Women are Leaving the Tech Industry in Big Numbers, Thanks to Sexism

February 25th 2015

Alicia Lutes

According to a new report from the Los Angeles Times, no one can figure out a solution to the tech industry's female employee retention problem. Probably because, to put it simply: it really sucks to be a woman in tech right now.

And it's not just because men outnumber women 7 to 3  — a number that's often larger at some of the top technical companies in the world — it's because there is a fundamental difference in how women are treated in the workplace compared to their male counterparts. Several studies have proven that, for women, general likability and possessing an appealing personality are favored over actual ability in the field — and they're largely overlooked for promotions and increased responsibility.

Sexism is an insidious and overt, but also at times a more subtle thing. How we treat and perceive someone based on their sex is ingrained in so many of our societal expectations and purviews. This idea was all but confirmed in a recent study that showed women are overwhelmingly judged on perceived personality flaws compared to men who are overwhelmingly left with suggestions of critical skills that may need further development. By using performance reviews willingly submitted by 248 men and women, 177 contained critical feedback. Of those, 58% of the male and 87.9% of the female-received reviews contained critical feedback.

According to an analysis of the study done by Fortune, "this kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women." Similarly, Joan C. Williams — a law professor at UC Hastings' College of the Law and co-author of "What Works for Women: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know" — found that women are "rewarded for modesty and penalized for what men might see as 'aggressive' behavior," even when that aggressive behavior is simultaneously admired in male counterparts."

h/t Fortune

Two times compared to 71 times? That's not coincidence — that is a huge, borderline insane difference that all but proves the hypocritical double-standard that has been pre-established for women in the workplace for a long time. All of this — including the lack of critical feedback of their male counterparts — contributes to systemic sexism because they're based on antiquated, ingrained societal expectations and roles for women. Attitudes learned over time in ways that may not be wholly overt, either. And while we're working hard to eradicate these ideas, it doesn't mean they aren't alive and well, and require men in the industry to step up and champion the issue just as loudly as the women, lest they want retention to continue to flounder.

Particularly in an environment as boys club-sy as tech. According to a 2008 study from the Harvard Business Review (updated in 2014 with numbers that are nearly unchanged), the reason women leave science, tech, and engineering careers relates "first and foremost, [to] the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in most U.S. corporate settings, then this is its Alamo—a last holdout of redoubled intensity."

For a bit of perspective, women in tech are 45% more likely to leave the industry within the first year than their male counterparts. In fact, over time, as many as half the women in tech will leave because of this disparity. Particularly because it's so frustratingly hard to craft a single message about it, because there isn't just one. In fact most women in the 2008 study explained that the attitudes holding them back were more subtle and therefore far harder to challenge on any grand scale.

So what do we do? Well, call for the tech industry to hold a mirror unto itself, take a bit of a critical, personal look inward and try to really address their biases — both personal and systemic. Because the better one understands the injustice served up to all parties involved by sexism, the quicker we'll be on the road to real, meaningful equality for everyone.