Home > Uncategorized > Women in Tech: pipeline versus retention

Women in Tech: pipeline versus retention

July 29, 2015

There’s a provocative article over at Medium.com about women in tech. As the article points out in about a thousand ways, it’s not just a pipeline problem, it’s an environmental problem.

Fellow math nerd Rachel Thomas, the author, points out a bunch of sad facts about working in tech. For example, how VC’s prefer men, how men’s applications are preferred in hiring processes, how women get punished for negotiating and for being pushy whereas men get rewarded.

Having worked in tech myself, I can say the maternity policies are crap, the long hours are unreasonable, and the frat-like atmosphere exhausts me. No, I do not want to play ping pong during my lunch hour.

But having said that, I don’t think I’ve experienced the worst of it; I was already a grownup, with a Ph.D., when I entered this stuff, and as such I’m allowed to have stronger opinions than the average engineer.

The most interesting issue brought up in Rachel’s piece is the retention rates for those qualified for tech jobs. Unfortunately, both Rachel’s piece and this related NPR piece which Rachel points to only discuss the statistics for women retention, namely that about 40% of women leave engineering after they get degrees in engineering (and I think Rachel’s piece actually gets that stat wrong).

Presumably, that’s higher than men, but how much higher? And do women leave jobs more often in general, or is this a tech-related retention problem? What’s the breakdown on reasons why women and men leave? Can we address them individually?

These are important questions, and if we can figure out what is happening, we should. I’ve been thinking about how to grow the pipeline for girls and women in STEM subjects at the high school and college level, but it would be ridiculous to spend an enormous amount of time on that if, once the get a job, that job proves unattractive.

Update: In the subtitle of the piece, it says 17% of men end up leaving the field compared to 42% of women, with a link to this 100 page pdf (hat tip Ewout ter Haar). I still want to know how many women leave other fields to give more context, but it’s a good start.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 29, 2015 at 9:49 am

    The job environment seems to be designed for men, designed for men to get rewards it seems. It is same even for women working in farms and agriculture in India. Often in the agriculture women work almost twice as men but paid only half of men as their work is not considered much. I am surprised that inequality of same kind exists in tech jobs in most developed countries too.


  2. Christina Sormani
    July 29, 2015 at 9:50 am

    It is fundamentally important that we get people to accept the fundamental fact that it is not a pipeline problem in order to effect change in the workplace. Meanwhile, for those of us training women in the pipeline: those women tech majors we recruit do earn more if they have a tech major whether or not they take a tech job. So adding more women into the pipeline does not hurt them: it gives them options. Meanwhile, we continue to fight to make more of those options a pleasant and positive experience for women. We also fight to bring back women who left tech and might return.


  3. EMB
    July 29, 2015 at 11:10 am

    I’m aware that this is nit-picky and irrelevant to the point of the article, but as a fan of actual ping pong as a way to get actual exercise, I feel I should point out that the Twitter-branded table in the photo is not a ping pong table at all and appears to be specifically for beer pong.

    On a more substantive note, while I’m willing to ascribe kegerators and such to stupidity when it comes their sexist effects, I find it hard not to see them as a deliberately ageist attempt to please younger employees while making older employees (or potential new hires) uncomfortable.


  4. kcm
    July 29, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    I know I’m not the only woman who would like to find a path back, and personally I suspect that one key to fixing the environment in tech jobs is to have more (adult) women working. Maybe just more adults…. (aside: spouse thinks his company works hard to keep him because they know they have a shortage of adults and difficulty hiring them.)

    I have had a job – a long-term consulting job – where I was specifically told that I should take time off at lunch to race slot cars with the others & should bill the time. I appreciated being told the expectation – it was done very early in the relationship – and it was fine with me to take a break and spend a little time that way. I liked that job and I like the people who worked there. But a frat-like atmosphere implies more than just a custom of taking time to play a game at lunch; I don’t have any desire to work in a frat.


  5. captain obvious
    July 29, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    There isn’t a separation of “pipeline” from “retention” issues. Everything that caused the pipeline issues will also cause the retention issues.

    Any given level of unhappiness a woman has with her STEM job is likelier to precipitate a decision to leave the field than would be the case for a male with a similar level of unhappiness, because (as the pipeline data indicate) women have more reasons or tendencies to choose other alternatives than men do. For a lot of exit paths, such as teaching and parenting, it’s also a more realizable exit path for women than men, for all sorts of obvious or subtle reasons.

    As with every other such report, the studies never pose the question of whether there are too many men staying in the field (as one of the main explanations of a gender disparity). Maybe the socially competent men behave similar to the women, all things considered, after accounting for maternity issues. Granted, they don’t face sexual harrassment.


  6. July 29, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    With respect to retention rates of men, I strongly suspect that a substantial subset of men – the portion who want to be adults rather than kidults- are also put off by the frat stuff. And the co-erced “fun” whilst maintaining very long hours and high pressure for results – looks like the “fun and slavery” play made famous in call centres gone beserk.
    I contend most grownups of either gender want their workplace to look and feel like a workplace.


    • captain obvious
      July 30, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      Yes, but the men also tend to have fewer options for leaving the tech industry, and less interest in exercising the options they do have outside the for-profit tech sector. This contributes to a lower rate of leaving the sector.

      It’s also misleading to compare men and women without controlling for immigration status, or to make generalizations about the behavior of the North American men without taking that into account (as commenter JustAsking basically implies).

      Women are also several years ahead of the men in the age at which they start taking steps to make it realistic to have a family, and this means that comparing departure rates at a fixed number of years working in the field (7, in the statistics cited) will overstate the female exit behavior compared to the men. Of two surveys cited in the linked pages, one estimated 10 percent and another 17 percent of female exit decisions were based on maternity leave. That’s out of a 25 percent raw difference, so 40 to 64 percent of the disparity that is observed, and that’s before making any necessary statistical adjustments or comparisons to other fields. If men are making the family decisions 5 years later, we would want to compare the men’s rate of exit after 10-12 years in the field to that of the 7-year women, and this would bring the numbers still closer. Men mature later in a lot of ways, and given their preponderance in the tech field it’s not clear how much ability employers would have to “force” them into female patterns of career prioritization.


      • July 30, 2015 at 11:25 pm

        I guess I didn’t want to make a specific comparison between the male and female retention rates, just wanted to bring up the idea that the toxic cultures described, in addition to their negative effect on many women due to their gender can also have a negative effect on many men for other reasons. For example, how comfortable would an observant Muslim or Mormon feel at a workplace with a kegerator or company branded purpose built beer pong table?


        • captain obvious
          July 31, 2015 at 4:56 pm

          I think we agree (and agreed from the outset) on that. What sucks for women will also suck for many, perhaps most, men.

          The US technology industry is currently dependent on a model that includes long hours, large numbers of immigrants, and a high proportion of socially incompetent men who are harder to employ (both from their own point of view and that of the employers) in other sectors. This means that the higher male retention rate and a lot of the disproportionate suckiness for women are likely to persist even when solvable issues are solved. The obvious measure of
          allowing majority-female teams to form within companies, is not politically practicable.


  7. JustAsking
    July 30, 2015 at 11:36 am

    In respect to both the pipeline as well as retention, why is it rarely mentioned that while we “export” many of our tech jobs to places like India, China, Pakistan (countries that have a longevity of inherent cultural sexism), we have essentially trained them to solve/code/troubleshoot many of our tech problems, thus investing in a population that becomes “qualified” to hold many of the tech positions in many IT departments. I went to graduate school with Rachel Thomas (so we share a similar perspectives on the pipeline issue) and while my current position does not have kegerators or ping pong tables (in fact we are only equipped with a 1980’s model drip coffee maker), there is a culture where the men in my group consistently speak over me, don’t listen to what I say, and remove me from meetings and interactions that would benefit my work. These attributes are shared with a frat-culture, in fact, but I think it’s these attributes that directly lead a female employee to feel undermined, under-appreciated, under-utilized, frustrated, and disrespected on a day to day basis. Since it is unreasonable that anyone would subject themselves to that long (or even short) term speaks intrinsically to the retention problem. Having frat-house office decor and breaks to blow off steam is one thing, but I think the real problem is that the majority of the tech workforce is filled with people from cultures that drive the before-mentioned behaviors. Why are we not discussing that?


    • July 30, 2015 at 11:38 pm

      “but I think the real problem is that the majority of the tech workforce is filled with people from cultures that drive the before-mentioned behaviors. Why are we not discussing that?”

      This is a big part of what I was trying to say in my reply to CaptainObvious – consciously or not, there is a pattern of behaviour that leads to selecting and keeping the subset of people who will approve of the existing culture,


  8. August 3, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    In addition to exporting jobs, as mentioned in previous comments, companies are also importing employees using H1B visas, and paying those employees less than an equivalent US hire (see: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jul/09/frenzy-about-high-tech-talent). The article also describes companies complaining that they can find qualified workers. In reality, much like the truck drivers in your recent posting, they can’t find workers to accept what they want to pay.

    This is obviously a problem for both men and women.


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