Why women leave tech companies
The tech industry is known for rolling out promising diversity campaigns that aim at making the industry more inclusive and welcoming for women and people of color. In 2013 Facebook hired a global director of diversity and over the course of a few years improved its unconscious-bias training and faced up to the dismal diversity statistics of its company. Similarly, Google invested $150 million to recruit underrepresented minorities, train its staff in unconscious bias, and give its employees more time to focus on diversity projects. Until recently, the conversation has been focused on the reasons women and people of color are not entering tech fields, but tech company culture must be examined if any change is to happen.
Diversity issues in the tech sector have been studied, with research showing that bias starts as early as K-12 education, with girls who excel in math and science still reporting lower self-confidence in their intellectual abilities than boys who underperform, a phenomenon that is aided by the belief that intelligence is fixed and biology is destiny. This bias continues through college and into the workplace. From an outside perspective, it seems that tech companies are genuinely doing their best to recruit and retain women and people of color in their industry. But the sector remains notoriously homogenous. Even among the top technology companies, such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, the combined number of Latinx and Black employees is estimated to be between 3 percent and 5 percent—dismal statistics for companies that advocate for innovation, diversity, and employee satisfaction.
What we have not known well is what leads employees to call it quits. But a new study from the Kapor Center for Social Impact on why people leave tech jobs shows that the situation is much more dire than many of us suspected.
The Tech Leavers study is the first of its kind to reveal the rampant bullying, racial stereotyping, unfairness, and sexual harassment that specifically occur in tech fields, and at much higher rates than in other disciplines. This hostile environment affects the entire workforce, with 35 percent of all employees leaving for better work opportunities. The study found that men of color overwhelmingly left due to unfair treatment, with 40 percent of them citing this as the reason they quit, and that 20 percent of LGBTQ employees reported being bullied in the workplace. But the hostility most negatively affects women, with 37 percent of them leaving primarily due to unfair treatment, 26 percent reporting being passed over for promotions, and one in 10 women reporting that they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, leading more than half (57 percent) of them to eventually leave.
The case of Ellen Pao brought visibility to some of these issues. Pao, Kapor Center chief diversity and inclusion officer and former Reddit CEO, sued her venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in 2012 for mistreatment, sexual discrimination, and sexual harassment. In courtroom testimony she claimed women were often excluded from work trips in the company’s private jet and that she was often kept out of important meetings for simply being a woman. “It was said that if there were women there, the conversation would be tempered and it was because women kill the buzz,” she testified. She also spoke about inappropriate behavior exhibited by her male colleagues, including a story of a male coworker gifting her a book of erotic poetry.
Natasha Vianna, an advocate for people of color in tech and the director of communications of Honor (a San Francisco startup that uses smartphone apps to match elderly clients with home care providers and give them the ability to track their health and personal needs), describes it as a cultural problem, stating that “tech culture is intimidating, competitive, and isolating. The people who gain power to use those forces can drive the most confident and assertive people to question whether they are who they've always known themselves to be. So people leave because coming home every day feeling invisible, erased, and drained isn't worth their best years.”
Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada, explains that for women of color the situation is often much worse due to the compounding effects of racism and misogyny. She states that “when we are presented with facts like 56 percent of women end up leaving the tech sector … for [women of color], the double whammy of racism and misogyny creates an even more challenging and dispiriting scenario.… And while the understanding of sexism is lacking when it comes to HR/management dealing with reports of abuse and harassment, reports of racism are still laughed off, scoffed at, and promptly filed under ‘overreactions.’”
This is not costing just employees, but also tech companies. The Tech Leavers study estimates that unfairness costs the tech sector over $16 billion annually in employee replacement. But far more costly than lost revenues and expenses of recruiting and replacing employees is the negative reputation that it gives the industry. It’s unlikely that anyone leaving a job for unfair treatment, bullying, and sexual harassment would recommend their former employer to others.
But there are ways to correct these problems, and if leaders in the tech sector want to, they have the ability to employ tactics that ensure their employees are well treated.
Natasha Vianna believes that there are ways to improve tech culture, and she has experienced positive practices in her own workplace. She says, “Fixing tech culture can't happen if people in power can't see [a solution]. In addition to having a diverse leadership team, it's important for leaders to know how to be active facilitators in creating inclusive workplaces. Amazing leaders, like the ones I work alongside, are involved at every level, prioritize the well-being of each individual on their teams, and understand what employees' lives look like beyond the work day.”
Other ways to improve tech culture include implementing unconscious-bias training for all employees, including top-level supervisors. This training has been shown to decrease stereotyping incidents and sexual harassment in the workplace. However, it is poorly designed to address issues like unfair people management, and as currently designed it is shown not to impact bullying in any significant way. The Tech leavers study suggests that comprehensive unconscious-bias training must be implemented by leaders from the top and customized for individual company culture and values.
It is also important for companies to establish empathy and respect as part of their core values, setting an environment in which there are clear lines of communication and employees are able to communicate confidentially any complaints. Any reports of bias, harassment, or disrespect must be handled immediately before they escalate to larger problems.
Lastly, companies must evaluate their promotional practices. The study showed that women of color overwhelmingly left due to being passed up for promotions. It is crucial that companies evaluate their performance reviews to fairly determine promotions and compensation.
The bottom line is that tech companies cannot thrive without diversity. They need people from all walks of life to bring innovation and develop products for future demands. By allowing unfair behavior to run rampant, tech companies not only lose money, but miss out on the increased innovation that diverse workplaces experience. The Tech Leavers study shines an unflattering light onto the problem, but tech companies can use this information to meet their diversity goals and truly implement the changes they know will help them thrive.
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