The male-dominated tech industry is still that. It’s not only difficult for women to join the executive suite as chief technology officer, but women founders also have far less success than men in raising external capital. The latter is important because many tech startup founders are developers who move directly to CTO when the business scales.
Let’s dive in.
What is a CTO?
A chief technology officer is the person in charge of an organization’s technology. Their mandate is to ensure the company’s tech supports its business goals.
It’s a C-suite position, with the alternative title of “The Hacker in Chief,” according to Allan MacGregor, director of engineering at HR platform Humi. The CTO “is the leading architect, thinker, researcher, tester and tinkerer. Typically, the CTO will be one of the company co-founders.”
How many women are CTOs?
One survey found that “just 15% of chief technology officers or CTOs at FTSE 100 firms are women,” writes Nick Ismail, editor at Information Age. “This suggests that female tech champions, like many women in tech, are struggling to break into the top jobs.”
“Campaigning on this issue should have ceased to be necessary long ago but tech recruiters can be prone to hiring clones who fit an expectation of what a developer is, not to mention the fact that unconscious biases still imply that women may perform worse than men in developer roles,” says Aude Barral, cofounder and chief commercial officer at developer recruitment platform CodinGame. “As a result, the tech industry remains a male-dominated world.”
Atomico, an international investment firm, puts out a yearly report on the state of European tech. In 2018, it found only one female CTO out of 175 that worked at venture capital-backed European tech companies. The next year, Atomico reported that “for every woman executive, there are 12 men executives.”
Interestingly, founding team diversity differs depending on the industry vertical. The report reads: “In quantum computing, for example, a rapidly growing deep tech sub-sector, we found that 23% of European quantum companies had a mixed or woman-led founding team, more than double the European average of 13%.”
Atomico’s most recent report voices concern over the industry’s dismal track record on diversity and inclusion. “When asked whether they think the European tech ecosystem is fair to people from all demographics...41% of men respondents believe that equal opportunity is available to all, [but] only 19% of women respondents share the same sentiment. Most notably, however, 77% of Black/African/Caribbean participants disagreed.”
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What does a CTO do—exactly?
It’s actually kind of hard to pin down exactly what the chief technology officer does.
Simon Dowling, former CTO and now senior program architect of communications at Salesforce, says a CTO’s role is “changing all the time and depending on the industry, the size of the company and its maturity, it can encompass a grab bag of different responsibilities.” Broadly, however, he explains a CTO leads “a company’s focus on technical or technological issues,” either as a technical lead or operational lead.
According to Maryville University, “the chief technology officer (CTO) ensures that current applications, hardware, and processes support the goals and employees of the organization. CTO is one of the highest-ranking IT positions in a typical corporate hierarchy and professionals who want to know how to become a CTO should be ready for a lifetime of learning.”
And high-growth CTO Arif Harbott explains it this way: “The role can differ from company to company but usually includes everything from technology vision and strategy, to architecture, innovation, software development, and infrastructure.”
There’s also an interesting infographic by Digital Business Innovation founder and CEO Antonio Grasso that fleshes out the four common CTO personas. They are:
IT innovator (focuses on new technologies to keep the company competitive).
Digital business leader (focuses on digital business strategies, rather than manual ones).
Business enabler (keep the tech itself operating).
Chief operating officer of IT (keeps everything running, often working in tandem with the chief information officer)
Many CTOs start as developers, often as a company founder. As the business grows, the move from developer to CTO is more to fill a gap than anything else. It happens when the coding itself is not the most important thing anymore: it’s been replaced by establishing the vision for the software and leading the development team to realize that vision.
Generally, CTOs are involved in all of the technical decisions including solutions and architecture, but they don’t typically code. Instead, viewing their teams as systems, they optimize them in order to reduce friction and increase engagement to boost productivity.
In addition to creating a road map for the company, with a clearly-defined timeline, the CTO should be a visionary with a distinct sense of how future technologies will drive the organization and its accomplishments.
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The flexible role of CTO is perforce changing again with the cloud “becoming the technological lifeblood that runs through most modern enterprises.” In fact, “most CTOs see the cloud as presenting huge opportunities to tackle business and technological challenges in one go,” writes
Kubernetes platform Appvia CEO and cofounder Jay Keshur.
The pandemic accelerated cloud adoption by many organizations that previously had been reluctant to do so. It simply became obvious that business requires big data to scale and remain competitive.
There are other advantages of cloud adoption. “From a technological perspective, [organizations that do so] can do away with legacy infrastructure, obsolescence costs and high onboarding expenditure for their team,” Keshur explains. “From there, they can use the cloud to enable new business models, and help staff adopt a more agile approach to working.”
How do CTOs get to where they are?
Although a four-year degree in a computer science-related field is common among CTOs, along with related work experience and possibly even post-graduate business degrees, there’s no one path to a career in technology and rising to the position of chief technology officer. As noted, many tech startup founders have become CTOs when their business grows.
But there are other routes.
Katie Nykanen, CTO at digital asset management, workflow, and distribution company Adstream, says she took general business studies at school (with a focus on foreign languages), with no experience in IT or technology before doing a work placement. It was in that role as an administrator in an IT department, she says, that she got “caught up in understanding how the technology worked.” Nykanen then moved into business analysis, then project management, and moved up from there.
And even once you reach that executive level, you continue developing skills.
Dr. Rachel Gawley, who was CTO of a Medtech company for over five years and is now chief innovation officer at tech company White Space, talks about her existing skills and those she's developed during her time as CTO.
“My core craft is a research software engineer, which is a fantastic foundation to being a CTO of a ventures and technology innovation company,” she explains. “For me, it’s less about the technical side these days, as my background in emerging technologies means I have a deep appreciation for the intricacies of developing new products. Therefore, the core skills I like to focus on are anything that helps nurture and support the team as well as reinforcing a company’s vision and supporting the growth of their new or existing product. These skills are rooted in the 4 Cs of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.”
What needs to change so that more women can become CTOs?
Gail Peace, founder and CEO at health care technology company Ludi, says the first step is to hire more women in tech, but you can’t stop there. You need to mentor and promote those women and the ones already working in tech. And part of supporting women means supporting families, she notes.
“One of the things I did as CEO this year was boost employee benefits to include more parental-focused incentives,” Peace writes. “After receiving staff feedback, we added more extensive maternity and paternity leave policies to our benefits. Having a child is a huge life event, and we want to support the men and women in our company and help them navigate this time. We believe that this will offer some work/life balance and help them do their jobs better when returning from leave.”
Liz Crawford, chief product and technology officer at Flare HR in Australia where she also serves as a mentor for other women engineers, says the gender gap starts at school. “Less women graduate from software engineering degrees and less women end up in leadership positions,” she explains.
The change then needs to start well before university level education. The organizations women work in will reap the benefits. Women in tech companies are important because they bring a different perspective, Crawford says. “If you have more voices within your company that have diverse life experiences it helps stop you from accidentally falling into siloed or narrow thinking.”
There’s a pipeline problem, too.
"Companies need to break down gendered career paths, so women climbing the career ladder don't get stuck in job silos that are historically female, like communications, HR, and support roles,...that don't typically lead to the highest levels of business leadership," says Becky Frankiewicz, president at ManpowerGroup.
Allison Barr Allen, cofounder and COO at one-click checkout provider Fast recommends networking. “Social media (e.g., Twitter) is a great space to put your ideas out into the world and to network, especially in the tech industry,” she explains. “An essential aspect of the tech world is building out personal networks and relationships, so don’t be afraid to reach out to founders and investors to make those connections.”
The bottom line is that women have to lead the way.
“Despite positive steps to reverse gender stereotypes within the industry, shake-up organizational structures and to shift cultural attitudes, there is only so much change that can be effected without more female representation,” writes the team at CIO IT media. “If there aren’t examples to follow, there isn’t a clear path for young women to take them from education, through to the industry, and then into senior roles further along in their career.”
Ideshini Naidoo, CTO at small business financial management solution provider Wave, puts it this way: “To change the status quo, women, especially young women, need to see themselves in the women who are CEOs, CTOs, CIOs and founders. I hope they look at other women and see what is possible for them. I also encourage women leaders to serve as mentors and sponsors for young women and as a general peer group supporting each other.”
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