Why Women Leave Tech (and what to do about it)
Thirty-six years ago, was the high point for women in tech in the U.S. According to the Forum Network, every year since 1984, more women have left the technology field than have entered it.
They often leave mid-career, the crucial transition to Senior Executive leadership. Tarah Wheeler, author of Women in Tech, describes this “mid-career stall“. “At the earliest stages we tell girls and women that they are welcome in tech, but we tell women in the later stages of such a career that they are never going to be granted a chance at the big chair.”
Let’s look at 3 reasons women leave Tech mid-career, 3 reasons companies should fight to retain them, and 3 ways to move mid-career women into Executive Leadership:
3 Reasons Women Leave Tech Mid-Career
They have a hard time getting promoted. Says Tarah Wheeler, “There is a cold reality forcing women out of tech at every level of their career: they will not be promoted or given the same chances as men.” A technology executive explained to HBR: “We have some very capable women in the middle management and junior VP levels, but they leave our firm to advance their careers as they continually get passed over for promotions.”
They face inequality from day one. Women at mid-career feel isolated because they have worked years without mentors or female role models in senior positions. Writing for Women Entrepreneur, Shari Buck, co-founder of Doximity, notes an ISACA study that reported that 48% of women in tech say they lack mentors, and 42% lack any female role models.
They don’t feel valued. “Why do so many women flee the tech industry when they hit the mid-career point?” asks Sue Gardner, former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, in an LA Times Op Ed. “Over time they get ground down . . . treated in a way they find hostile, demeaning or condescending.”
3 Reasons to Fight to Retain Women (beyond the fact it’s the right thing to do!)
It’s good business. Numerous studies confirm that companies with women in leadership perform better than those without. But when women walk out the tech company door, a trickle of departures can lead to a flood.
Observes JJ DiGeronimo, President of Tech Savvy Women, “If there aren’t women leaders to aspire to be or a clear path for women to become leaders within the company, you may be at risk for losing some of your strongest talent.”
It attracts underrepresented talent. In a Medium post, Rachel Thomas urges tech firms to “treat the women and people of color who already work at your company very well. Without completing this first step . . . even if you are able to hire more women and people of color, you won’t be able to retain them, and a bad reputation would make it harder for your company to attract talent in the future.”
It helps you build a workforce more ready to innovate. A 2019 Capital One Women in Technology report surveyed 250 women who held senior tech industry roles. What had they learned on the road to leadership? Julie Elberfeld, an SVP at Capital One, notes that “94 percent of women who reached senior positions said they are confident in their ability to find a solution to difficult tech problems.”
3 Ways to Move Mid-career Women into Executive Leadership
Know your data. Brenda Darden Wilkerson, President and CEO of AnitaB.org, urges companies to “judge the value of your organization’s diversity efforts . . . measure the baseline with both objective data and qualitative metrics, track progress against goals, codify successful tactics and create strategies to improve.”
Build sponsorship, not just mentorship. Mentors are helpful, but sponsors, who leverage their advocacy with senior executives, are critical. Says Isabel Nyo, writing for Code Like a Girl, “For a woman, access to senior management . . . increases visibility and opens up opportunities that she may not have if she is just putting her head down and working hard.”
Train managers to give women relevant, actionable feedback. A Fortune study of 248 tech performance reviews found that “men received constructive criticism on skills they should develop, whereas women received personality criticism” such as “pay attention to your tone.” The solution, says Rachel Thomas, is to “train managers to give women fair and actionable performance reviews.”
Aspiring to the C-Suite
Women don’t leave tech mid-career because they lack ambition. According to the Center for Talent Innovation, “Among young women engineers, computer scientists, and other technologists, more than 75% describe themselves as very ambitious, with 85% gunning for a promotion in the next 3 years and 62% aspiring to one day reach the C-Suite.”
It’s past time to recognize and reward that ambition!