Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why women quit technology careers

ComputerWorld interviewed Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center of Work-Life Policy about her research for the Harvard Business Review report The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology. (I posted on the report previously.) She talks about the factors that result in women in their 30s leaving science and technology fields. While issues with work-life balance are a factor, it isn't the primary women that women are dropping out:

We call them "antigens," because they repel women.
[. . .] The most important antigen is the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments. We found that 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment. That's a really high figure.

They talk about demeaning and condescending attitudes, lots of off-color jokes, sexual innuendo, arrogance; colleagues, particularly in the tech culture, who genuinely think women don't have what it takes -- who see them as genetically inferior. It's hard to take as a steady stream. It's predatory and demeaning. It's distressing to find this kind of data in 2008.

The other "antigens" are isolation being the only woman, lack of mentors, and reward of "risky behavior patterns". And, not to be left out, extremely long hours and a family-unfriendy atmosphere.

Their study focused on American private-sector jobs, but they did look at three international companies.
We also did a bunch of focus groups in Australia, Shanghai and Moscow. The data were pretty consistent. Actually, India is a little better than the U.S. But there's not much variation across geography.
The solution? More mentors - senior women or men. They not only help to map out career paths, but also help insulate younger women from the worst of the "macho" behaviors.

There is more discussion at Shakesville.

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