A new report from the Anita Borg Institute offers solutions to the problem of women abandoning careers in technology.
By Denise Gammal (Director of Research, The Anita Borg Institute)
The pipeline of women in computing has narrowed at an alarming rate. That pipeline is already narrow coming out of universities where women make up only 18% of graduates in computer science degree programs. To compound the problem, the quit rate for women technologists over time reduces the pipeline even further. One study found that 56% of women leave their jobs in the technology sector over time, dropping out at rates more than double the rate of men.
At the Anita Borg Institute (ABI), we envision a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies they build it for. This cannot happen until individuals and companies take steps to stop the attrition and develop and advance women at all levels of technical innovation.
Clearly, this is distressing for many reasons – turnover and decreasing numbers of women in computing jeopardize innovation and harm teams as well as leaving less talent in the pool to drive industry growth. There is good news. There are actions tech leaders and companies can take to turn this around. In a report recently released by our research team, titled Women Technologists Count, we examine the retention challenge for women technologists and provide evidence-based recommendations that companies can implement to effect positive change.
Why We Care
It is critical to have women in computing and engineering jobs. Multiple studies have shown that mixed gender teams are more productive and turn out more innovative and creative ideas. Innovation is arguably the most important success factor in technology, making team diversity imperative to a successful company. Further, research shows that companies with women in leadership roles enjoy greater profits, sales and revenue growth. For companies to fully leverage the benefit of diverse perspectives throughout their talent pipeline and leadership, they must retain and develop their pipelines of women technologists.
Another, perhaps ultimately more impactful, reason to care has to do with labor market demand. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show that the number of students – both men and women – graduating with computing degrees will not be enough to fill the projected number of jobs being created in technology. And it is not just high tech looking for computing talent; every industry from retail to transportation to financial services is competing for the best talent as they build their technical workforces. Retaining the women technologists we have and recruiting more women into the pipeline is a prime solution to this looming challenge.
Why Women Leave
We need to keep the women we have on technical career paths and in technical management roles, where their expertise can best be leveraged to develop tomorrow’s technology solutions. An Anita Borg Institute study of nearly 2,000 men and women in Silicon Valley tech companies found that women technologists face unique barriers including a lack of advancement opportunities, isolation and a challenging male-dominated culture. Another recent study of 1,000 women who left engineering jobs, mostly for other careers, found similar results; company culture, inflexible hours, no opportunities for advancement, relationships with coworkers, and low salary were all contributing factors to their departures. Companies that want to stem the tide of women leaving the field can address these barriers to women’s retention and advancement.
Sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands. There are several things that women can do themselves to effect change where they work. In a minority, women often lack access to influential male-dominated networks. Creating and strengthening networks for learning and support can increase the commitment that women technologists feel toward their jobs and provide important contacts to help them advance. This is why at ABI, we offer the Systers global online community, and we encourage women to join or start technical communities in their companies to build networks, discuss and improve technical skills, and share career advice. Women have developed groups to teach each other about patenting and learn new technical skills that help them build credibility to advance in technical roles.
Another option is to participate in mentoring programs at your organization or develop informal mentoring opportunities. Studies show that having female role models and participating in mentoring positively affects retention rates. Role models at the top show women technologists a path forward. Mentors provide technical and career guidance, connect mentees with others in the field, help develop career plans, and encourage by example.
But women can’t turn the tide alone; they need the proactive support of company leaders, line managers and human resource professionals to build more collaborative, inclusive cultures. Companies that want to retain all their top talent will build more supportive and inclusive workplace environments to take advantage of more diverse perspectives in building the technology of tomorrow.
Company leaders need to build accountability for inclusion throughout their management ranks and work to mitigate unconscious biases in their corporate cultures and systems. Companies can adjust their practices and policies including fair assessments and promotions, equal pay, improved training and support, and flexible and positive working conditions. These elements, which benefit a business across the board, are table stakes in the highly competitive technology workforce. Let’s take two steps forward and no steps back.
About the guest blogger: Denise Gammal leads the Anita Borg Institute’s research agenda. She and her team translate the best of academic research, document best practices, and provide new primary research to develop our understanding of the barriers and solutions to increase the representation and advancement of women in computing.