Phyllis Post Women LeadershipAs enterprise companies continue to take more active steps in increasing the diversity of its leadership teams, there’s been a steady rise in the number of racially-diverse CIOs and women taking on leadership roles. 

While the percentage of female CIOs in Fortune 500 companies has risen from 15.6% in 2014 to 17% in 2016, according to SpencerStuart’s The State of the CIO in 2018 study, women are still vastly underrepresented both in IT and in IT leadership roles. 

HMG Strategy recently spoke with Phyllis Post, Vice President and CIO, Global Human Health IT, Merck, to discuss steps that could be taken to attract more women into IT careers and to strengthen career opportunities for women in the technology field.

HMG Strategy: Your career originally began outside of IT. Can you please share how your entry into an IT role came about and what this may portend for other women who may be interested in launching a career in IT from another profession?

Phyllis Post: My career began in the typesetting and printing industry in a period when it had transitioned from hot type to cold type where we had big rooms with temperature controls for large mainframe systems and you did your typesetting there. A few years later, desktop publishing emerged and began to change the industry—ultimately leading to a total disruption in its future.

During that period of change, the typesetting and printing industry was becoming more digitally enabled. Although I was on the business side of the organization, enabling the company to change to that early version of digital was part of my role. So, I helped make that transition from those larger mainframe systems to desktop systems, eventually leading to my heading up the web division for one of the companies.

It became clear in the mid-1990s that the printing industry was changing significantly, including a lot of consolidation. I was looking for the appropriate next steps that would not only provide stability for professional growth but also a mechanism that allowed me to contribute. I was approached by a recruiter on behalf of Merck about an IT project manager/planning role based on my background. I knew going into pharma would be a huge learning opportunity, and that going into IT was going to be a much different environment.

That major switch was both frightening and exciting - and set the context for my career. At that time, I only expected to stay for two years – but I am now in my 20th year at Merck! One of the approaches I took when I first joined was really immersing myself into what I needed to learn, and doing research to understand the industry and where it was going both for pharma and in terms of the technology being used. One of the things that helped me to make that transition was learning to code.

Although I was extremely nervous in making that change in career direction, the approach I took has helped me when I’ve needed to work on other new or transformation initiatives at Merck. And I’ve consistently found that if you apply yourself to learning something new you can be very successful in taking on new challenges or moving into an entirely new space. In fact, often you can contribute more from not having preconceptions about a subject. 

In terms of women exploring roles in IT - we as women need to be more confident that even if we don’t know a subject or have experience in a particular area, we can learn it. You just need to be willing to face that fear and go after what you want. If you have a growth and learning mindset, you can do it.

While the functional skills I needed to learn are different now, the leadership skills have remained consistent – building strong relationships across borders and boundaries, helping to articulate and connect the dots for others, setting a North Star aspiration, inspiring both individuals and the team, and continually focusing on talent development and growth. Honing those elements and having that strong leadership core is something that other women can also focus on.

Strong collaboration and communication skills and the ability to help people work together across borders and boundaries are things that can be applied in any other environment. 

What kinds of opportunities did you take advantage of during your career that led to your current role as VP and CIO, Global Human Health IT?  Can you also offer some suggestions for female IT professionals that want to grow into IT leadership roles? 

PP: Since I’ve been at Merck, I’ve had the opportunity to grow and change roles quite a bit. I have moved across the various divisions, worked in roles that were globally-oriented, and had an expatriate opportunity to work in Asia. Having these varied and disparate growth opportunities has kept it fresh, and made it seem at times as if I were working for different companies.

Although I’ve had a North Star for where I wanted to go professionally, I was also willing to take on assignments that were either outside of my comfort zone or allowed me to enhance the breadth and depth of my knowledge. Not just across a specific area of the business but across the entire value chain at Merck, from research to product commercialization. It helped me to envision the outcomes of the business as well as the network of connections to drive toward those goals. 

Having that breadth of knowledge allows you to look at challenges or opportunities differently. You notice things that you may have otherwise missed since you’re looking at it with a broader lens.

One thing I tell female technology professionals when I meet with them is that sometimes we can be hesitant to go outside our comfort zones, and that as women leaders we should not be afraid to take chances. You don’t know if you don’t try and you don’t want to regret playing it too safe. 

For both women and men, it is also really important to figure out what your professional aspiration is and actively work towards that goal -- including being a vocal advocate for yourself. You need to share your goals with your managers and mentors and proactively see how different opportunities might help bring you closer to your goal by providing the right experiences and skills. 

From your perspective, what can be done differently in this regard that could help to increase the percentage of women in technology leadership roles?

PP: We need to help emerging female leaders and encourage them to take chances on new opportunities that are outside their comfort zones or that are a stretch but that can help them grow and move towards their professional goals. They also need to actively advocate for themselves – both for their aspirations and where they want to take advantage of new opportunities. Men tend to be more comfortable with those types of conversations. We can help female leaders get more comfortable with these discussions and approach through mentorship, coaching and additional education around professional branding.

What are some ways we can better engage young women in IT and STEM career paths at an early age?

PP: We need to do more with children in middle school before they get to high school to get them interested in these fields. We need to provide them with a better understanding of the types of opportunities that are available. We can do this by showing them examples of successful female leaders, whether it’s in highly scientific or engineering areas or in IT. We can point out role models for them to look up to, proactively encourage young women to get involved in STEM activities early, and persuade them not to lose confidence if they run into any challenges along the way.

We also need to continue to focus on the corporate messaging and actions around diversity – especially around diversity of thought and inclusion. This will help encourage young leaders that even if they don’t see it right now, that there are increasing opportunities open to them and that things are changing.

How useful are current programs for young women such as the Girl Scouts or STEM camps for girls?

PP: Girl Scouts, Girls Who Code … these types of programs that are targeted at encouraging young girls are extremely useful. It helps to give them confidence and to provide opportunities to develop these skills in a safe environment. It’s important to nurture these opportunities. 

Research reveals that a higher percentage of women opt out of tech careers than their male counterparts. In fact, some studies suggest that more than twice as many women leave the technology industry as men. What are some steps that could be taken to help encourage women to remain in technology roles? 

PP: Before women even enter the industry, they may get frustrated or nervous about what they hear about the industry and how much growth they can have based on what they see in the real world. We need to actively promote diversity and inclusion in our organizations to help make young women comfortable. 

Also, if they see their male counterparts getting opportunities or promotions more frequently than they do, they can become frustrated. It is important for leaders to coach them—encourage them to look at different opportunities, to take on a role outside of their comfort zone and to help them get more comfortable in advocating for their future.

I’ve also heard some women express concern that there’s an expectation for them to make a choice between family and a career in tech. Integration of both is possible. We need to work at correcting this misperception, or where there may be an issue, women need to advocate for the balance that works for them.

What else can be done?

PP: We need to deliberately encourage women to come into STEM occupations. We also need to continue to coach and mentor young women as they come into the industry so that they remain and continue to grow. And wherever possible, we need to actively point to female role models that will give them the confidence that they can successfully make the journey.

Key Takeaways

  • Female IT leaders can and should encourage young women to explore IT and STEM professions, in part by helping to clarify any pre-conceived notions young women might have about working in IT and by pointing to examples of female role models.
  • To help encourage female IT professionals to remain in their roles, female IT leaders can help teach them how to advocate for themselves, including steps they can take to be considered for interesting assignments and promotions and with regards to work-life balance.
  • To succeed as a technology professional and accelerate their career ascent, women – as well as men – need to be willing to go outside their comfort zones.