Keeping Talented Tech Women in the Workforce
The following column by MJ Freeway Co-Founder and CEO Jessica Billingsley was recently featured on Entrepreneur.com. It showcases the issue of keeping women in tech and the high price associated with the massive dropout rate.
For decades, society and the Federal government fixated on how to get girls into technology careers. There have been summits and conferences held, numerous Presidential and Congressional committees and reports, and countless articles on the issue. All this activity would indicate that education and inspiring girls to choose tech as a career is the key for long-standing and sustainable female representation in the heavily male-dominated tech industry. However, this approach, which stretches back to the Clinton administration, fails to address a key issue—keeping women in the tech workforce.
The U.S.’s female tech talent pool leaks like a sieve and requires immediate attention. Here’s a sobering fact: today, there’s a smaller percentage of women in tech than 25 years ago1. Men, and almost exclusively men, design the technologies that individuals use to interact with the world for more than half of their waking hours2. It’s staggering how much influence tech has on society and the individual, and how much of that influence is coded by one gender.
More than half—56 percent—of women who enter the tech industry drop out of the workforce midway into their careers3. None of the reasons cited are particularly shocking or unknown. Reasons cited include being undervalued, which is demonstrated in lower pay, not being challenged in tasks and not having a seat at the table3, and seeking a balance in priorities to include their personal life. Women don’t want to walk away from what they love to do, but the male-led tech industry isn’t working for the majority of women.
Individuals, businesses and the society-at-large pay an astronomical price in hard and soft costs when women drop out of tech. For the worker, she’s forfeited more than $120,000 to get her BS, and she’s probably paying 4-5 percent in interest on that with student loans. There’s the cost of certifications, conferences, and continuing education as well as the time investment in developing key expertise, building networks and developing intellectual capital.
Financial impacts on businesses can run even more steep in real costs, climbing as high as a million dollars or more. It costs six to nine months’ salary to replace a salaried employee4, and, in 2017, the average tech worker in San Francisco made $142,000 a year5. A company would pay anywhere from $852,000 to $1.3 million to backfill this position. Of course, replacing a salaried woman is on the lower end of this range thanks to the well-documented wage gap. Keep in mind, this cost does not take into account the loss of productivity, institutional knowledge, and potentially, the industry’s next great idea when a woman leaves tech.
Parity is profitable. A 2016 study by Peterson Institute for International Economics compared companies with no female corporate leadership to those with a 30 percent representation and found that the injection of women leadership yielded a 15percent increase in profitability. This stat just scratches the surface of the missed growth and opportunity in tech without female participation at parity. We know that diversity of thought increases innovation and enhances problem-solving.
I urge us to focus our energy equally on keeping women in tech careers and inspiring girls to enter tech. Gender parity in the tech industry is about more than workforce diversity. All of us must shape the virtual worlds in which we operate so these worlds are truly expansive, innovative, and disruptive versus hardcoding more of the same. But gender parity in tech is an impossible dream unless we stop the drop of women from tech after they start their careers. Awareness is a start, but it doesn’t generate change. Action is needed to move society forward. To energize this much needed change, I am launching the One Woman Challenge to ignite a discussion around this issue and create career supportive actions for women in business.
At its core, the campaign is about connecting and contributing to a woman’s career path by pledging to help with one supportive act. This could be anything from reviewing a presentation, to taking a coffee meeting, to making an introduction. These acts create opportunity and change at the individual level, and each individual action creates a swell that together starts to change the tide. The time is now for us all to be change agents for society and a future in tech that will include female.