Let's talk today about why I think women leave tech.
As a woman with over 10 years of tech experience who is thinking about leaving tech entirely for the SECOND time in my life, this is near and dear to my heart.
Let's start with some important disclaimers:
1) I'm really fucking weird and YMMV
2) This is based on my own observations plus 15 years of conversations with other women in business and tech
3) I might be wrong and missing a lot of stuff
Please be nice to me in this thread.
I'm also going to do my best to be charitable and hedge my observations as not universal and sympathetic to men as much as possible. But we're talking specifically about women here, not comparing whether they or men have it worse/harder in the tech/biz world.
My take on this is that the biggest contributor to this problem has nothing to do with working in tech as a career and everything to do with male/female pattern interaction dynamics that bleed hard onto female subjective experience in tech for reasons I'll dig into.
Working in tech is intellectually and emotionally hard and demanding. As a dev, you have to solve really challenging problems requiring intelligence and creativity, and the support roles also require those attributes. You sometimes work long hours under pressure. The primary reward for this is almost entirely financial. Devs/product/UX are paid very well compared to other fields and most people don't understand what you do and assume you're unusually intelligent compared to average (and they're often right).
Another thing you have to remember is that tech is a relatively young field (still), in that it tends to be populated by younger people. So we have a field (typically) full of bright, young-skewing people who got to where they are by being very very smart. This is relevant because when you're younger, regardless of your gender identity, you tend to have less emotional intelligence, you're often actively seeking a mate outside of work, and you have less confidence in yourself compared to older peers.
This is an environment in which many people are 1) going to be a little awkward, 2) going to be very sensitive to perceived slights, and 3) going to do things that will make each other uncomfortable at times.
This all just baseline backdrop to set the stage for the rest of my claims here.
So let's talk about some subjective experiences of women in technology. You're often:
1) significantly outnumbered by men in your department, including much older managers who tend to skew male because of the self-reinforcing cycle of women dropping out
2) have a history of being The Bright Kid
3) aren't quite sure what the social norms should be
Most of your mentors will be male. Most of your managers will be male. Most of your peers will be male. Almost all of your directors and execs will be male.
Many of them come in with their own baggage and perceptions and (often) discomfort about women from their upbringing. Because our society "others" men and women in a way that can at times make it difficult to relate to each others life experiences. The internet has made this much better but go read some 90s scifi or fantasy. Piers Anthony is a trip.
Many men tend to relate to women in a totally rational way by pattern matching the women they know best. Moms/wives/girlfriends and SOMETIMES sisters. People with sisters tend to have the best perspective of subjective female experience because they got to see it growing up.
But everyone's first experience with women is going to be their mom, who for most of us probably served in a helper/caregiver/support/encouragement role of some kind growing up with them even if she also worked. These are the baseline expectations we have for women in general.
And it's not just men. Women have these expectations of other women too. Even if we consciously try to subvert them for whatever reason (and it's not clear that you ought to or can do that), you have them as backdrop.
So when you're interacting with all of these dudes in your career, you know that's their baseline assumption about you even if it's implicit. Layer in that many of them are likely to be attracted to you at times and the social dynamics get tricky.
Many of these men want to help you because they're kind and good people who would help any fledgling dev/techie, and there's ALSO a layer of normal protectiveness/affection/"I want to fuck you" that bleeds into that even if you pretend there isn't.
Sometimes this manifests as "special" treatment and a level of softness that men don't experience. I worked with a female dev on my team once who everyone agreed sucked at coding but they didn't help her improve or give her hard feedback because, "She was nice to have around."
Regardless of whether or not it's justified, there are distinct advantages to being the only woman (and especially a cute one) in an environment swarming with men that can often provide career advantages early on. You might get primo mentorship time or passes on fuck-ups. You can get fast-tracked for promotions or leadership roles and people might listen to your good ideas more than others because they LIKE you, think you're cute, or think they're helping the cause (and in some ways they are).
Also worth noting this isn't exclusively men. I'm definitely more protective of my female employees and more sensitive to their emotions even when I'm trying to consciously avoid it for similar, if still socially-influenced, reasons. And I want to point out that this experience isn't universal either.
You experience it to an outsized degree if you happen to be attractive or very nice. Being female is sufficient but effect size varies depends on how cuddly people feel about you. And many women ARE very nice because women are socially conditioned to be very nice and it's a default mode of interaction with everyone, especially in unfamiliar environments, and especially when you're younger and trying to be a good person and be polite and prove yourself.
This is very much a double-edged sword. Getting special treatment is nice. Who doesn't want to feel good about themselves and have people be kind to them and help them advance their career? It can be very hard to tell if people are just being nice or they're being nice to YOU.
And to some degree, it doesn't matter. You're not a mind reader. If people want to help you with your career, whatever their motivation, it's awesome. It feels good. You're grateful that people are teaching you important stuff and feel valued when people are nice to you. But also, it very understandably can make people jealous. This is particularly prevalent with people who have difficult relationships with gender--men/women who struggle to maintain female relationships, people who resent anyone getting special treatment, etc.
So some people are going to be aggressive/resentful toward you and seem cold/cruel/dismissive because they don't like that element of it or because of their own internalized feelings of how the world has been unfair to them comparatively. And furthermore, they'll often pattern-match it. To some people, it will be sufficient that it is POSSIBLE (from their POV) to happen to you and therefore you are guilty by association even if you're not getting special treatment or are for reasons outside of your control.
You can't really help it if your boss thinks you're cute and treats you more softly than everyone else in the department, but some of them will sure notice and resent you and anyone else who the boss might treat that way. It's human nature. Women do this too.
Why do women act so viciously toward other women sometimes that they perceive as more attractive than them? Same reasons, different game. In that case it's more about intrasexual competition, but whatever. Humans HATE cheating when they feel like they're prevented from taking the same shortcuts. Even if you didn't intend to cheat, even if you're not cheating, the framework allowing it will cause some resentment and churn. Furthermore, the other part of this double edged sword is that many men will also take you less seriously than a man in a variety of small ways.
Men on average tend to feel objectively superior to women in matters of intelligence and their domain knowledge. I'm probably going to catch some flak for that comment but I really don't think I'm wrong. You see this modeled everywhere in our culture and it has roots in sex. Let's just move on.
So getting back to my little narrative, great, you're early in your career. You're bright. You want to learn and work hard. You're grateful to be there. And people are being nice to you!
Some people are being dicks and not taking you super seriously, but you're a newbie. You have a lot to learn about this world and you acknowledge that, and all of these people are being good and helpful except the few weird cases where they aren't or someone makes a shitty comment once in a while or asks you out and you have to have an uncomfortable exchange. Or maybe the person asks you out and you think he's cute and you do the very normal human thing of dating a coworker and you go on a few dates and fuck and promise not to tell anyone even though gossip goes around and everyone knows. Normal adult human stuff.
At first this is all validating and exciting. You're moving fast, having fun, living your life and diving into a career where everyone tells you women struggle and you're DOING GREAT. Look at you go! Makin' money, defying norms. Shatter that glass ceiling baby.
But over time, as you grow in your career and your knowledge, you start to notice little things that begin to crop up and bug you.
Maybe your manager still treats you like his adorable teenage daughter even though you're the best React dev on the team. You KNOW you understand a problem better than one of your male peers and it hurts your feelings when someone takes his advice over yours even though you're the same level and you've demonstrated you have more skill there than he does. Those monthly mentorship meetups with your director are making you start to feel a little weird because the last three times you got together he told you your hair looked nice or your outfit is cute, and you're wondering if he only offered to help you because you're a girl.
You're horrified when you start to realize that MAYBE some of the advantages you've gotten have more to do with people liking you / wanting to fuck you / modeling you as their daughter/sibling/mom than out of professional courtesy and you begin to appreciate the double edge.
You realize this is unfair and you don't want to cheat and you don't want all of the downsides of this position you're in but unfortunately you have no control over this dynamic.
So you decide to make the best of it and navigate as well as you can.
Because what else are you going to do? But it's insidious and sometimes you can develop a complex about it. You might start to look at every interaction from the lens of "are THEY treating me differently because I'm female?" and often they are with both positive and negatives.
But you decide to ignore that, again, because you can't do anything about it. You just try your best to do your job, learn your craft, and ignore the bullshit. You've been dealing with dynamics like this your whole life after all, what else is new?
But then you start noticing other things that on their own wouldn't be that big of deal. Maybe the boss tends to ask you to take notes more often, or always picks a male peer for the hardest assignments. When it's time for the office party, people ask you to help. When your coworkers have a hard dating experience, they might go to you for emotional support. Or they might be a jerk to you for the same reason, because they're mad at women right now.
In meetings and 1:1 interactions, people get disproportionately upset with you if you bring a similar level of intensity, directness, or aggression to a discussion because it violates their held perception of how women ought to be on a subconscious level.
If you point any of this out, or try to discuss the unfairness, many of the same voices who are so nice to you will dismiss your subjective experience or tell you you're making a big deal out of something that just isn't.
As a singular point, they might be right. But in aggregate, this begins to wear on you. When it does happen, you start to get the overwhelming urge to point it out to the people who say you make a big deal out of nothing, because you want to have your experience validated.
You're not lying. And you know you're not lying or blowing some things out of proportion! I mean, maybe you are, sometimes, but also there are totally valid cases and you want people to see them.
Your female friends and coworkers commiserate with you about this. And MAYBE you're a little over-sensitive about it SOMETIMES, but not always. You pride yourself on trying to view the situations objectively as possible. You're a smart woman who cares about data, after all.
Except people don't want to see your data and actively shy away. Because at this point, you're veering very close to being someone who might be dangerous for them to discuss this with. It's fine. What's the problem? Jeez, you get monthly mentorship meetings with the director. Calm the fuck down. I'm sorry I asked you to take notes.
But people kind of notice that you've been making some noise about this. You're perceived as difficult sometimes. People watch what they say to you and how open to be with you. Even if your complaints are minor, it creates strain. And then one day in a review, for the first time ever, maybe you hear that people perceive you as abrasive. Not the best team player. A little rough around the edges.
This horrifies you as well. You think of yourself as a Very Reasonable and Nice Person. And the thing is that, even if this little story doesn't apply to you, it does apply to some women. And the ones it does apply to make people very uncomfortable. You are guilty by association and a potential threat whether you like it or not.
So at the point you really start to grok this, people tend to respond in one of two ways.
1) Sigh, accept it, and try to be nice and competent and ignore everything that's annoying to you
2) Lean in and pattern match to expectations because YOU'RE RIGHT and it's not fair
Both of these methods have really bad failure modes and it doesn't really matter which you pick because the little things that grate on you don't stop coming (although they differ in predictable ways along the two paths).
Especially because as you advance in your career and take on positions of increasing responsibility and managerial roles, you're force more often to make hard decisions and come into conflict. You can't always explain your decisions as much as you'd like to. You're sitting in rooms with other managers and principals making hard decisions about company direction and technology investments and layoffs and those people often have strong opinions and big egos that they don't like having challenged.
This is where the early-career dynamic REALLY begins to hurt you in ways you never would have predicted. We don't really grow out of our gendered expectations. We improve, but we carry it all with us.
Men do not like being in conflict with women as a general rule (and the inverse is true too for different reasons). We grow up internalizing this in a myriad of ways. Men feel more bad hurting women's feelings. Men are taught to pull their punches if they do come into conflict with women. Men don't like being challenged by women because it can threaten an underlying sense of superiority or it might be feel unfair for the reasons above.
Most of all, it violates the cardinal rule of femininity: You're supposed to be nice and nurturing and polite and patient. You are not supposed to state a strongly held opinion in opposition of a powerful man and take his argument apart with good data.
Even if you "win" the discussion, you take a hit in likability politics that's an order of magnitude greater than you would if you were male. And once you're at this level, coalition building and politics are more important than they used to be. These are repeated games.
You take this hit both with the man you're in conflict with, who now feels embarrassed in front of other men (THIS IS KEY), and with all of the male observers who don't want to be that guy ever. This isn't universal, but I'd suggest it's a very very common thing. And it's worse if you're an attractive woman.
Attractive women are perceived as higher status and it's even worse to be taken down by a hot girl, because of status implications you wouldn't consider if you didn't experience that sexual power differential with her.
In addition to this dynamic, there's still plenty of plain old feelings of fatherly affection toward you from more senior directors and leaders that can color their perspective of what you say. They'll acknowledge you make good points. But it's hard for men who compare you to their daughter to take what you're saying as seriously as someone who they perceive to be a young version of themself, no matter how hard they might try.
This time, gendered perspectives are fucking you over instead of helping. When they go behind closed doors to make decisions even above YOUR pay grade, you have no idea how much these dynamics are all playing into how they weigh your advice and opinion. Sometimes it hurts you, and sometimes it doesn't. And it's really hard to tell when it's happening that you're being taken less seriously or paying the girl tax because no one will ever tell you or admit it, even to each other, because it's inherently dangerous.
Two very close guys might discuss this over a drink or over a game of golf, but they'll never cop to it and they'll only show their hand if they're reasonably sure the person across the table agrees with them. Because this is SEXISM and SEXISM is bad. Unfortunately, even if they have the presence of mind to acknowledge that, it's rarely going to change. They might feel incapable of change or they might feel justified. Unpacking all this is a lot of work for your psyche.
Most of the time, though, they probably haven't thought about it that deeply and aren't aware even within their own head about how these complicated factors are affecting their perceptions of female employees.
Who has time to think about all this shit?
Primarily the people who DO have that time are the women who are experiencing it and mad about it and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on when suddenly no one likes them anymore and things are so much harder than when they started their career. And of course there's now a level of jealousy of all their male peers who don't have to do mental and verbal gymnastics to deliver their strongly held opinions in ways that don't offend or upset anybody on a daily basis.
Because men don't talk about this to women, because DANGER, we go and talk to other women about it. A lot. It's very frustrating and there are not many good solutions. So we commiserate to each other about how hard it is and sometimes it can be an echo chamber that magnifies.
This can also sometimes create problems when discussions around this with women who aren't as experienced at this type of game start to see it everywhere in ways that hurt their self-esteem and make them even more paranoid about sexism. This can fast-track them into operational mode 2 that I mentioned earlier but they're even more likely to read innocuous things that MIGHT be sexism as sexism because of how much everyone says they'll encounter it.
Of course this exacerbates the problem and makes everyone even more dismissive of anyone talking about it because the most vocal people (who have not yet learned they'll be punished for vocalizing) are often wrong with what they're perceiving but no one wants to tell them. Because they're DANGEROUS. And even if more senior women try to tell them that this case might not be sexism, you're perceived as being dismissive of their feelings and not an ally to them and having sold out.
This dynamic makes this harder to talk about for everyone. But of course the senior women will go to talk about the vocally wrong women over drinks and how they don't get it with each other, because there's no one else to talk to about it. I imagine this happens at all levels up the chain. And the thing is that once you're in a more senior position as a woman, you have an even more insidious problem to deal with.
You have power.
This is not an attractive look for a woman. Power for women is to be wielded covertly and demurely, via social channels and consensus with other powerful women applying gendered pressure to men to bring what they want about. Tons of examples of this.
You are not supposed to be command and control in your affect. Unfortunately, this rule flies in the face of managerial responsibility in most hierarchical organizations (corporations). Command and control behavior is still the norm that's rewarded, particularly in environments with a lot of money and speed involved. Tech is that. So when people see a woman making bossy decisions they don't like and don't understand, they resent her implicitly for violating deeply held expectations about how women are. And of course none of us are perfect.
Your quirks, bad calls, and flaws are magnified 10x. And because you're also playing a game of likability politics as a manager/director/exec, those repeated violations of gender norms get very costly. You get thrust into situations where you have to argue for good choices or retain popularity capital. Your male peers don't.
Remember how earlier I said coalition-building is important for managers and directors? If people don't like you, they won't trust you. They won't invite you in on decisions. They'll actively subvert you. This is human nature also.
And while this is true for men AND women, it's more true for men, because not only are you DANGEROUS, your lack of likability and female status makes you look weak in the game of corporate power politics. No one builds coalitions with weak people.
Plus, all of the same gendered dynamics from when you started your career are still in full effect. Maybe they like you just fine, but they won't invite you to the pub because people would talk or it would upset their wife or they're uncomfortable talking with women. You probably lack as many common interests as with men, and even if your female peer plays golf or likes football or can throw down on CoD, you're not going to invite her to do those things with you because it might be awkward and she'd probably decline anyway.
Even though she's in the trenches with you, there's a barrier to building closeness there that you don't experience with the men in your org. You can't talk about romance or family or social dynamics without being a little more guarded and worrying about how she'll take it.
So naturally over time, you don't get to like her or trust her AS MUCH as your male peers, and in repeated games involving complicated coalition building you start to value her opinion less and bring her in less than your friends that you like and trust. We help our close friends with career advancement and opportunities and call them to come work with us at our next gig or get them hired into key roles when we take a new job because we trust them and know we work well together. This is much more likely to be a man.
So now you, as the woman, are faced with a situation where you have to be likable, you have to be firm and powerful, you have to voice your opinions and make good decisions and build alliances, and all of these things are MUCH harder for you than the men you work with.
Even if you're a superhero and exceptionally savvy and brilliant and likable and hot, your performance is going to pale compared to the male peers who are helping each other and not you, NOT out of sexism but just out of friendship with each other and distance with you.
Also, at this point, you've probably pissed them all off in the type of heated discussions I mentioned earlier and they don't like you very much for all of the reasons mentioned in this thread. Why would they help you?
They're probably blind to the ways that they're helping each other because they've never unpacked things this deeply and they just think you're that frustrating woman they don't love working with, compared to the buddy they brought in and have known for 20 years.
And now think for a moment about how unpleasant this situation is subjectively for the woman. No one likes you, no one is especially helpful or warm or inviting you out, your employees tend to tolerate you rather than looking up to you, and you can't talk to anyone about it. If there were other women at your level, you'd talk to them, and you do sometimes, but there's so few of you that none of you can help each other a ton and many of them are very suspicious of you for likability reasons and how paranoid they are too.
The three big draws of climbing the corporate ladder are money, status, and power.
Well, your status is still largely reduced to how attractive and likable you are, because you're a woman, and no one likes you at work. In your home life, no one really cares about your job.
As for power, I've already explained that it's not a good look on you and you SUPER understand this by now. You might get off on it sometimes, but it doesn't bring you anywhere close to the level of status it would a man. People actively dislike you for having it.
And then there's the money. Money is great but it's hardly everything. And remember we're not talking about being a baller. We're talking MAYBE 20%-40% more than many of your employees who don't deal with all of this corporate managerial bullshit.
You yourself don't even like your job at this point because you STILL WANT TO BE LIKABLE AND NICE. It sucks so hard being in this position. You still think of yourself as that cheerful little dev who wanted to learn and be nice and now you want to be a good leader. And you want to have friends, like all of us, who can relate to your life and share your experiences and sympathize.
But at this stage of the game so many women have quit in frustration that your position and money is isolating.
Many women from all walks of life won't be able to relate to your struggles as all because they haven't lived it or they've chosen completely different career paths. Mothers will judge you for not having kids or leaving them at home with a nanny. People will resent the fact that you have access to whatever salary you're drawing because of envy, so you can't even flash around the one thing you're allowed to be proud of because it's a bad look to be ostentatious in that way. It's crass.
And so unless you have a really good reason to need that money that you're sacrificing all of that likability and status and connection for (which you very desperately want), like a sick family member or you're the primary breadwinner, at some point you take a look at things.
The very logical response to all of this is, "HOLY FUCK WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HOW DID I GET MIRED IN THIS HELLSCAPE I NEVER WANTED?"
Or a less intense version of that that manifests as deep longing for an easier day to day and more human connection. Because as humans we all want to be liked and have friends and not make things harder on ourselves than they need to be.
And if you're anything like me, one day it might suddenly hit you like a lightning bolt.
"Wait a minute. I don't HAVE to do this. I can live on way less money. It's really easy to make friends and connect with people and feel good about myself if I exit this environment. Trivial by comparison. All I have to do is something that isn't this."
The trade-off is that you give up the money.
That's a really hard pill to swallow when you see your male peers coasting along making comparable (and frankly better at this point) salaries and having fun home lives and friends and connection at work. But as hard as that pill is to swallow, you probably decide that it's just not worth it anymore.
You exit your job to go do... something. Anything. Be a mom. Be a barista. Start a business selling funny hat box subscriptions. Anything but this.
And of course by leaving the environment you're letting down the few women who DID look up to you, that you protected and mentored, who maybe aspired to be where you are one day, and you don't want to crush their dreams and tell them it's not worth it.
You feel awful about this, and also awful about the fact that by leaving you're just reinforcing the destructive cycle you were experiencing for all the reasons you now understand but most people never will unless they've been there. But despite the fact that you want to help people, and help women especially because you know how exactly how hard it is for them, being a martyr just isn't worth it (and no one would appreciate it anyway).
You have to live your life.
So maybe you volunteer or teach young girls to code or give inspirational talks about women in tech so that you don't feel like QUITE such a traitor to all of these women who were counting on you to be in their management chain and help them.
Meanwhile you don't talk about all of this because no one believes you anyway unless they experience it firsthand and you don't want to poison the well or discourage women who might be stronger or better or more courageous or tougher than you were.
And that's why you just shut up and do what you can to help people who come into your sphere of influence and hope things eventually get better. Or start your own company and try to avoid this dynamic top down. Good luck finding funding as a middle aged ex-corporate lady.
Anyway, women drop out of tech for all of these reasons at each progressive level of career seniority or for other female-pattern reasons that are thrust on you like caring for family or pregnancy/motherhood (which I didn't even touch on because it's been hours already).
And the cycle repeats, and people ask why there aren't any women on the board, or in the exec roles, or in the director-level roles, and we're told that it's because there aren't any good candidates in the pipeline. And of course there aren't!
The good ones who are left are staying put in the three magical companies where these dynamics don't play out and everyone else has either quit or is so jaded and burned out that they're desperately company hopping looking for the promised land.
Anyway, that's my two cents on why women drop out of tech at all levels.
Your individual experiences and sensitivity and willingness to tolerate hard, unfair stuff will vary from person to person and it depends on what your passions and other options are. Lots of women won't care nearly enough about THIS industry or THIS career to deal with these dynamics.
FWIW, I suspect it's similar in any male-dominated industry like the military or finance but don't have experience there. Which is probably why you don't see a ton of female representation at the top in all kinds of companies and industry.
It's just so much harder to play ball as a woman with these conditions. I'll probably come back to this thread later for a few more random thoughts but I have to go get ready for a thing and I'm tired and jaded from typing all this out.
Please be nice to me in the comments.
One last thing is that if you want to help... I think more understanding of all of this might help. Please retweet and share this if you think it was useful.