In honor of Women’s History Month, Breaking Gov highlights women’s relatively recent breakthrough in the growing and increasingly crucial world of federal IT. This is the first of a three-part series on women in federal IT that reveals who these leaders are and how they’re making a difference.

Just 15 years ago, women were the exception in federal IT roles. In fact, at the time, men claimed every top federal technology job in government.

Anne Reed broke that barrier in 1997 when she became the CIO at the Department of Agriculture after the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 established the CIO position for every federal agency and defined what the government had to do to make technology work.

And now, as more women pursue this once male-dominated career path and demonstrate a particularly valuable leadership style in the profession, they’re shaking up statistics and climbing to the top ranks.

There’s a great need in the world of IT for the leadership style of women.” – Deborah Diaz

Lisa Schlosser, deputy associate administrator at the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Office of E-Government and Information Technology, told Breaking Gov that 25% of federal CIOs are currently women.

“The landscape is certainly encouraging. There are some positive results at all levels. There will be a big percentage of women in the next generation of leaders in IT,” said Schlosser, whose e-government shop is 50% women.

The reason: More women than ever are majoring in computer science and information technology and are looking for good jobs at a time when the federal government needs to replenish the ranks of retiring federal IT execs.

Meanwhile, several at the prime of their careers pave the way to the top. Among them: Linda Cureton at NASA and Teri Takai (pictured above, center) at the Department of Defense.

Although there are no hard numbers, there are women IT executives throughout the government at every agency and every level.

There are nine women in top ranks at the General Services Administration, including Administrator Martha Johnson and CIO Casey Coleman, as well as several high-level IT executives besides Takai at the Pentagon, including Army CIO Lt. Gen. Susan S. Lawrence, Major Gen. Jennifer L. Napper, the commander of the U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command and Rear Adm. Diane E. H. Webber, the director of the command-control systems for NORAD and USNORTHCOM.

Takai, the first woman and first Asian American CIO at the DoD, runs one of the largest government IT budgets in the world. She’s in charge of delivering services to the vast Pentagon machine that relies on technology for essential military services.

“It’s important to stand up and let people know who you are quickly,” she told Breaking Gov. “Don’t be intimidated by the surroundings and recognize you might not know everything.”

The Defense Department continues to strive for diversity in its workforce, according to Stephanie Miller, director of DoD’s Diversity Management.

“Diversity in all of its forms is a strategic imperative that allows the department to perform the full range of diverse missions we undertake,” Miller said. “The advancement that increasing numbers of women are making strengthens our diversity at the senior ranks and the Department of Defense overall.

The U.S. Labor Department estimates that nearly one million information technology jobs will be added to the U.S. workforce by 2016, but U.S. universities will produce only half the computing graduates needed to fill these new jobs.

Many believe women remain an untapped reservoir of talent and innovative ideas for IT jobs.

According to none other than Grace Hopper, the computer science pioneer who helped develop COBAL, programming is just like “planning a dinner.”

Young women are realizing that, too. In 2010, the number of women majoring in Computer Science nearly doubled at Harvard, rising from 13% to 25%. The number of female Computer Science majors at MIT has risen by 28%. And, at Carnegie Mellon, the portion of Computer Science majors who are women has moved from 1 in 5 in 2007 to 1 in 4 in 2010 as well.

“The federal government is a good place for women. It is a very supportive place. They are not held back. They have their babies, and they come back to work,” said Phyllis Kolmus, a member of the non-profit Women in Technology’s board of directors and head of a team of 20 AT&T analysts who work for the Secretary of Defense.

Experts also say this new generation of women IT executives bring many skills to the job including collaboration and team building and the ability to explain complex subjects to the public in layman’s language.

“There’s a great need in the world of IT for the leadership style of women,” said NASA Deputy CIO Deborah Diaz, whose boss is NASA’s CIO Cureton. “There’s also an increasing need to make IT more understandable and have clear communication in non-IT jargon. The leadership traits that are stereotypically associated with women would greatly benefit the IT field.”

Federal IT is a place where women excel, added Carla von Bernewitz, who spent a decade working in IT at the DoD and related agencies she said.

“There is no glass ceiling,” said von Bernewitz, who now works for the Microsoft business development unit for intelligence agencies and DoD.

Nevertheless, moving up in IT has special challenges for women. Janet Stevens, CIO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said women rising in IT roles must learn how to lead change in their new leadership positions, a talent still being honed by everyone looking to move ahead.

“You have to learn how to build coalitions and partnerships with your peers and leaders,” Stevens told Breaking Gov. “You’re now managing up and not across and down the organization.”

Mary Davie, Assistant Commissioner, GSA’s Federal Acquisition Services, Integrated Technology Service (ITS), offers the following tips for federal IT women:

  • Have a passion about what you are doing. If you have that passion, you’ll do well.
  • Have a wide understanding about technology in the field. Stay up to date on mobile, IPv6, security, data consolidation, efficiencies and many other issues.
  • There are lots of opportunities in IT. Go after what you want. Look for ways to broaden your network. Be proactive.
  • Reach out when you can to help others do their own jobs. Be the go-to person, not the run-from one.
  • Join professional organizations, network and develop relationships. Among the groups to join: AFCEA, ACT-IAC, Women in Technology, AFFIRM, the Professional Services Council and the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

Finally, Schlosser has one more recommendation: Think cybersecurity. It’s where the biggest job growth will be in the next decade.

Tomorrow: Read about innovative women who’ve left federal IT for the private sector in Part 2 of this series.