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Why women are leaving the tech industry in droves

Why do so many women flee the tech industry when they hit the mid-career point?

When I moved to the Bay Area in 2007 to run the Wikimedia Foundation, the first thing that struck me was the eerie absence of women. I'd spent most of my working life at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., where we used to joke that women took power when the men went off to war in 1939, and afterward refused to give it back. At the CBC, easily half my colleagues, regardless of their gender, were overt, confident, unashamed feminists.

The Bay Area tech community was different. In my first three months I had dozens of meetings with tech executives, entrepreneurs and investors, and the only women I met were scheduling the meetings and bringing drinks to the boardrooms. I started asking myself what year it was in Silicon Valley for women. Had we reached the point where we could wear pantsuits and play golf, or was it still the Mad Men era?

Women make up a tiny fraction, roughly 15%, of people working in technical roles in the tech industry. And amazingly, that percentage is dropping, not rising. Multiple studies have found that the proportion of women in the tech workforce peaked in about 1989 and has been steadily dropping ever since.

I was puzzled by this, so I dug deeper. Over the last two months I've surveyed a lot of the available literature (about a half-dozen books and 50 studies) and ran my own survey of 1,100 women working in technical roles in tech companies.

Across all the research, the story is remarkably consistent.

Surveys and focus groups find that women enter the tech world empowered by their credentials and filled with enthusiasm and ambition. My own survey found that, like their male colleagues, women in tech report enjoying technology and wanting to work with brilliant people to solve tough problems. They're aware the industry's mostly male, but that's true of technical majors at universities, too, so most enter the workplace confident they know what they're facing and can push through any sexism they encounter. In the early years of their careers, women self-report themselves to be ambitious and happy.But over time they get ground down. Most have very few female role models and colleagues. Surveys find 23% to 66% report experiencing sexual harassment or seeing it happen to others. Half the respondents to my survey said they've been treated in a way they find hostile, demeaning or condescending, and a third said their bosses are friendlier and more supportive with their male colleagues. Women report being encouraged to move out of pure tech into support functions, which offer less pay, are less prestigious and have limited upward mobility. A 2014 Glassdoor analysis concluded that women in tech are paid less than their male colleagues, with another 2014 study putting the salary gap at 12%.

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review published a landmark report on women in tech, “The Athena Factor,” which found that the mid-career point is the most dangerous time for women. Just as their male colleagues' careers are taking off, women's start to stall, with those who've reached the beginning ranks of management reporting feeling blocked in moving up because they don't have a mentor, a sponsor or a road map.

It's normal for people's sense of empowerment and control over their work to increase as they gain experience and expertise, and the fact that this doesn't happen for women in tech is odd and troubling, researchers say. Multiple studies have found that attrition spikes for women in tech at about age 35. After 10 years of work experience, “The Athena Factor” found, 41% of women in tech leave the industry, compared with 17% of men.

When women quit tech, they don't leave the workforce entirely. And it's not about having families: They're no likelier than women in other industries to cite “work-life balance” as their reason for leaving.

The women who leave go into other industries, and multiple studies say it's because they're unhappy with their pay and promotional opportunities. A 2013 longitudinal study found that those who leave are 165% likelier to have an advanced degree than those who stay, which suggests they may be among the most qualified. Once they leave, the research suggests they're very unlikely to return.

This is embarrassing. I don't know anyone in the industry, regardless of their gender, who likes it or thinks it's OK. We all want it solved.

But I think part of the reason we're stuck here is that we're understanding the problem incorrectly. When I hear people talk about it, they use words like “encourage,” “support” and “nurture.” We advise companies to do a better job of “looking after” or “caring about” their women employees. We categorize the problem as though it were an issue of corporate social responsibility and as if we really believed women aren't good enough and need coddling or remedial help.

That doesn't fit my experience. The women I know in tech are tough, resilient and skilled. They have to be, to have pushed through the barriers to get to where they are. Like Charlotte Whitton said, back when she was mayor of Ottawa in the middle of the last century:

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” (And then she added: “Luckily that's not hard.”)

The women who quit tech aren't fragile. I think they're fed up. Why would a woman want to work for Uber, whose chief executive told GQ he calls his company “Boob-er” because his wealth makes him attractive to women?

Who would want to work for Snapchat, whose CEO, five years ago in college, sent emails to his fraternity brothers characterizing female students as “bitches” and “frigid” and “sororisluts”? Why would a woman want to attend industry conferences that feature presenters miming masturbation from the stage, or presenting apps that help users “stare at tits”?

There's a war for talent in Silicon Valley, and engineers are tech's scarcest resource. If you're a tech executive, you want your available workforce to be as big and varied as possible. In that context a rational industry would shut down overt misogyny because in addition to being morally repugnant, it's terrible for business. It would aim to provide the same things for female workers that it does for male ones: an enjoyable culture, competitive pay and challenging work.

Sue Gardner is the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that operates Wikipedia.

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