Why Do Women Keep Leaving Tech?

Woman looks at computer biting pencil in frustration

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We’ve all read about and experienced the truth that diverse teams perform better, make better products, and are more profitable. But women remain underrepresented in the tech industry and despite slight gains in recent years, the gender gap is still real and pervasive.

From a CIO magazine article:

“Women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S., but as of 2015, they hold only 25% of computing roles…Of the 25% of women working in tech, Asian women make up just 5% of that number, while Black and Hispanic women accounted for 3% and 1%, respectively.”

What's Going On Here?

Many companies have introduced policies to encourage gender equality, including pay transparency, recruiting goals, and cultural initiatives like mentoring or “women who code” groups. But progress towards gender balance is miniscule, and women continue to report frustration, lack of opportunity and respect, and burnout. What’s going on?

As a woman who has spent her career in the military and in IT, both male-dominated fields, I’ve experienced and witnessed a significant amount of sexist, toxic behavior from male colleagues, typically in the form of what is commonly called “microaggressions.” These moments, added together over months or years, weigh us down, steal our joy, create anxiety, and interfere with our effectiveness. Even if we technically “do well” in our job or career, eventually many of us get fed up and leave IT behind.

Microaggression is a loaded and misunderstood term, so I’ll use some real-life examples below to explain.

So Many Microaggressions

The underhanded compliment – This can take many forms. Common is some flavor of “wow I’m surprised you know that” that implies that the base competence of women is lower than their male colleagues. Another one is to tell a woman who typically wears slacks and comfortable shoes “you really look nice today” the one day she wears a skirt and heels. Before you compliment a woman, ask yourself how you would feel if a male colleague said those exact words to you. If it would be weird, then don’t say it.

The too-helpful guy – Often, men who want to be allies make this mistake, and it really doesn’t help. A woman in a meeting makes a point and other attendees misunderstand, ignore, or minimize her contribution. In jumps the helpful guy, saying “let me help clarify her point” or “I think what she meant to say is….” You’re trying to help amplify her words, but you’re really re-centering the conversation on you. A better approach would be to say “that’s an interesting point, Clarisse. I’d like to hear more about it.” That brings the focus back on her.

The minimizer – There are so many ways that women’s work and knowledge are minimized in the workplace. A very typical scenario is to give full credit to a male leader when something goes well, but to say “she had a great team” when a woman leader succeeds. Another minimization technique is to focus on a woman’s weaknesses instead of her strengths. Instead of “she’s really excellent at technical architecture” you hear “she’s not great at project management.”

Ignoring women’s seniority – When someone assumes that the woman in the room/meeting/team is the junior associate and defers to the men present, or goes around the woman manager/supervisor, thereby marginalizing her, it puts women in the position of having to claim their seniority and constantly re-establish their position in the organization. If you see someone doing this in your organization, remind them “you should ask Jasmine, she’s the engineering lead.” Don’t participate in sidelining women leaders.

The attention hog – A woman says something in a meeting, and you jump in with “I believe I can add some context” and unleash an avalanche of facts and figures. You’re drowning out the woman’s contribution and attempting to establish yourself as the authority. I’ve had this happen in discussions about subject matter that I’m actually expert at, and it’s infuriating. You force the woman to battle to reclaim space in the conversation. And if your contribution is irrelevant or incorrect, now she has the additional work of refuting you.

Belittling women’s emotions – When women express frustration, impatience, or anger, they are considered “too emotional.” If, on the other hand, they have the knack of staying cool under pressure and smile in the face of adversity, they are “cold and unrelatable.” If they speak sharply to a colleague, they’re a “b*tch,” but if they are soft-spoken, they are “too sweet to be effective.” An organization that doesn’t allow space for the genuine human emotions of female colleagues has a broken culture.

The age trap – Young women are not taken seriously because they don’t have enough experience. Older women aren’t taken seriously because their experience is “out of date.” Young women have soft faces and soft voices. Older women have wrinkles and sound like your grandmother. The fact is, no age is the right age when women aren’t respected as professionals and individuals. I know one older woman (also a senior manager) who stopped bringing treats to the office because the younger men started calling her “mom” and she felt that was really disrespectful.

It’s never enough – A common complaint of women in tech is “I have to work twice as hard for half the recognition.” Every woman in tech has seen this play out in her career. 

  • The guy who has less experience getting hired in above you.
  • The woman who has additional responsibilities and expectations heaped on her plate.
  • The woman who is doing a job above her pay grade without seeing the raise and promotion that should go with the work.
  • The male colleague who does the bare minimum getting promoted while she’s told “you’re just not ready yet” even though she’s the one who cleaned up his messes half a dozen times.
  • The woman who doesn’t have the expertise to do a particular task being told to do it anyway, because her boss knows she’ll “figure it out.”

Women work in a space where if they set boundaries, turn down unreasonable requests, and ask for the promotion they deserve, they are considered pushy, a bad team player, and selfish, but if they don’t do these things, they’ll be drowned in overwork and pushed to exhaustion or failure.

Teammates who flaunt sexism – Maybe that guy has never said anything inappropriate, but he openly supports a public figure who is a known abuser or rapist. Or he voices approbation of politicians who promote policies that are harmful to women. Or he just loves music that has violently sexist lyrics. These men might not do anything actionable at work, but women know that they aren’t to be trusted.

If you’re a business owner, manager, or colleague who really cares about gender diversity in your organization, your work at improving your culture can’t end at “don’t harass women.” Look for these patterns in behavior in yourself and in your teams, and work at creating space for women, not just to voice their concerns, but to lead the way to organizational change.

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