The shift into engineering management was slow and subtle, but I became more aware of the differences between being a builder and a manager.
Why women leave tech – and how we can fix it
Women are leaving the tech industry at double the rate of men. We can improve retention by targeting bias and unfair management practices.
Jossie Haines has spent 22+ years as a software engineering leader and is an inclusive engineering leadership and executive coach. She was most recently the VP of Software Engineering and Head of DEI at Tile, and has held management roles at Apple, Tile, Zynga, and American Express. As a coach, Jossie empowers technology leaders to build diverse, inclusive teams that drive innovation by leveraging empathy and compassion. She has given over 100 talks, workshops, and podcasts on topics such as retaining women in tech and engineering leadership.
At the top of my game, I burned out. I walked out of my job as Engineering Manager for the Siri Media Domains team at Apple and straight into becoming a statistic.
56% of women leave the tech industry 10-20 years into their careers (double the rate of men). Contrary to popular belief, the majority of these women aren’t leaving the industry to start a family. They are being pushed out by biased management practices.
I almost left tech for good. However, I decided I couldn’t walk away from an opportunity to impact the future. I made it my mission to help companies build and retain diverse teams – and create more innovative products.
Today I will break down why women leave tech and 3 steps software engineering leaders can take to retain them.
Why women leave tech
Before we can implement solutions that help keep women in tech, we need to understand the barriers to retention. In reviewing the research and speaking with countless women about their experiences, it is clear that most women leave tech because of unfair treatment due to biased management practices.
Biased management practices occur because managers are human, and we all have bias. Our brains naturally try to categorize information based on shared characteristics and past experiences. However, when left unchecked, these cognitive shortcuts can generate harmful stereotypes. Implicit bias can inform leadership decisions and cause some employees to be treated unfairly.
According to the Kapor Center Tech Leavers Study, unfair treatment is the top reason women leave their tech jobs. Women of color experience unfair treatment at even higher rates. Here’s what unfair treatment can look like for women in the workplace.
Death by a thousand papercuts
I didn’t leave Apple in 2018 because of a singular event. I left because of the cumulative toll of microaggressions – what I call death by a thousand papercuts.
Researchers like Dr. Denise Sekaquaptewa have found that microaggressions are more than irritating comments. They are manifestations of deep-seated stereotypes that contribute to biased management practices and lack of diversity in STEM fields.
Gender-based microaggressions can take many forms:
- Being spoken over or interrupted at meetings.
- Sharing an idea that gets no traction, only for a man to share the same idea ten minutes later and be applauded.
- Being asked to supply lunch at a partner meeting when I am the only woman in the room.
When I was an EM at Apple, I regularly attended meetings with my male PM. People who didn’t know us constantly assumed that I was the PM and he had the technical role. This assumption had nothing to do with previous knowledge of us as individuals; it was purely based on gender stereotypes. This happened so frequently that a colleague once emailed me to apologize.
No matter how hard I worked or how much value I delivered as an EM, I could not escape these daily instances of implicit bias. Not only do they hurt, they also chip away at your confidence and impede your ability to thrive at work.
Women developers hoping to move into management have far fewer role models who look like them than their male counterparts. That’s because for every 100 men who are promoted into a managerial role, only 72 women are promoted.
Promotion bias is the consequence of various overlapping problems. Managers often choose who they perceive to be the highest-performing Individual Contributors (ICs) for promotions. In a non-inclusive workplace where men are better represented and more likely to succeed, most high-performing ICs are men. The new managers, many of whom are not properly trained in the people skills needed to manage, go on to make decisions about promotions and pay. These decisions tend to favor “high-performing” male ICs, and women continue to be denied advancement opportunities.
This barrier to reaching the first step on the corporate ladder is known as “the broken rung.” It pushes women out of the pipeline to senior leadership, and causes many women to leave tech altogether. The broken rung further entrenches a culture of exclusion.
Fear of failure
Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, writes that we raise our boys to be brave; we raise our girls to be perfect. Fear of failure can hinder women’s ability to take risks and self-advocate long before they enter the workforce.
In her book, Brave, Not Perfect, Saujani cites a telling example. Researchers at the University of California served lemonade to two groups of middle schoolers – one group of girls, and one group of boys. What researchers didn’t tell the children: the lemonade was made with salt instead of sugar. While the boys immediately spit it out and declared it was gross, the girls drank it all down and didn’t say a word. Later, when researchers asked why, the girls said they didn’t want to hurt the researchers’ feelings.
Imagine one of those little girls all grown up at her first meeting. Will she be willing to share her ideas and have a dissenting voice? Will she have the resilience necessary to thrive in tech?
I see this fear of failure play out in the workplace all the time. As a coach, lots of folks come to me with their challenges – especially women who are struggling to trust themselves. I’m shocked by the lack of confidence I see in women, though I shouldn’t be. I have experienced those same doubts and fears in my career.
Looking from the outside in, you may not realize how much we are struggling. Many of us build the resilience to put up a shield during the work day. But at night and on weekends, we are suffering silently from the effects of imposter syndrome.
Managers didn’t invent the social conditions that pressure women to be “nice” and “perfect.” However, it is the responsibility of leadership to understand how these conditions can show up in the workplace and impact their employees.
3 steps to improving retention
Now that we understand why women are leaving the tech industry, let’s discuss what we can do about it. The good news is that we all have the power to develop awareness of and check our harmful biases. As leaders, we also have the power to translate that personal awareness into organizational change.
The bottom line: women are much more likely to stay at an organization where they are treated fairly and set up to thrive at every stage of their career. To get started, here are 3 steps you can take as a manager to retain and empower women.
1. Build trust
Inclusive workplaces are built on trust, and trust typically isn’t built in work meetings.
Let’s say two teams come together to work on a project. They start having a conflict. Did you spend time getting to know each other on a personal level before digging into the project? Many times, the answer is no.
Don’t wait for an offsite trip to get to know your team. This is especially important in remote environments where spontaneous personal interactions happen less frequently.
I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, I unexpectedly picked up the Web team at Tile when their EM was let go. It was the middle of the pandemic, so everything was virtual, and we were a few weeks away from our busiest sales period of the year. On top of that, two new engineers started the same day I acquired the team. I had to build trust quickly.
My first step was to plan a two-hour remote offsite centered around three structured exercises (which I’ll describe below). Some managers would be tempted to overlook team-building and dive into work right away. However, the exercises created a foundation of trust that yielded stronger working relationships – and ultimately improved our output.
Let’s review some of the exercises you can use to build trust (virtually or in-person) on your team.
Personal histories exercise
Business management author Patrick Lencioni developed this exercise based on the idea that trust comes from vulnerability. By sharing elements of their personal histories, colleagues can empathize with the unique experiences that each person brings to the workplace.
All team members answer the following questions:
- Where did you grow up?
- How many siblings do you have and where do you fall in that order?
- Describe a unique challenge or experience from your childhood.
To debrief, team members share what they learned about each other that they didn’t already know.
Roles and responsibilities exercise
This exercise helps teams to align their understanding of everyone’s roles and responsibilities – and to better appreciate each team member’s contributions.
- Each team member writes down the top responsibilities for their own role.
- Each member writes down what they believe to be the top responsibilities for everyone else’s roles.
- The team compares everyone’s answers for each role.
- The facilitator guides a conversation around discrepancies between answers and helps align the group on each role’s responsibilities.
There are a number of personality quizzes, such as the Myers & Briggs 16 Personality Types, that can help employees to better understand themselves and one another. By learning how each member processes the world, teams can develop more effective and empathetic communication practices.
2. Create an inclusive team culture
In my experience, most managers want to create a sense of belonging in the workplace – they just aren’t sure where to start. No one ever sat them down to explain how you can practice empathy on a daily basis.
Managers often think of inclusion as a separate project from leadership in general. Here’s what I tell them: the same skills that make you an inclusive leader will also make you a high-performing leader. Fundamental leadership principles are inclusive leadership principles.
Let’s examine how we can build inclusion by approaching leadership challenges with empathy. As we discussed earlier, a significant barrier to retaining women in tech is implicit bias, which can manifest in microaggressions. When microaggressions go unchallenged, it sends the message that some employees are less valued than others.
As a leader, you have the power to build inclusive norms by actively looking for and intervening in bias. Writer Kim Scott offers an empathy-based approach to becoming a bias interrupter.
- Develop a “bias interrupter” code word with your team. For example, you might interrupt an instance of bias by saying, “I’m noticing a purple flag here.”
- Use “I” statements when interrupting bias. For example, “I don’t think this is what you intended to say, but I’d like to share what I heard.”
- After interrupting bias in the moment, consider making a plan to debrief later.
These tips can help to build psychological safety, a climate in which you feel safe to be yourself and grow from your mistakes (interpersonal or technical). For women who may feel pressure to be perfect rather than brave, it can be difficult to embrace this mindset and trust that it won’t negatively impact their careers. That’s why it’s so crucial for leaders to model and normalize vulnerability. Great leaders empower employees to reach their full potential, and psychological safety sets everyone up to thrive.
3. Implement effective and fair management practices
Inclusion is a value. Effective and fair management practices are how you implement this value at scale.
Start by understanding where you are as an organization. What are your retention rates for employees by gender, race, and ethnicity over time? By considering intersectionality – for example, how retention of women breaks down along lines of race and ethnicity – you can build a more nuanced understanding of women’s experiences at your organization.
To improve retention for women developers, consider what management practices contribute to the “broken rung” and prevent women from advancing in your organization. Use the following best practices to guide your analysis:
- Don’t just rely on LinkedIn – diversify your sourcing strategies. Partner with community organizations that support underrepresented developers.
- Create impact-based job descriptions with 30-60-90-day goals. Clearly outline what the role entails and how to succeed.
- Review resumes without names or photos.
- Give candidates an interview prep guide to set them up for success.
- Leverage your impact-based job description to create an onboarding roadmap.
- Overcommunicate expectations.
- Check in frequently and provide concrete feedback.
- Talk with developers about their career goals.
- Work with developers to create a tailored path to promotion. Connect them with relevant projects to grow their skills and gain visibility.
- Build support networks, such as Employee Resource Groups and mentorship programs, to help employees reach their career goals.
In addition to reviewing formal structures and processes, connect with managers to ensure that they have the necessary training to lead teams fairly and effectively. It’s great if one manager creates psychological safety for their team – but if other managers aren’t doing the same, then it won’t move the needle on retention rates.
Start your growth journey
As a manager hoping to retain women in tech, you are embarking on a lifelong learning and growth journey. The 3 steps I’ve shared today – building trust, creating an inclusive team culture, and implementing fair and effective management practices – are a great place to start.
The process won’t be perfect. I’ve helped companies build inclusive cultures for years, and I still make mistakes all the time. To meaningfully increase inclusion and belonging for women in tech, we need to be accountable as leaders. This means acknowledging growth areas, seeking understanding, and acting upon new knowledge.
Ultimately, an inclusive workplace is an essential investment that lifts up your entire organization. Diverse teams drive innovation – and products benefit from having women’s perspectives at every level of the career ladder. Enabling women to thrive in tech will serve your business outcomes and make you a more effective leader.
In my next article, I will explore a foundational component of any inclusive workplace: the onboarding process. We’ll break down key strategies for retaining women developers from day 1.