Dal CIO challenges barriers and biases to build more equality for women in tech

- March 8, 2024

Jody Couch is Dal's chief information officer and assistant vice-president Information Technology Services at the university.
Jody Couch is Dal's chief information officer and assistant vice-president Information Technology Services at the university.

Jody Couch has ended up in some awkward situations as a woman working in the tech sector.

There was the time early in her career when a supervisor asked if her husband would be okay if she took on a specific position. More recently, she was in line at the chief information officer (CIO) desk at a conference to check in with a male colleague when she was directed to the general check-in desk. Why? They weren’t used to seeing a lot of female CIOs.

While there are hints the sector is changing to be more welcoming to women, challenges remain.

Couch, Dal’s CIO and assistant vice-president Information Technology Services (ITS), says growth in the number of female CIOs in Fortune 500 companies in the United States between 2000-2020 was between 15-25 per cent. In the Canadian university environment, only 35 per cent of CIOs are female.

“There are more of us in these roles, but not nearly an equal number,” she says. 

How — not if

Couch got her own start in the sector gradually as a part-time student pursuing a computer tech degree while working in mainframe operations at a university.

“Although there weren’t that many women in the field at the time, I was lucky enough to have someone in leadership see my potential and encourage me to participate,” says Couch, who joined Dal in 2022.

Couch says this kind of mentorship and sponsorship play a big role in helping women be successful.

“I know I would not be where I am without those types of people in my life, so I strive to do the same for others.”

Couch’s conversations with other women are about how they can get to the next level and not if they should.

“We have so many excellent leaders in our technology organizations here on campus, and I hope that they keep serving as examples and mentors to others that are coming up in the field.”

Creating more equitable outcomes

She believes that everybody should be trying to grow and improve. Women or gender-diverse people should not have to do that more than men, as it’s not really on the person.

“It is actually up to those of us already working in the field or in leadership positions to work on getting to gender parity,” she urges. “That means looking for barriers. For example, considering how to make sure parental leaves, which are often taken by women, don’t set someone back in their career.”

Couch says leaders should strive to recognize that people in different stages of their lives need flexibility to manage their home and work lives in the best ways possible.

International Women's Day 2024

  • Three members of Dalhousie's Women in Research Caucus share their experiences rising to leadership roles, the importance of mentorship from other women, and how academia benefits from greater female representation.

  • This Saturday, Dal faculty members are among a group of accomplished writers coming together for a free, off-campus reading event in honour of International Women's Day.

“I think that any person who is in a minority position in their work group has had to be a bit better, prove themselves a bit more, be more agreeable, and have thicker skin than those in the in-group,” she says.

Examining biases that might exist, making sure job descriptions use inclusive language, and building a more collaborative workplace culture can all help create more equitable outcomes.

She recently heard about an initiative a large technology company had taken on to have resumes screened with the aid of machine learning. Historically, the company had mostly hired male engineers and resumes from female-sounding names were being screened out.

“We have to be very vigilant about looking at our own biases about what someone in technology is like, but also about relying on historical data,” she warns.

Power in diversity

Couch values gender diversity because she feels all people deserve a fair and equitable existence, but also for another reason: it makes life and work much more interesting and enjoyable.

She says a homogenous group of people is never going to be able to generate the types of ideas that people from diverse backgrounds will be able to generate when they come together and put those ideas into practice. A diverse group leads to better decision-making and productive workgroups.

“Not seeing people that you can relate to in the types of role you want to enter can always be challenging,” says Couch. “More women are entering technology fields than in the past, but they do not always advance into leadership positions. That’s why those of us in leadership roles now need to model what we hope to see in the future.”


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