The Real Reason Women Quit Tech (and How to Address It)

Why recruiting and mentoring women doesn’t solve diversity

Rachel Thomas


October 4, 2016

This article has been translated into Portuguese by the Maria Lab and translated into Spanish by Anastassia Ivaškiva of Tallín University.

Women are more than twice as likely to quit the tech industry as men (41% vs 17%). Why is this happening? A study of 4,000 women who had recently changed jobs found that the #1 reason women leave companies is because of “a concern for the lack of advancement opportunity.” An extensive survey of hundreds of books, articles, and white papers concludes that women leave the tech industry because “they’re treated unfairly; underpaid, less likely to be fast-tracked than their male colleagues, and unable to advance.” A study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 27% of women in tech feel stalled in their careers and 32% are likely to quit within one year; 48% of Black women in tech feel stalled.

Photo from #WOCinTech Chat

It’s harder for women to get promoted for a number of reasons. Women frequently experience being excluded from more creative and innovative roles and instead channeled into less fulfilling execution roles, not receiving high visibility “stretch” assignments, having to prove themselves again and again, and having their ideas ignored until a man makes the same suggestion later (a study from Harvard, Wharton, and MIT found that men’s voices are perceived as more persuasive, fact-based, and logical than women’s voices, even when they are reading identical pitches). Researchers have found that women receive more vague feedback and personality criticism in performance evaluations, whereas men receive actionable advice tied to business outcomes. Women in tech are less likely to get their ideas green-lighted for development than men (30% vs 37%). A study of 1,800 professionals found that without diverse leadership, women are 20% less likely than straight white men to win endorsement for their ideas.

The Secret Key to Diversity

The first step, and the most important step, to improving diversity is to make sure that you are treating the women and people of color who already work at your company very well. This includes: appreciate their contributions, assign them to high impact projects, bring up their accomplishments in high level meetings, pay them equitably, provide chances to grow their skillset, listen to them, help them prepare for promotions, give them good managers, believe them about their experiences, and generally support them. Because of unconscious bias, these are actions that we are more likely to do for white men.

Without completing this first step of treating current employees well, even if you are able to hire more women and people of color, you won’t be able to retain them, and a bad reputation would make it harder for your company to attract talent in the future. People talk and find out which companies are known for being toxic or biased environments, and which companies are giving people from underrepresented backgrounds opportunities to grow and thrive.

Warning: Mentorship is NOT the solution

On the surface, mentorship seems like it could be a good way to help people advance their careers, but the data shows this is only true for men, because mentors provide different things for men than for women. A study of 4,000 women and men who graduated from top MBA programs (surveyed in 2008 and again in 2010) found that when women receive mentorship, it’s advice on how they should change and gain more self-knowledge. When men receive mentorship, it’s public endorsement of their authority and concrete steps to take charge and make career moves. Guess which one is more helpful? Men who received mentorship were statistically more likely to be promoted, but that was not true for women who were mentored.

The study found that women were more likely than men to have mentors; however the women were also in lower-level positions, paid less, less satisfied, and less likely to be promoted than the men. Sponsorship is when a mentor goes beyond giving advice to using their influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee. With a sponsor, women in tech are 70% more likely to have their ideas endorsed, 119% more likely to see their ideas developed, and 200% more likely to see their ideas implemented, compared to women without a sponsor.

Pipeline to Senior Roles

A few years ago, women comprised only 10% of the leadership and staff engineer roles at Intuit despite making up 24% of the engineering team, and women were 3x less likely to be ready for promotion than their male counterparts. In response, Intuit created a talent pipeline for senior roles: director, manager of managers, architects, and principal engineer.

Vinay Pai, VP of Engineering at Intuit, asked directors, architects, and principal engineers to identify promising women managers and women staff engineers, and to provide mentorship with the explicit goal of helping prepare them for promotions to more senior roles. After 1 year, the promotion readiness gap between men and women had been eliminated, several women were promoted, retention increased, and employee engagement (of both men and women) was higher. Although Intuit’s program was only about promoting women, it should be expanded to other underrepresented groups to avoid “colorless diversity” that primarily benefits White women.

Photo from #WOCinTech Chat

Researchers at Deutsche Bank hypothesized that women managing directors were leaving the firm to work for competitors because they were seeking greater work/life balance. However, they discovered instead that women were leaving because they were being offered higher ranking jobs by competitors that they weren’t being considered for internally. Deutsche bank responded by creating a sponsorship program to pair executive committee members with women, and one third of participants moved to larger roles at the bank within a year.

The Wage Gap is Real

There are gender and racial pay gaps in tech, and things are worst for women of color, who experience the compound effects of both. A study by the American Institute for Economic Research found that on average Latina women software developers earn 20% less annually than White men. Latina, Asian, and Black women software developers all earn less than White, Black, and Asian men, and less than White women (Latino men are an exception, earning less than any other group except for Latina women). Another study found that just 1 year out of college, women make 88% of what men do in engineering and 77% of what men do in computer and information science (this gap will increase over time with the power of compounding).

Some people dismiss the gender pay gap by arguing that women choose lower-paying fields; however, the causality is opposite: pay drops as women move into a previously male-dominated field. A study by Stanford and UPenn researchers analyzed 164 occupations using 50 years of US Census data (1950–2000) and found consistent evidence that pay drops as women move into a previously male-dominated field in areas as varied as recreation, ticket agent, designers, housekeepers, and biologists. When a job attracts more men, such as computer programming, which used to be predominately female, wages rise.

Another argument is that women earn less since they are less likely to negotiate; however a study of 4,600 employees across 840 workplaces found that women ask for pay raises at the same rate as men, but men are 25% more likely to receive yes as an answer (the study uses data from Australia, which is the only country in the world to collect this data. Maybe data-driven American tech companies could collect this data too…) Furthermore, a Harvard and CMU study found that when men and women negotiated a job offer by reading identical scripts, women who asked for a higher salary were rated as being more difficult to work with and less nice, but men were not perceived negatively for negotiating.

Photo from #WOCinTech Chat

MIT Professor Emilio Castilla studies the culture of meritocracy and has found that organizations that promote meritocracy actually show greater bias in favor of men over equally performing women. When Professor Castilla studied a large private company, he found that women, ethnic minorities and employees not born in the U.S. received lower bonuses than White men with the same performance evaluations, working in the same job and in the same unit for the same manager. That is ridiculous enough that I need to repeat it: employees with the same performance evaluation scores, same job, same unit, and same manager were receiving different bonuses!

After Microsoft publicized that it is paying men and women at the same level equally, engineer Leigh Honeywell pointed out that this is only part of the story since it’s not accompanied by promotion velocities and retention numbers (data which Microsoft has, but has not released). If women are not getting promoted as quickly as men, they are effectively earning less for the same experience level. Some possible reasons women may be getting promoted more slowly are biased performance reviews, less access to innovative projects, less visibility one level up, and pattern matching (leaders look for people who remind them of themselves). Equal pay is necessary but insufficient. Tech companies need to release the comparative rates at which people at their companies receive promotions, broken down by gender and race, as part of their diversity reports.

Women’s ideas aren’t heard until a man suggests them

A study from Harvard, Wharton, and MIT found that men’s voices are perceived as more persuasive, fact-based, and logical than women’s voices, even when they are saying the exact same sentences. Many women have had the experience of their idea being ignored, only for a man to suggest the same idea later and receive praise and credit for it.

Women in tech are less likely to get their ideas green-lighted for development than men (30% vs 37%) and a study of 1,800 professionals found that without diverse leadership, women are 20% less likely than straight white men to win endorsement for their ideas, people of color are 24% less likely, and LGBT people are 21% less likely.

Photo from #WOCinTech Chat

A recent article shared a strategy used by women in meetings at the White House: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” If the large number of women who posted, shared, liked, and tweeted the article is any indication, this is a problem and a solution that resonates with many. While the article was specifically about women supporting each other, men can do this too. Listen closely at meetings, and repeat unacknowledged good ideas, giving the person who first had the idea credit.

Women don’t receive the high-visibility assignments necessary for earning promotions

Two Stanford Professors ran a study in which they met with 240 senior leaders of a Silicon Valley tech company. These leaders identified visibility as the most critical factor for getting promoted to their high level: more important than technical competence, business results, or team leadership ability (these other attributes were all seen through a lens of visibility). The researchers observed dozens of hours of performance calibration reviews and concluded that women are at a distinct disadvantage.

The researchers found that men with a highly visible leadership style were described positively as “crushing it” or “killing it,” whereas women with a highly visible leadership style were criticized for being “abrasive” or “running over people.” Women and men with more collaborative leadership styles weren’t recognized as leaders, so this is a lose-lose situation for women.

Photo from #WOCinTech Chat

Women in the focus groups reported being turned down when they requested big opportunities. A typical comment was, “There are times where you are discouraged from taking on a stretch assignment. The manager says, ‘This will require extra hours, and you have to think about your family. This is not something for you.’ I have had that happen to me, and these were experiences needed for a promotion.”

Even if you aren’t in a position of power, you can still praise the underrepresented minorities you work with to other coworkers, or suggest how you think X would be great at applying skill Y to high impact problem Z. If you are a leader, make sure that you are assigning underrepresented minorities to high-impact, high-visibility projects.

The Cost of Untrained Managers

In a survey of 21 high-tech companies, technical women rated their supervisors lowest for communication skills, receptiveness to suggestions, availability, and feedback, compared to technical men and non-technical men and women. Technical women were less likely to agree that management decisions were fair, that management trusted their judgement, that performance evaluations were fair, or that it was safe to speak up, compared to every other subgroup. I once had a manager who was dismissive of or denied everything I said. Even in my exit interview, he denied that my reasons for quitting were actually issues at the company.

In the tech industry, many managers receive little or no training, and people are frequently promoted to manager because of their technical skills, not their people or leadership skills. Don’t underestimate the damage that an unskilled manager can cause. Many managers are completely unaware of the research science on motivation (autonomy, mastery, and purpose have been proven as the best motivators) or of unconscious bias and how it impacts performance reviews. You must provide training to managers.

Stanford researchers ran a gendered comparison of written performance reviews from 3 high-tech companies and 1 professional services firm. The researchers found that feedback to men contained more granular detail and actionable advice, whereas feedback to women was vague (e.g. “You had a great year” was a common one). When women did receive specific developmental feedback, it was overly focused on their communication style (e.g. “her speaking style is off-putting” or “too aggressive”). In contrast, men received actionable feedback linked to business outcomes, such as “You need to deepen your domain knowledge in the X space- once you have that understanding, you will be able to contribute to the design decisions that impact the customer.” Lack of relevant, actionable feedback holds women back from making the changes they need to advance their careers. Another study of 248 tech performance reviews found a strong gender bias; men received constructive criticism on skills they should develop, whereas women received personality criticism (“pay attention to your tone”).

Action Steps

Here are a few concrete steps that will improve diversity at your company. Please choose at least one of these and commit to take action on it this week:

  • Think of 1 person from an underrepresented group at your workplace whose work you admire, and think of 1 way to champion their work: advocating for their ideas, praising them to leadership at your company, or recommending them for an interesting, high-impact work project.
  • Set up a sponsorship program to help people from underrepresented groups prepare for promotions.
  • Train managers to give women fair and actionable performance reviews.
  • In meetings, listen to women and repeat unacknowledged good ideas, giving the originator credit.
  • Analyze your company’s data on performance reviews, salaries, and promotions. Correct any salary inequalities. If there are differences between groups in performance reviews or promotion rates, investigate why.

In general, be on the lookout for ways you can use whatever power or status you have to champion someone who doesn’t remind you of yourself.

This post is part 2 in a series. Part 1 discusses bullshit diversity strategies and offers some better ideas. Part 3 covers how to overhaul your interview process.

My post debunking the pipeline myth shares my personal story of wanting to leave the tech industry, as well as practical tips for change. My post on “diversity washing” shows the research that the wrong diversity initiatives can actually make things worse for women and people of color.

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