are prominent not only on the overall list, but among the top earners: In 2010, Aetna’s Margaret McCarthy topped the list of publicly disclosed CIO salaries with $5.11 million in compensation.

The role of CIO was long the realm of men, mainly because women weren’t encouraged to major in math, science and engineering. Irma Wyman, one of the first CIOs at a large company, almost didn’t go to college at all. In 1945, her parents wanted her to work for a few years and get married. They only relented when she was awarded a scholarship to the University of Michigan. She became vice president of Honeywell Corporate Information Management in 1985.

Two years later, Carlene Ellis was promoted to vice president of corporate information systems at Intel. She majored in math and statistics at the University of Georgia in the 1960s, despite the professors who tried to convince her another major would be more suitable.

All this underlines the question of why there aren’t more women chief executives. If women fill one in five top spots in the heavily male IT side, wouldn’t we expect the proportion of women chief executives to be higher than 20 percent? One glass ceiling is cracking, but there still seems to be another barrier somewhere between the CIO and chief executive spots. Why? Is there just a grievous lack of candidates fit for the CEO spot? (Hint: no, there’s not.) Or is it that even now corporate boards somehow imagine men look more CEO-like?

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