Why Women Are Brilliant at IT

Margaret Heffernan

Instead of agonizing over why there aren't more women in IT, it might be more interesting and more fruitful to ask: Why are women so brilliant at IT? I ask the question because I know, have employed or interviewed, so many outstanding women in IT, and it always amazes me that no one has noticed how, or why, they are so stunningly successful.

Lots of people think IT is boxes of hardware, plugs, circuits, routers – basically a full boys' trainset. But it isn't. IT is about people: the people who make and design hardware and software, the people who use it, and the people who are impacted by it. Don't let those servers fool you: it is all about people.

And all of those people have competing needs and often highly conflicting priorities. To make matters worse, they usually have different kinds of jargon. And, as if that weren't bad enough, everyone has what I call "the iceberg of needs" – a large body of wants and needs that largely remain invisible but, potentially, deadly.

The IT professional who can deal with all of this has to be able to use lots of different languages, sympathize with competing demands, prioritize priorities, and be able to hear and see the issues that are unseen and unspoken. In other words, IT requires world-class communication and diplomacy skills. It demands exceptionally high emotional intelligence – together with outstanding technical know-how.

Both nature and nurture have equipped women well. With brains hard-wired for empathy and a history that has taught us to be alert to minute changes in the atmosphere, women are highly sensitive to what is said, and to what is not said. According to Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology at Cambridge University, we are comfortable with uncertainty and don't expect the world to obey rules. But that alone wouldn't suffice. On top of those innate abilities, women have worked extremely hard to develop the left-brained, technical thinking that characterizes men's work. The result is that we use both kinds of thinking – right and left-brained, intuitive and logical – to solve problems.

Many of the best IT consulting companies I've ever seen are run by women. The best project managers I ever employed were women. The best IT consultants I know are women. They are superb listeners and negotiators and they are incredibly practical. What amazes me about the IT industry as a whole, though, is that it still rates technical expertise so highly – when it is the human expertise that has always struck me as being most critical to success.

I think those boxes are blinders. They look important. But it's the people behind them that really matter.



Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur, CEO, and the author of How She Does It: How Women Entrepreneurs Are Changing the Rules of Business Success.