By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Over the last two decades, the computer science industry has seen almost a mass exodus of women – while other science fields have seen the number of jobs held by women rise significantly.

According to a new report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the percentage of computer-related jobs held by women has declined steadily from its high of 36% in 1991, to just above 25% in 2008.

Dr. Catherine Ashcraft, co-author (with Sarah Blithe) of Women in IT: The Facts, explained that there are a number of reasons for the decline:

  • the dot-com burst in the late ’90s leading to a perception that there aren’t any jobs in the field
  • a perception that technology and computer-related jobs have been outsourced to people in countries outside the US
  • a misunderstanding about what the field really is
  • higher visibility of other science fields
  • and an image that these jobs are “nerdy or geeky”

But it’s not just a decline in the number of women entering the field – women are leaving jobs in the technology field at a startling rate.

As the report explains, “female attrition is higher in technology than in science and in engineering, but across all three climates, it is considerably higher than men’s attrition.” The report continues, “Forty-one percent of women leave technology companies after 10 years of experience, compared to only 17 percent of men.” Additionally, “Fifty-six percent of women in technology companies leave their organizations at the mid-level point (10-20 years) in their careers.”

Two Keys to Change

Why are women leaving jobs in the technology field at such an unprecedented rate? The report outlines two key factors: isolation and work/life balance.

The report cites The Athena Factor, a Harvard Business Review research report which indicated a lack of mentors or female role models is a major cause for female attrition from these types of jobs:

“In The Athena Factor, one-third of women in private-sector SET jobs said they felt extremely isolated at work. In the same study, 40 percent of technical women reported lacking role models, while nearly half reported lacking mentors, and 84 percent reported lacking sponsors or someone who would help make their accomplishments visible throughout the organization.

“In fact, women who are isolated are not only less committed, but are 13 percent more likely than women who do not report isolation to also report being unsatisfied with their job. Women who are not satisfied with their jobs are 22 times more likely to leave than women who are satisfied. Likewise, women without mentors or sponsors are also more likely to leave their companies…”

Mentoring programs and networking groups can help change this experience, but there is a also a chicken-and-egg problem here. As Matt Ford explains, “A group that is not adequately represented in teaching or high-ranking positions is by definition not present to mentor new people from that group, hence perpetuating a cycle that is very hard to break.”

Work/life balance is another issue driving women from the field. As the report notes, “both men and women believe being family-oriented is not associated with success in technology.”

“There is a perception of work/life balance being a women’s issue,” said Dr. Ashcraft. But, the study showed that “work/life balance is as important to women as much as men.”

The difference, though, is that while “mid-level men are almost four times more likely than women to have a partner who assumes the primary responsibility for the household/children,” mid-level women “are more than twice as likely as men to have a partner who works full time.”

This means that women in the computer science and information technology industry are more likely than men to feel pressure from work/life balance issues. To exacerbate the problem, many women reported that while flex-time or telecommuting policies are formally available, they were discouraged from taking advantage of them.

Changing Stereotypes, Ending Unconscious Bias

One further cause for concern is that many women reported experiencing unconscious bias and stereotyping – which led them to leave companies. The report indicates, though, that supervisors can reverse this trend.

“Supervisors can have a profound impact on reducing isolation, recommending mentors, functioning as sponsors, providing access to flexible schedules, and reducing bias in performance evaluations and promotion procedures – all key barriers to technical women’s advancement.”

Dr. Ashcraft also stressed “the importance of an employee’s immediate supervisor’s influence on if they stay. It makes a huge influence, and affects retention.”

In a Center for Work-Life Policy study, 74% of women in technology reported “loving their job.” And yet, the environment in which they work is simply inhospitable.

What can companies do to reverse the trend of women leaving the tech field? “Change is possible,” said Dr. Ashcraft. “We have to raise awareness about the problem. We have to take a holistic approach to solve it.” This approach involves training supervisors to work with diverse teams, changing stereotypes, breaking down communication barriers, and making sure flex-time or telecommuting programs are openly available and encouraged.