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Why women quit technology careers

By Kathleen Melymuka
June 16, 2008 12:00 PM ET

What are the other antigens? The second one was the sheer isolation many women cope with daily. She might be the only woman on the team or the only senior woman at a facility. Isolation in and of itself is debilitating, with no mentors, no role models, no buddies. And if you're surrounded by men who don't appreciate you, that can be corrosive.

The third thing is that, for many women, the career path is all very mysterious because they don't have mentors or sponsors or folks looking out for them. Some of them can't begin to map what the career ladder looks like. This mystery adds to the sense of stalling, of being stuck and not knowing where to go or how to get there.

The fourth thing is the risky behavior patterns that are rewarded. We found, particularly in the tech firms, that the way to get promoted is to do a diving catch: Some system is crashing in Bulgaria, so you get on the plane in the middle of the night and dash off and spend the weekend wrestling with routers and come back a hero, and there's a ticker-tape parade, and you get two promotions -- you can actually leap a whole grade if you rescue a big enough system.

But what does that have to do with gender? Women have a hard time taking on those assignments because you can dive and fail to catch. If a man fails, his buddies dust him off and say, "It's not your fault; try again next time." A women fails and is never seen again. A woman cannot survive a failure. So they become risk-averse in a culture where risk is rewarded. Women would rather build a system that didn't crash in the first place, but men enjoy that diving catch and have a system of support that allows them to go out on a limb.

So finally we come to work-life? The fifth one is a combination of extremely long hours -- in tech, the average workweek is 71 hours -- emergencies and a very family-unfriendly atmosphere. And at 35 to 40, women are often having the second kid, a time when even the most organized woman finds herself caught short by the demands of her life.

Is this whole scenario worse in technology and science than in other types of jobs? We did work in other fields in our '95 study. It was a slightly different pool, but we found that women across industries will often take a brief break -- like for two years. But our sense is that this is distinctly worse. In many fields, almost 100% of women will try to get back into the industry [later]. Here, only 60% say they would be willing to give it another try if conditions were right.

So 40% leave the industry entirely. Right. They've been too badly burned. It's particularly serious for the women who have invested decades getting a Ph.D. in a much-loved field -- and for society.

What practical steps should CIOs take to keep women from leaving? It's the most standard solution in the world: You've just got to get mentors to pair with the young talent.

It is a total savior, because it prevents the isolation setting in, allows them to start mapping their career paths and insulates them from some of the worst repercussions of the macho behaviors. If you have only a few senior women, use some of your men.

And use technology. Cisco is using telepresence technology to do virtual mentoring sessions across the world -- linking young women in India with senior women in San Jose.

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