Twice as Many Women Drop out of Tech as Men. How Can We Stop This From Happening?

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It’s not just a challenge to get more women into STEM careers; it’s proving a struggle to keep them there. How can this trend be reversed?

By Penny Herscher (CEO, FirstRain)

There is a tech renaissance in Silicon Valley. The industry is booming, and companies are hiring swiftly; the growth rate of in tech jobs was 27 times higher than all other occupations from 2001 to 2011.

Yet, even as the tech industry surges forward, women continue to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). According to a 2013 study by the Anita Borg Institute, women received only 18.2 percent of all computer science and 18.4 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2010.

An article in Nature last year verbalized, ‘the death of female full professors’ in science and engineering (making up only one-fifth of total professors), and noted that women are rarely invited to sit on scientific advisory boards or speak at scientific conferences. Indeed, Google’s recent diversity studyreflects these trends: Only 17 percent of its technical staff are women.

Equally troubling is that women who do enter a career in STEM demonstrate an incredibly high attrition rate, especially at the mid-career level. Fifty-six percent of technical women leave tech companies within 10 years – more than double the dropout rate for men.

Leaving So Soon?

The NCWIT reports that 74 percent of technical women say they “love their work.” So why are they leaving then?

As we’ve seen time and again, males continue to dominate tech (see Dropbox’s bromance chamber). It comes as no surprise, then, that many women decry tech culture as competitive and unfriendly. They feel isolated, and indeed are often the only woman on their team -- as I’ve experienced many times over my own career.

Furthermore, when women don’t see other women win as leaders in the higher echelons of tech, it takes away not only a tangible, visible goal toward which to aspire, but it also makes it much harder to find a mentor that “gets it.”

The Benefits of Diversity

We already know that diverse teams lead to better decision-making, more innovative products and higher earnings – so it’s become an economic and competitive imperative for tech companies to figure out ways to curtail the female exodus.

But there are ways to recruit women into your workforce and keep them there. It’s all about...

1. The Hiring Process

It starts with hiring. Make it clear to your recruiters that it is important to find and attract talented women — they’re out there, but they may take more time to find.

2. Diversification

In addition, make it a priority to diversify your management team. Female leaders will help your company make better decisions (because you’ll have diverse points of view in the room), be valuable mentors and role models for your other female employees and, in turn, attract more women to your company.

3. Training to Support That Diversity

It’s also important to train your managers to understand and encourage a diverse work environment. Heterogeneous teams and employees will bring a multitude of different ways of communication and work styles.

Women culturally tend to value collaboration over competition, and that can put them at a disadvantage in male-dominated fields. By helping your management understand different approaches, they will be more likely to look deeper into the team, and suggest to women that they should apply when it comes time for promotions.

4. Training to Promote Career Development

Finally, you need to provide professional development and leadership training for all employees, including the science of inclusion.

Because of the relatively lower number of women computer science graduates, many women in tech come to technology from a field of study that is neither computer science nor engineering. By providing training, you will give them deeper and more versatile skills – and you can train your male managers to look for opportunities for female employees following training.

Every competitive company needs the best engineers and technology staff they can find. That means recruiting from the broadest pool of candidates and building a work environment where you retain your best people, including your talented female staff.

Truly innovative companies are embracing diversity, from Google’s latest stunning release of its diversity statistics to IBM’s long history of investing in diversity, and they turn it into a competitive advantage to keep women in their technology workforce.

What suggestions do you have to encourage women to stay in STEM roles?


About the guest blogger: Penny Herscher is the CEO of FirstRain, a personal business analytics company in Silicon Valley. Originally a mathematician from Cambridge University in England, Penny worked in software engineering, marketing, business development and general management on her path to CEO. She’s a big believer in diversity – both in building careers paths and in building teams – to bring richer experience into leadership and decision making.