Why are women leaving technology jobs?

July 31, 2019 | Georgina Varley

Glue work, lack of role models, and childcare costs were just a few of the topics discussed at our Elephant in the Room session. Let's take a closer look...

Why are women leaving tech jobs

The buzz of female voices filled the room on Day 2 of Women of Silicon Roundabout as Lucinda Carney, Founder and CEO at Actus Performance Management Software, began her address. I was lucky to gain a coveted spot within her Elephant in the Room session entitled 'Why Are Women Leaving Technology Jobs?' – the hour that followed was the most vibrant discussion I saw at London’s centrepiece for women in technology.

It is a known fact that women are a modern minority in the tech world, with females making up approximately 24% of computer programmers globally. Research from Accenture, in conjunction with non-profit group Girls Who Code, highlights how this could decline to 22% by 2025

Arguably, a 'leaky pipeline' is the root cause for this, as STEM subjects in schools tend to be marketed heavily towards boys rather than girls. Lucinda's audience voiced their personal experiences when it came to this, many citing how STEM teaching was offered to boys in the form of dedicated courses, whereas it was more likely to be an after-school club for the girls. When asked how this group of women found themselves working in the technology sector, many said that they had stumbled across their career later in life.

Moving away from the initial talent funnel problem, the question: "Why are women leaving technology jobs?" had drawn a huge audience of female thought leaders to Women of Silicon Roundabout. Why were the women in that packed room, who had studied for years and were experts in the fields, dissatisfied with their roles or aware of colleagues who had taken the plunge and moved industries? Indeed, the turnover rate is more than twice as high for women as it is for men in the tech industry.

Let's delve into the reasons why, as discussed within Lucinda's talk.

Importance of women in technology

Why are women in technology leaving their jobs?

Lack of career growth for women in tech

Indeed surveyed 1,000 women in tech to determine the main reasons that they were unhappy in their tech jobs and how companies could keep them onboard. Lack of career growth was the top reason given by 28% of respondents. Here are a handful of reasons why this is the case, as raised by the Elephant in the Room attendees.

The 'Tiara Syndrome'

A phrase coined by Dr Deborah Kolb and Carol Frohlinger, the founders of Negotiating Women, 'Tiara Syndrome' describes how talented women often don't shout about their successes. Instead, they wait for someone else to give them credit or, in other words, crown them.

Confidence is key when avoiding 'Tiara Syndrome', and many women lack this. For instance, a Hewlett Packard report found that its male employees tended to apply for a job or promotion when they met 60% of the qualifications, whereas their female workers would only apply if they met 100% of them. Rather than arguing in the interview that they could quickly master the areas that they weren’t proficient in, they made the decision not to apply in the first place. 

Societal influences play a part here. This lack of confidence and inability to shout about corporate wins is rooted in upbringing and the media's portrayal of women. Despite what society would have us believe, girls are just as predisposed to be leaders as boys – once there is a societal shift in this misconception, women will be forging their own tiaras.

Managed in relation to gender

This leads me onto the next factor discussed – how many of the women in the room felt that poor management significantly affected their career progression. This is in line with Indeed's survey where 25% of respondents cited inadequate management as a contributing factor to their dissatisfaction.

One attendee stated: "I feel I am managed in relation to my gender, rather than my ability", another added that ambition rather than talent was valued at her company. This is particularly evident within feedback provided by managers, many of Lucinda's audience had experienced performance reviews from their bosses that criticised them for being too 'kind', 'shy', or 'emotional' – descriptors that none of their male colleagues seemed to receive in their evaluations. 

This is something that is similarly reflected in recruitment adverts. Words that hold gendered connotations like 'hacker', 'expert', 'ninja' and 'rockstar' are popular in tech job specs. In order to hire more women in tech in the first place, this needs to be addressed urgently, helping to stamp out the 'techie stereotype'.

Elephant in the Room discussion

Glue work

Glue work is expected when you're senior, however, it can be damaging to your career when you're not. If you're a software engineer who often finds themselves co-ordinating projects rather than coding, chances are that you're the glue within your department. 

Glue work includes updating roadmaps, on-boarding junior engineers, talking to users and checking in on other members of your team. Women who are good at glue work are often forced to move industries because their engineering skills are in decline as a result of their brilliant soft skills.

On paper, their technical contribution might be wanting, in reality, they are the backbone of their team.

Few women role models

Due to the fact that so many women in tech jobs are leaving the industry, there are very few female role models to inspire and sponsor younger employees. Women in technology statistics reveal that out of the 175 CTOs that worked at VC-backed European tech companies in 2018, just one was female. 

Companies that provide their employees with mentoring opportunities have a higher retention rate than those that do not, with 79% of millennial workers stating that mentoring programmes are key to their success. Furthermore, research highlights how managers tend to pick 'mini-me protégés' to invest their time and money in. In tech companies, this results in women being offered less mentoring opportunities and again demonstrates how it is challenging for female tech workers to climb the career ladder.


'Having it all' proves impossible for top women in tech 

As the discussion progressed, it became evident that a lack of flexible working was severely affecting those who were further along in their technology careers. Within the Indeed survey, 14% recognised that the work-life balance did not fit their lifestyle. Here are a handful of reasons why this could be the case, as raised by the Elephant in the Room attendees.

Childcare costs

One of the audience members expressed her exasperation at the state of childcare costs in the UK. While the British government currently offers 30 free hours of childcare to parents with children who are 3-4 years old, those with younger children remain under real strain.

According to a report from the Financial Times, parents of under-twos pay up to £9,100 a year for part-time childcare in London – a figure that is steadily rising. In some cases, it is cheaper to stop work.

Elephant in the Room discussion


Flexible working

I spoke at length with Dutch-born Marie Weijler, Member of the Investment Team at Cottonwood Technology Fund, during the session. From our discussion, Amsterdam's institutionalised inability to offer flexible working came to light. 

Research from recruitment firm Robert Walters supports the need for flexible working in tech. According to the study, 76% of female tech leaders felt that it encouraged staff to stay with a company longer. Flexible working manifests itself in many ways, including:

  • Moving certain weekday hours to work from home weekend slots
  • Job sharing
  • Compressed hours – working usual hours in fewer days

Maternity pay

'Big Tech' companies are paving the way for maternity and paternity rights in a bid to retain talent. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, famously took two months' leave after the birth of his daughter and, company-wide, has even introduced funding for IVF treatment and egg freezing. 

Small tech companies, however, generally remain below par in the treatment of their pregnant employees. In the UK, working women are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave. They receive six weeks of maternity pay at 90% of their previous earnings, followed by 33 weeks at £140 per week. The last 13 weeks of maternity leave are unpaid.

This places the UK in the penultimate slot within a survey of 24 European countries, something that the Elephant in the Room participants believed strongly contributed to their dissatisfaction and that of their fellow female colleagues. 

Pregnant woman in tech

Lack of support for new mothers and returners

Sadly, more than a third of women consider handing in their notice after returning from maternity leave. Additionally, earlier this year, one in nine British mothers were reported to have been fired or made redundant soon after returning to work.

The technology sector is the fastest growing globally, making it especially difficult for women to return to work after the birth of a child. The same goes for older women known as 'returners'. Women reported feeling inadequate because technology, and the manner in which their projects were managed, had advanced quickly in their absence.


We caught up with Lucinda following her session. In response to the question "Why are women leaving technology jobs?", she stated:

"In a nutshell, I would describe it as institutionalised inequality – lots of little examples of the female being treated as the subordinate from 'glue jobs', like taking minutes or organising meetings, to being talked down to. I would say many of the anecdotes were examples of unconscious sexism but, when you are the one who is the minority, these incidents build up and are often sufficient enough to influence a resignation, especially when there is nothing to counter it like career or mentorship opportunities."

"I would describe it as institutionalised inequality"

Lucinda Carney is the host of The HR Uprising Podcast, she discusses this topic in Episode 12 of the podcast. 

LISTEN HERE

So, the reasons are numerous yet often shared by women in the tech sector. While the majority of the issues at play here are societal and require a mass shift in opinion or government policy to enact change, some are tech-specific problems that we can begin to challenge or personal barriers that are holding women back.

Women in technology stats

The importance of women in technology is paramount. Hiring female tech workers is smart economics – statistics reveal that they have a significant impact on the success of a tech company. Despite receiving 50% less venture capital funding, women leaders in tech are bringing in 20% more revenue than their male counterparts.

In addition, the innovation and creativity women bring to projects frequently results in valued solutions being found when they may not have been previously. For instance, a study found that software patents produced by mixed-gender teams were cited 30-40% more than similar patents from all-male groups.

Although wider societal issues are difficult to affect directly, here's what women and men from the tech industry can do to trigger change.

Let's delve into the solutions discussed within Lucinda's talk.

What can we do to prevent women leaving their technology roles?

Set up D&I initiatives within tech companies 

Proposing your own D&I initiative is a way to inspire a shift in company culture. Methods to foster more inclusive attitudes include using the tool Alex to highlight gendered and potentially offensive language in programs like Slack, encouraging the celebration of underrepresented cultures and groups (ie. recognising Gay Pride week and Black History Month), and working with your HR department to ensure that all job descriptions include gender-neutral language.

Feeling nervous about going out on your own? Take a read of LinkedIn's Talent Blog, where Jennifer Kim has recently compiled 50+ ideas for cultivating diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Women in Tech London

Educate men about gender issues

A female attendee from the BBC wanted to stress how there had been many examples of success stories within her company. This is something the Women of Silicon Roundabout team has previously recognised about the BBC, naming the broadcaster Employer of the Year at the WinTechSeries Awards in June.

She stated how reverse mentoring was working wonders at the BBC. This is where junior, often female, staff members coach senior men on gender issues. Building allies with this method is just one of the ways that men at the BBC are helping to promote women in tech. 

Take a read of 'A Male Perspective on Women in Technology' to discover why men are key to the push for gender parity in the tech sector.

Raise boys and girls the same

The women in Lucinda's talk admitted that they often played into the gender stereotypes perpetuated by society. One delegate said that she sometimes caught herself saying things to her son that she wouldn't say to her daughter, and vice versa. 

Girls are often told to be quiet, demure, and apologetic, phrases like "That's not ladylike" are thrown about without consideration for the effect they could have on young women. According to a recent Harvard Graduate School study, mothers were more likely to show support towards arguments led by boys than girls. Evidently, checking ourselves when interacting with young children is a step towards a more inclusive world.

Promote other women in technology

Women leaders in technology need to do everything in their power to advance the prospects of their fellow female tech workers. Small moves like electing more female chairs and choosing other women to share their ideas in board meetings can make all the difference. 

It's also important to shout about your colleagues' successes and hold each other up. Towards the very end of the Elephant in the Room talk, one delegate stood up and wanted to share the brilliant work that her team member had been carrying out. Ultimately, never pull the ladder up behind you.

Build your network

Last but not least, capitalising on your relationships, especially early on in your career, is key to conquering the industry. Wrack your brain, browse your LinkedIn profile, and ask family and friends if there’s anyone you already know who could give you advice. Finding a female mentor really is essential to jumpstarting your career. 

The easiest way to do this is to attend a women in technology conference. European Women in Tech is the continent's largest and most vibrant event for female tech leaders. Those who attend have a personal mission to promote women in their field. Alternatively, if you are in a senior position, this is a perfect place to look for your next mentee.

When commenting on the feel of her session, Lucinda stated: "The energy in the room was awesome, we were full to bursting! I began with an icebreaker to get people talking but, in the end, we could have gone on for another 30 minutes."

This year, European Women in Tech will be uniting 4,000+ tech innovators for two days of thought-provoking content. Join us in celebrating gender diversity in the world's fastest growing industry.

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