Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Top 5 Reasons Why We Don’t Retain Women in the Technology Industry

I was at an annual spelling bee contest held in Bangalore. There were almost 1000 participants at the spelling bee – all of them short-listed students from various schools across the city. My son was one of the short listed students from his school and I was one of the many proud parents in the audience. When the top 10 finalists (the top 1%) were announced, I was pleasantly surprised to see that 9 were girls.

I recently attended a parent teacher meeting at my son’s school. There were many girls from my son’s class helping the parents and teachers through the process. I got to talking to the teacher later and asked her why none of the boys were among the helpers. She told me that only the girls volunteered and none of the boys had.

So, at a young age, girls are competitive and signing up for opportunities. Why is then we don’t hire equal number of women at work? Why is that of the fewer women who do join work, quit mid-way? Why are there hardly any women in senior positions? How do companies claim they have the best work force when they have neglected to hire and retain from 51% of the world’s population? Can we really afford to ignore this disparity in the workforce?

Most women who enter and remain in the IT industry do so in tough conditions. Many a time these situations are culturally biased.

Cultural Stereotypes: When I graduated out of school, I was not short listed for a job interview for a position with one of the big companies. I happened to talk to a recruiter on why I was not short listed since I was one of the top students in the class. He told me that if he hired a female and needed to send them on a business trip, he would need to spend on a companion whereas a male hire could travel by himself. At the age of 21, I had travelled to US from India 4 times and 3 of them were by just by myself. The recruiter never asked me about my travel experience and I never told him.  For a 21-year old that was looking to join the corporate world, this was a huge shock. This is an example of the cultural stereotypes I have had to fight against throughout my career.  Women have to learn to have a thick skin and not quit work due to such attitudes.

Married Women Syndrome: Another widespread assumption is that women cannot fully participate at work. Many a time, women are not considered for top opportunities because they have to take care of the family. Most times, women have to prove and explain to their seniors on how they can do the job even with their family obligation. In fact, women have to spend more energy convincing that they can do the job even with their family obligations than convincing about their skill-set and capability.  Sometimes these women are explaining this to their male boss who has younger children and has more family obligations.

The worst part is that many women also do not believe that they can take up the top jobs. What hurts women most is what I call the “Married Women Syndrome”. They do not push themselves during the early years. They end up doing non interesting work and then get bored. Married women usually have a husband who is bringing in the salary for a living. They have kids at home – a kid who looks up to his Mama and thinks the world of her.  She is faced with the situation where her boss is not so supportive, kid looks up to her and thinks the world of her, a job that is not so interesting and she really does not need the money to make a living. Given this situation, choice seems easy – women quit work. Instead, women in these positions can take those opportunities that their male counterparts deem too risky to take. These risky opportunities come with huge rewards and also make the job interesting.

I had a female manager who was reporting to me and I believed she had potential. The team was not readily accepting her as a manager and I talked to her about few improvements that she had to work on. Her immediate response was that this job was not so important to her and she would want to quit. I was baffled by her response but asked her to think about it and that I would support her through these tough times. A year later she had been accepted by her team and she and her team are doing very well. We need our leaders to be supportive during the tough times.

Penetrating the Old Boys Club: The main issue of being a minority in any situation is that you are considered different from others. Since we have more men at work than women, women automatically become the black sheep. Very few women are able to penetrate the old boys club. This excludes women from the informal networks (either at coffee or after work while playing tennis, etc.). Many discussions and subsequently decisions are made during these informal meetings and they help in enhancing skills, getting insights into the politics and power balance inside the groups and organizations. So as a senior manager if you are taking a male employee out for an informal drink, make sure you would do the same with your female employee too. Also encourage the teams to be inclusive in their informal get togethers. Women do not bring up issues with their peers and managers until they are ready to quit because managers and managers' manager are perceived to be part of the old boys club.

Performance Measurement: Another stereotype that hurts women is the measurement of their performance. Women are rated lower, leading to lower promotions and lower salary. Performance metrics are set by senior management – mostly men.  We do not create a work environment that enables people to be measured and promoted by performance but base it on whether they walk the walk and talk the talk like their senior management.

While communicating a decision and getting a buy in from the team, I usually go and explain the problems, issues and reasons that led to the decision first. I let my team ask their questions and arrive at the same conclusion so they are part of the decision too. While I don't have consensus-based decisions always, I try to do it most times. My male counterpart would probably go with the attitude of "I know best and this is what needs to be followed." Both work, both are effective in different circumstances but the senior leader needs to understand that both methods are effective.

One of the companies tracks indicators of women performance ratings. Every year the performance rating of women is lower than their male counterparts. This is meant to help women, but the ratings are tweaked each year after the performance review, that hurts the credibility of legitimately high performing women. Drawing a design analogy,  you put a design together to meet the performance goals.  You measure the performance at the end to verify. If the performance goals are not met, you do not tweak the indicator that shows the performance but instead you tweak the design!

Support and Sponsors: Lack of support from senior management is another reason for most women to drop out. Either the women do not realize the need for sponsors or the managers do not believe the need for women in the work place. Management cannot afford to ignore the lack of women in the work place. Companies cannot claim to have the best work force when their work force is from only half the world’s population. Somewhere amongst these women is an uncut diamond that would do wonders for the company.

It takes a change in mindset across companies, management, families and women employees themselves to nurture and grow women in the work place. We will slowly need to change the cultural bias. Women need to see more role models – women who are like them – to emulate and believe that they can strive for bigger roles.

Related Links:

Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders
Where are the Women in Information Technology?
The Tilted Playing Field: Hidden Bias in Information Technology Workplaces

Reference to this blog post in Kannada article in oneindia
Discussion on this article on "Anita Borg Institute for women and Technology"


  1. Extremely well thought and well written article. An eye opener.

    Sriram H

  2. Very good analysis. Agree with all other points except performance management.

    "Women are rated lower, leading to lower promotions and lower salary. "

    I have seen many instances (in India) where they are rated higher than what they do.

    Also, women are given lot of privileges like leaving early, not working on weekends even when required.

  3. I beg to differ in many of the points you have mentioned. Boys take things lightly and casually. There are many instances in work place wherein managers are biased towards female employees. They don't need to work late, weekends yet they will get promotions, good salary etc. And when there is mentally challenging situation, many women act weirdly and not ready to take responsibility. And when there is a need, you can rely on guys but not girls.. So women needs to see the bigger picture before complaining on every single thing..

  4. A very good article. I need to add something from my personal experience. I am a woman and I have spent 6 years working in two companies. The first company knew I would leave that place once I get married and for 3 years when I was working there I did not get a challenging work. They did not consider the value of 3 years I spent there. My male colleagues got challenging work though many of them left the company much earlier than me!
    In my second company the basic behavioural differences became obstacles on my way. I never gave information on anything that I was not 100% sure or the information that needed a reconfirmation. I was considered less knowledgeable and less confident. No discussion with manager could clear this mind set. I never enjoyed any privilege for being a woman (as some comments above say). I denied late nights due to security concerns and finally I was underrated.
    Now the option left is to try a different place and I am wondering it wouldn't be much different than previous two.

  5. Thanks to Everyone who commented. I do understand this is a sensitive topic and people will have strong opinions.

    @Vasu and @anonymous, I agree with you that women should not be rated any differently from others at work. Infact, nobody should get a biased rating in performance reviews. It should soley be dependent on the persons performance and accomplishment.

    @anonymous - I have seen many women take up challenging roles and work effectively in very difficult circumstances. For example, nurses and teachers work in very difficult conditions but they keep their cool. Thanks to them we can depend on them for kids education and our health.

    @Sindhoo - My only advise to you is not to give up work because your manager does not understand the effectiveness of his employees. I am sure you have worked hard to get to where you are today and you should not throw it away due to couple of peoples strong opinions. You will find a manager who would be a pleasure to work with. I have had so many good managers who have motivated me to stay in tech industry for 21 years.

    1. Thanks.... 21 years... thats just "wow"! There must be some very good managers/environments then.

    2. Hi Namrata, a thought provoking article. Our Firm Resonance consulting has undertaken research regarding why mid-level women managers leave and one of the insights gained is that their "relation oriented" leadership may not work under all circumstances leading to disenchantment with their jobs .Balancing their natural leadership style with "result oriented" leadership style where required may help to improve effectiveness,bring success and maintain positive engagement and enthusiasm to continue..

  6. Hi Namratha,

    We do need more women in the technology sector, but my question is whether women are ready to take it up ? I have a lot of female friends who work in technology companies and none of them seem to be interested in knowing more and doing better than just to complete their work. You quiz them and they easily break down. Hope this changes and they get more interested in how things works rather than just using them. We should discuss this someday :-)

  7. well written article.,," Women at work " To reach this position it took more than 50 years . now women are growing but not as we thought. Its slant growth when compared with men. When a women can manage her whole family ,why do officials think its impossible to manage a challenging work. One time during my work, we were on to our onshore trip. Even though women gave their best performance then men . they considered 1:7 ratio of women to men. I think Everyone has many reasons to exclude women's potential at work.

  8. Very thought provoking article. I agree/appreciate the perspective with most points.Not just the lack of support by management at the workplace, I think family also plays an important role if elevating women to the leadership positions by constant encouragement and the willingness to adjust when things don't go too well on the home front. I guess I have been lucky with an extremely supportive family. At some point in our career home/office kind of merge into each other and the support we get works wonders !