By Michele Hughes, Vice President, IT & Global Business Services, Procter & Gamble
I've spent my entire career at Procter & Gamble. I joined the company straight out of university, starting in manufacturing. Since then I've worked in finance, sales, human resources, and marketing, I've worked in three plants, and I've relocated 11 times. One of the things I've loved about being a technologist in a company like P&G is being able to see how the whole ecosystem works together. I've built a blueprint in my head of work processes, business processes, and the role technology has in those processes. That's given me the chance to make a big impact on how information moves through the organization, how things happen, and how decisions get made.
I've also spent my entire professional life as a woman in a majority male environment. When I earned my master's degree in mechanical engineering in the late 1980s, I was one of only five women in a 300-student program. I originally looked at jobs in mechanical and heavy engineering in places like the petrochemical industry and car manufacturing before realizing that IT was an emerging, growing area with much more opportunity for a woman engineer to make an impact. So, I decided to choose IT as a career, and I don't regret it for one minute. I'm still very comfortable in a manufacturing and heavy engineering environment, but technology has evolved far more in the last 25 years, and that growth has made it the right choice for me.
There's still room at the top
Another thing that's evolved in 25 years is the presence of women leaders. When I think back to my plant assignments, I was the only female member of the leadership team, but today, 48 percent of P&G's managers overall are female. On the other hand, only 38 percent of our managers in IT are female. I know some companies would think, "Wow, that's a lot," but we don't. I'm also still the only woman at the top level in IT. So, in some ways we've made huge progress, but in other ways we haven't made enough.
It can be lonely to be the only woman in the room, but over the years I've found that when I focus on how the company drives value and being the business person in the room who knows how to drive that business, everything else fades away. You're not going to change an entire company, so you have to change you. As I've risen through the levels in IT as one of the few women, I've also considered it a big responsibility to be a role model, just as my female bosses who have since retired were role models for me. Part of the fun of being one of the most senior women in IT is knowing that other women can look at me and think, "Okay, I could do that."
I'm extremely lucky to have a husband who gave up work 14 years ago when our daughter was born and has been a stay-at-home dad ever since. I don't think I'd have been able to do what I've done without that support. That said, when I came back to work after maternity leave, one of my mentors told me it was fine if I wanted to shift to a reduced schedule for a whole year. In the end, I chose not to do that, but what mattered was that a leader told me the company would give me the support I needed because I was valued. That's a critical role for a mentor, especially when you don't know what help you need or you're not sure how or if you can ask for it.
Looking toward the future
P&G is working hard to break down myths around diversity, especially the idea that the pipeline isn't there. That's rubbish! Given how many women come out of universities with degrees in IT, you can't tell me you can't find 50 or 60 women who would raise the ratio of female IT managers here to 50 percent. So, when we're staffing women into critical roles, half the available candidates have to be women, and everyone is attending training to get the men to understand how unconscious bias shows up in staffing discussions, promotion discussions, calibration sessions, and so forth.
It's very much a business agenda. Diversity of thought empowers the business and provides different perspectives. For example, with the rise in AI, we're training chat bots to respond to people, and in the next few years, there'll be robots in the home. How those chatbots and robots respond to situations depends on who programs them, so we need women on the design team to make sure their responses are diverse and representative.
If you're aiming for the C-suite, you need to understand the business, but you also need a network of people you can call on and trust to tell things as they are, because as you rise, more people will tell you what they think you want to hear instead of what you need to hear. It's also important to take on opportunities no one else wants. Those experiences teach you more flexibility and tools for managing in complicated situations, and you'll emerge having made a difference.
I wouldn't advise women who want to be CIOs to fixate on reaching the role. I would tell them to focus on the impact they can make, both on technology solutions and on society, and how they can develop and challenge themselves as they grow. That's how you get offered the leadership positions. Maybe it's because I'm an engineer, but for me that's a process and a methodology: start with an end in sight and then figure out the steps to get there.
Even though there are more women leaders in IT than ever, companies still need to be proactive about cultivating them.
CIOs have to understand the entire business as well as they understand the technology that enables it.
Without a broadly diverse leadership team, companies risk creating products and services that only meet the needs of a small portion of their potential market.