Why women quit technology

More than half of the women in science, engineering and IT leave the field at mid­career. Here's the reason.

What if half the men in science, engineering and technology roles dropped out at midcareer? That would surely be perceived as a national crisis. Yet more than half the women in those fields leave -- most of them during their mid- to late 30s.

In this month's Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce and Lisa J. Servon describe the Athena Factor, their research project examining the career trajectories of such women. Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, told Kathleen Melymuka about what they learned.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Center for Work-Life Policy

Your research shows that there are more women on the lower rungs of science and technology fields than most people suspect. Women are actually excelling in science, engineering and technology, despite the fact that the schools are not very good at encouraging them. Many don't just survive the educational process but get some distance in terms of careers. The story is very encouraging in the early run. Between ages 25 and 30, 41% of the young talent with credentials in those subject matters are female. It's a more robust figure than many suspect. That's the good news.

What happens later? The bad news is that a short way down the road, 52% of this talent drops out. We are finding that attrition rates among women spike between 35 and 40 -- what we call the fight-or-flight moment. Women vote with their feet; they get out of these sectors. Not only are they leaving technology and science companies, many are leaving the field altogether.

How many women are we talking about? We reckon that maybe a million well-qualified women are dropping out in that age range. We reckon that if you could bring the attrition rate down by 25%, you would hang on to about a quarter of a million women with real experience and credentials in these fields -- fields that are suffering a labor shortage.

Based on the demographics, it seems likely that they leave to start families. Is that what happens? No. I'm not trying to pretend that work-life balance is not important, but we found four other more important factors about the culture and the nature of the career path. We call them "antigens," because they repel women.

Tell me about those. The most important antigen is the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments. We found that 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment. That's a really high figure.

They talk about demeaning and condescending attitudes, lots of off-color jokes, sexual innuendo, arrogance; colleagues, particularly in the tech culture, who genuinely think women don't have what it takes -- who see them as genetically inferior. It's hard to take as a steady stream. It's predatory and demeaning. It's distressing to find this kind of data in 2008.

Is this data global or national? We studied private-sector employers in the U.S., and then we looked at three large, global companies with women working across the world. We also did a bunch of focus groups in Australia, Shanghai and Moscow. The data were pretty consistent. Actually, India is a little better than the U.S. But there's not much variation across geography.

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.

Other recent Q&As with Harvard Business Review authors:

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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