New Thinking

Why women are becoming chief data officers

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Established female leaders from the world of data gather at the IBM CDO Summit in Boston, Fall 2015.

It was Gartner that got the conversation going. In January of 2014, Debra Logan, a vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner Research, published a blog post estimating that approximately 100 large companies had created what was then a relatively new role: chief data officer. And, Logan said, about 25 percent of those who held the new position were female. By contrast, she said, only about 13 percent of chief information officers are women.

Since then, the role of chief data officer has only grown in visibility and importance. In a 2015 study conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, 95 percent of the 1,226 respondents said that data and analytics are crucial just to be able to stay on par with the competition. “That’s driving the push for all companies, across all industries and all geographies, to leverage the data that is both inside and outside of their company. Applying analytics to that data is really the basis for future innovation,” says Beth Smith, General Manager, Technology, IBM Watson.

Forrester Research has found that 54 percent of companies with more than 10 percent annual revenue growth have CDOs. And Logan estimates that there are now about 950 chief data officers worldwide. The number of them that are women? “I’d like be bullish, and say, in five years, 40 to 50 percent.” she told THINK Leaders.

Varied backgrounds, varied responsibilities

There are good reasons for Logan’s optimism. One can develop the skill set needed to succeed as a CDO through a variety of career paths, such as those in marketing or finance, where women are better-represented than they are in tech. (In 2014, women held 57 percent of all professional roles in U.S. business, but only 26 percent of professional computing occupations, according to the National Center for Women in Technology.)

Another reason for women’s prominence as CDOs is the fact that the role is so new, meaning that there aren’t many preconceptions about who, exactly, is suitable to do it, says Kay Vicino, CDO for U.S. Bank. “There are not the inherent limitors,” she says. “In established roles, there are subtleties that create the gender conventions we’ve been seeing for years.”

The women explore opportunities and challenges for data-driven business practices during the “Data Divas” breakfast session in Boston.

No matter their specific responsibilities, all CDOs are responsible for driving improved data-driven decision-making across an organization. “It’s a high-level leadership position and suited to the kinds of things stereotypically ascribed to women,” says Logan. “You need to negotiate, collaborate, and talk about things in a way that is not territorial. You need to get people to cooperate and give up what was in their control before. And you don’t need a technical background, so you have a bigger pool of talent to draw from. The fact is that there are more senior women who understand this and are more willing to step into the CDO role.”

Recruiters Russell Reynolds Associates recently surveyed about 300 CEOs and CDOs, asking them to rate the top leadership competencies necessary for a CDO – and found that technical skills came in surprisingly low. Their rankings, according to Justin Cerilli, who leads Russell Reynolds’ Financial Services Technology and Data & Analytics practices:

  • Stakeholder management


  • Storytelling and communications skills


  • Vision and innovation


  • Operations and execution skills


  • Commercial acumen


  • Technical skills


“CDO backgrounds are all over the place,” says Cerilli. He estimates about half of CDOs have a technical background, with the others coming from the business side. He also estimates that about half of the people he’s recruited as CDOs have worked as consultants, often earlier in their careers. “When you look at companies that have gone through cultural change, often professional services people have been partnering with them to drive that,” says Cerilli. “That can be a great training ground.”

Ursula Cottone, the CDO of Citizens Bank, has had plenty of opportunity to hone her skills explaining business to the technology staff and vice-versa. “All my jobs since grad school have been about translating between business and technology to create a common understanding,” she says. “And almost every role I’ve had has been to fill a gap created by a new business problem.”

While she certainly appreciates the technical acumen she’s gained along the way, Cottone says it was her years in the business units that best prepared her for her role as CDO. “As more people are pulled from business roles, I think you could easily end up with a number well above 25 percent,” she says,” she says.

That may already be happening. Less than a dozen women attended IBM’s 2015 Spring CDO Summit in San Francisco; just seven months later, 30 women attended the IBM CDO Summit in Boston. And the event even boasted its own “Data Divas” breakfast because of the increase in the number of women attending (19 total attended the breakfast). In November 2015, Stanford University hosted its first “Women in Data Science” conference. “It’s about engaging the next generation, showing them a career path, and showing them that this is an exciting place to be,” says Vicino.

An evolving role

As the CDO role becomes more widespread, and as data becomes an ever-more important asset to organizations, experts expect the role of CDO to change dramatically. What, exactly, that change might look like is a matter of debate.

Cerilli thinks the negotiation and management skills of many CDOs, combined with their technical acumen, will naturally lead them to bigger roles within technology organizations. “You’re going to see a lot of those people going from data roles to owning all of technology,” says Cerilli.

Smith, of IBM, sees a different route. “I think the CDO role will be more about new business opportunities,” says Smith. “Really taking that competitive advantage you can get with data, and putting it on steroids.”

No matter the exact responsibilities of the CDO, Vicino says it’s a role that will continue to appeal to women. “That 25 percent number will grow,” she says, “as women see this as a career path that can get them a seat at the table—a seat they couldn’t get otherwise.”

Photo credit: Elizabeth Wood/IBM

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