Women Fleeing Tech Field: Causes and Solutions

NCWITBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Over the last two decades, the computer science industry has seen almost a mass exodus of women – while other science fields have seen the number of jobs held by women rise significantly.

According to a new report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the percentage of computer-related jobs held by women has declined steadily from its high of 36% in 1991, to just above 25% in 2008.

Dr. Catherine Ashcraft, co-author (with Sarah Blithe) of Women in IT: The Facts, explained that there are a number of reasons for the decline:

  • the dot-com burst in the late ’90s leading to a perception that there aren’t any jobs in the field
  • a perception that technology and computer-related jobs have been outsourced to people in countries outside the US
  • a misunderstanding about what the field really is
  • higher visibility of other science fields
  • and an image that these jobs are “nerdy or geeky”

But it’s not just a decline in the number of women entering the field – women are leaving jobs in the technology field at a startling rate.

As the report explains, “female attrition is higher in technology than in science and in engineering, but across all three climates, it is considerably higher than men’s attrition.” The report continues, “Forty-one percent of women leave technology companies after 10 years of experience, compared to only 17 percent of men.” Additionally, “Fifty-six percent of women in technology companies leave their organizations at the mid-level point (10-20 years) in their careers.”

Two Keys to Change

Why are women leaving jobs in the technology field at such an unprecedented rate? The report outlines two key factors: isolation and work/life balance.

The report cites The Athena Factor, a Harvard Business Review research report which indicated a lack of mentors or female role models is a major cause for female attrition from these types of jobs:

“In The Athena Factor, one-third of women in private-sector SET jobs said they felt extremely isolated at work. In the same study, 40 percent of technical women reported lacking role models, while nearly half reported lacking mentors, and 84 percent reported lacking sponsors or someone who would help make their accomplishments visible throughout the organization.

“In fact, women who are isolated are not only less committed, but are 13 percent more likely than women who do not report isolation to also report being unsatisfied with their job. Women who are not satisfied with their jobs are 22 times more likely to leave than women who are satisfied. Likewise, women without mentors or sponsors are also more likely to leave their companies…”

Mentoring programs and networking groups can help change this experience, but there is a also a chicken-and-egg problem here. As Matt Ford explains, “A group that is not adequately represented in teaching or high-ranking positions is by definition not present to mentor new people from that group, hence perpetuating a cycle that is very hard to break.”

Work/life balance is another issue driving women from the field. As the report notes, “both men and women believe being family-oriented is not associated with success in technology.”

“There is a perception of work/life balance being a women’s issue,” said Dr. Ashcraft. But, the study showed that “work/life balance is as important to women as much as men.”

The difference, though, is that while “mid-level men are almost four times more likely than women to have a partner who assumes the primary responsibility for the household/children,” mid-level women “are more than twice as likely as men to have a partner who works full time.”

This means that women in the computer science and information technology industry are more likely than men to feel pressure from work/life balance issues. To exacerbate the problem, many women reported that while flex-time or telecommuting policies are formally available, they were discouraged from taking advantage of them.

Changing Stereotypes, Ending Unconscious Bias

One further cause for concern is that many women reported experiencing unconscious bias and stereotyping – which led them to leave companies. The report indicates, though, that supervisors can reverse this trend.

“Supervisors can have a profound impact on reducing isolation, recommending mentors, functioning as sponsors, providing access to flexible schedules, and reducing bias in performance evaluations and promotion procedures – all key barriers to technical women’s advancement.”

Dr. Ashcraft also stressed “the importance of an employee’s immediate supervisor’s influence on if they stay. It makes a huge influence, and affects retention.”

In a Center for Work-Life Policy study, 74% of women in technology reported “loving their job.” And yet, the environment in which they work is simply inhospitable.

What can companies do to reverse the trend of women leaving the tech field? “Change is possible,” said Dr. Ashcraft. “We have to raise awareness about the problem. We have to take a holistic approach to solve it.” This approach involves training supervisors to work with diverse teams, changing stereotypes, breaking down communication barriers, and making sure flex-time or telecommuting programs are openly available and encouraged.

0 Response

  1. Avatar

    I am the only woman i know, and i knew many, still working in a technical field. After layoffs from Defense and telecom, my friends went into heathcare, teaching, sales and the majority just stayed home. I am still in a technical field thanks to a family business, or i would have exited as well.

  2. Avatar

    I definitely quality as one of the lonely women in IT. Made management last year – first time ever in our company’s history. Hit me again today as I left quarterly finance review that I was the only woman in the room.

    But apart from that, I count myself lucky. I have a mentor. My direct supervisor encourages work/life balance and making the most of our flexi-schedule. My mentor is my direct supervisor. My mentor is a dad who also picks up kids from school and sometimes leaves company events early to go home to the family. He’s also married to a woman who runs her own business and definitely “gets” the challenges of being a woman in IT.

    But very few women have this, and if I were working for another woman in IT, I may even have had less support. It’s well-known that the sisterhood in business doesn’t function healthily, not like the boy’s club.

  3. Avatar

    I have my MS in electrical engineering, study and worked in biomed equipment design.

    I don’t work now. After becoming a mother, my options were severly limited. I couldn’t keep putting in 12 hour days 5-6 days a week and still be a part of my children’s lives. I didn’t have any family support system I could rely on to help me if problems arose. (i.e. sick child, etc.)

    Another consideration is the lack of part time engineering jobs. I live in an area with an abundance of technically trained stay at home mothers because there really aren’t jobs out there for us. Many would like to get a part time tech job while their children finish out school, but they don’t exist.

    Any companies out there listening???? At this moment, I know of 5 tech women who would love part time tech jobs.

  4. Avatar

    I worked in IT for 10 years and have recently left the field not because of sexism but because of the decline in working conditions.

    Although it is true that I lacked mentors and female colleagues, I feel that the rampant outsourcing and allowing visas in professions that were in decline (namely after the dot-com crash) in recent years has reduced working conditions locally. I had my salary halve in a short number of years and the opportunities available are far less glamorous. Personally, I don’t want to work nights and weekends so that pretty much eliminates all opportunities that I’m qualified for. I was laid off nine months ago and have started my own company that allows me to work flexible hours from home, and I’m much happier for it.

  5. Avatar

    If a woman does take time for family responsibilities, it is impossible to get a programming job again, even if your skills are up to date.

    Of course, I do feel that corporations in general starting using that meme as a way to discriminate against women…unfortunately it has now become commonplace for people to think that discrimination in this manner is valid.

  6. Avatar

    Women have been pushed out of the field. They are not voluntarily leaving. Once women have been pushed out of few years, then the corporations play the game of discrimination by never hiring them again.

  7. Avatar

    Guess what, men have been pushed out of the field as well…. off shoring has lead to a rapid decline in opportunities for everyone, not just women. American employees are being discriminated against, both men and women, by the American government and corporations. It is tough for everyone….not just women.