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Fewer women have the top technology job at colleges and universities, according to a new survey of higher education chief information officers.

The findings, as well as past surveys, suggest some reversal of the headway female CIOs have made over the past three decades.

According to annual surveys by the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies, the number of female CIOs has gradually fallen from 26 percent in 2008 to 21 percent today. 

Wayne Brown, the center’s founder, called the decline puzzling, particularly because an increasing number of women hold college technology jobs that report directly to the CIO and would presumably be prime candidates to become chief.

“If it doesn’t go up next year, then what else is going on?” Brown wondered.

The latest survey was based on a sample of 361 CIOs. A separate study in 2004 found that 21 percent of CIOs were women.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen, associate vice president for digital education and engagement at the University of Colorado System, said colleges need to have a multipronged approach if they want to boost the number of females in technology posts amid a wave of rapid developments that could dramatically alter higher education.

“We need lots of different thinkers in it, because we’re about to have a revolution,” Keyek-Franssen, who helps lead Educause's Women in IT Constituent Group and is on the leadership team for the National Center on Women and Information Technology.

The percentage of female CIOs in higher ed still leads the number of CIOs in industry, according to various studies. All told, though, the chief technology officials at colleges are mostly white men who have already turned 50.

A companion survey by Brown of “technology leaders” – those with tech jobs who report to the CIO – found women with such jobs are not as interested in becoming college CIOs as are men in similar positions. Female CIOs are also retiring at a faster rate than male CIOs, according to the latest survey.

The annual surveys, which Brown has conducted for the past decade, also chart the professionalization of the top tech job.

Just three decades ago, an on-campus candidate could become CIO by being in the right place at the right time. Now, college administrators are increasingly looking to hire a CIO who has an advanced degree in technology, Brown said. This also could be deterring women with college technology jobs. They may be more likely to have an advanced degree than men, Brown said, but they are less likely to have that degree in technology.

Keyek-Franssen, whose background is in German literature, said university administrators should be open to hiring nontechnical people for the CIO post as long as they have moved into administrative areas with responsibility for technology issues. Such openness could make it more likely for women to become CIOs. She said nontechnical people with skills like project management could still ably lead technical teams.

“I was never a sys admin, but I know what a sys admin does,” she said, referring to an information technology systems administrator, a technical job.

Broadly, Brown is concerned about a wave of retirement. About half the nation’s college chief technology officials are planning to retire within the next decade. Brown is concerned they and other university administrators are not doing enough to groom the next generation of CIOs.

“Make that a priority of growing your own,” he said. “It’s so important and so expensive of a department, I think it’s a real mistake to just passively wait for your next CIO to get hired.”

Brown said the report also disproves the idea – based on anecdotes – that colleges are increasingly hiring from the private sector. The survey found that CIOs who had come from the private sector have held their positions for an average of nine years, while CIOs hired from within higher ed have been at their jobs an average of seven years. The survey said this was evidence that "commercial-industry CIO migration is neither radical nor novel."

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