Why are women fleeing the tech industry?


Ana Redmond launched into a technology career for an exciting challenge and a chance to change the world. She was well-equipped to succeed too: An ambitious math and science wiz, she could code faster, with fewer errors, than anyone she knew.

In 2011, after 15 years, she left before achieving a management position.

Garann Means became a programmer for similar reasons. After 13 years, she quit too, citing a hostile and unwelcoming environment for women.

Neither expects to ever go back.

“There are a lot of things that piled up over the years,” Means said. “I didn’t know how to move forward. There was a lot I had to put up with in the culture of tech. It just didn’t seem worth it.”

That’s a huge problem for the tech economy. According to the industry group Code.org, computing jobs will more than double by 2020, to 1.4 million. If women continue to leave the field, an already dire shortage of qualified tech workers will grow worse. Last summer, Google, Facebook, Apple and other big tech companies released figures showing that men outnumbered women 4 to 1 or more in their technical sectors.

It’s why the industry is so eager to hire women and minorities. For decades tech companies have relied on a workforce of whites and Asians, most of them men.

Plenty of programs now encourage girls and minorities to embrace technology at a young age, but amid all the publicity for those efforts one truth is little discussed: Qualified women are leaving the tech industry in droves.

A Harvard Business Review study from 2008 found that as many as 50 percent of women working in science, engineering and technology will, over time, leave because of hostile work environments.

The reasons vary. According to the Harvard study, they include a “hostile” male culture, a sense of isolation, and lack of a clear career path. An updated study in 2014 found the reasons hadn’t significantly changed.

Most women in the study said the attitudes holding them back are subtle, and hence more difficult to challenge.

Redmond, now 40, didn’t want to leave her tech career, but she felt stuck, with no way to advance. Male co-workers seemed to oppose her, she said. “It was like they were trying to push me out at every stage.”

She noticed a pattern, often being passed up for no apparent reason, and her projects were frequently taken away or dismissed, she said.

Tracy Chou, 27, an engineer at Pinterest, said she was once bypassed at a previous startup because her boss thought a new male hire was more qualified. When Chou pressed for an explanation, she recalled him saying: “It’s just this feeling I have that this person will be able to get stuff done faster than you.”

“The continuous pattern of all these people treating me like I didn’t know what was going on, or excluding me from conversations and not trusting my assertions, all these things added up and it felt like there was an undercurrent of sexism,” she said.

So far, no company has found found a solution for retaining women.

Google, whose engineering workforce is 17 percent female, introduced a training program in 2013 that aims to fight cultural biases. Employees play word association games, and are often surprised by how quickly they link engineering and coding professions with men, and less technical jobs with women.

Pinterest’s technical team is 21 percent female. It created an engineering promotion committee to ensure no one is overlooked. The company also has a recruiter focused on diversity.

Facebook, with a technical workforce that is 15 percent female, gathers its female employees from around the world for a leadership day filled with talks, workshops and support. The company also offers special benefits, like four months of paid maternity and paternity leave, and free classes for women on returning to the workplace.

Apple, whose global engineering workforce is 20 percent female, did not respond to requests for comment.

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