Moving Up Without Moving Out (Of Technology)

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By Francine Gordon (Chair, SVForum Tech Women) Editor's note: This important topic will be discussed at SVForum's eponymous event on September 22 in Cupertino, CA - Details here.

It’s a sad reality that roughly a third of the women who enter the high tech workforce as a computer scientist or engineer move out off the technology track over time.

Given the fact that the number of women pursuing computer science degrees has been on the decline for some time and the fact that there are still a relatively small number of women obtaining engineering degrees, the loss of those women who do make it into high tech companies to non-technical jobs does not bode well for the industry.

Why does this happen? There are a variety of reasons. For starters, the image of the competent software engineer is that of a male geek -- a stereotype that is well ingrained in girls and boys from an early age. Repeatedly it’s been shown that girls do as well as boys at math until late elementary school/middle school. At that time, we see girls moving away from STEM fields.

Recent research has shown the impact of being primed to believe that there are differences in genders vis-à-vis these kinds of competencies. [There are several studies showing how priming students with just a sentence referencing gender differences affects actual test results and/or self-ratings in the expected direction]. Hence, the low percentage of women pursuing degrees to prepare them for those fields.

For those women who persist, studying for and taking on careers in high tech, the same situation arises. They are likely to be seen as less competent than their male colleagues because perception is biased by all the socialization that’s gone on.

And mind you -- women are as likely as men to perceive women as less competent. Women in, for example, software development may find themselves with few if any females colleagues and likely will not have a female executive to use as a role model.

Unless they find someone who is willing to actively sponsor them (and by that I mean -- lobbying in their behalf when needed) -- they feel they don’t stand a chance for advancing within the technical ranks. As a result, many opt to move into a non-technical role in order to advance. It creates a downward spiral: women who could become technical executives leave so when the next women come into the field, they don’t have the role models and support of female colleagues and they leave as well.

Why does this bode poorly for the high tech industry? The intelligence and creativity of a large part of the engineering population is going untapped or, at least, under-utilized. Companies may want to find ways to retain more women in these jobs. We have to do our part as well, finding ways to make it work.

On September 22, SVForum is hosting a panel of women who are advancing in their careers without losing their technical edge. By sharing their stories, they hope to inspire other women to keep their technically competitive edge while continuing to make their mark in the workforce. For more info and to register for this event, click here.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Francine Gordon is Chair of SVForum Tech Women and the Co-Organizer of TEDxBayArea Women program. Upon completion of her PhD from Yale University, Francine began her professional life as one of the first two women on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business. She has held senior management roles at several high tech firms and is currently writing a book on gender and innovation (Womennovation). As CEO of F Gordon Group, Francine works with global companies addressing innovation, teamwork, leadership, and the advancement of women.