As a young engineer at Hewlett Packard in the mid-1990s, I was assigned a mentor, given challenging projects, and empowered to attend professional development courses. I was also sent to attend the Hewlett Packard women’s leadership conference with several thousand employees and an inspiring group of female STEM leaders who shared their insights for career mobility and longevity for the company’s female engineers. It was an exciting time of incredible career growth.
Before I moved from developing printer technology to developing organizations at CCL, I learned that a close male peer passed me in salary. This led to one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had with my boss. I’d arranged to have breakfast with him to seek some answers about the recent drop in my project load.
His very compassionate reply left me with a pit in my stomach. “I know you are planning your wedding,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to overload you at this moment.” While this was my boss’ idea of support, it wasn’t mine. I was sure that my fiancé hadn’t received the same message.
I chose to leave my engineering career when I discovered my passion better aligned with improving organizational systems. But these pain-points in the early parts of my career left their mark, and more than once, I’ve wondered what would’ve happened to my career if it weren’t for these instances.
My story parallels the path of many women in the industry.
Companies have spent decades trying to address women’s departure from STEM fields, but the tide hasn’t turned yet. What’s going on? What do women need in order to stay and succeed? What do organizations need to do to keep these talented women in the field?
Why Women Leave
Despite women’s commitment and enthusiasm, we’re seeing that two-thirds of women engineers are leaving the professions within 15 years of work.[i] And that statistic is even more pronounced for women on the technical track (people who pursue high level technical contributions versus general management roles). Women occupy less than 15% of executive roles in the technology sector, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In one large tech company I worked with recently, there was actually zero.
The 80:20 male-to-female ratio in some STEM fields remains the same now as when I studied it 25 years ago. What’s particularly important is that the research consistently shows a widespread desire to be surrounded by “people like me,” i.e. white male engineer/computer science stereotypes, and the consequent rejection of people who are different (“diversity” of women and people of color).[ii] This leads to exclusion from informal networks that enhance skills and provide useful insights into organizational politics.[iii]
These biases shape our assumptions and what we consider valuable or less valuable work. When a woman’s excellence at a “soft” task is seen as “natural,” it’s less valued and not considered an achievement. However, adequate performance by men in women’s presumed skills (nurturing, emotional expressiveness and communication) is considered exceptional, leading to better ratings, faster promotions, and higher pay for them.
Which Women Stay?
Throughout my own career and in all of my interactions with women in top STEM roles, a common thread has emerged.
It was well described by one VP of a business unit in a large tech company where I’d conducted a leadership study. I’d already sat through a number of interviews where women shared their personal stories of finding upward mobility difficult in the company. This woman was sitting far closer to the top. “I’m humble,” she said, “I build relationships with others, seek to learn whenever I can, and ask for what I need.”
Research has corroborated my experience with women who have staying power in STEM careers, as well as the women that rise to the top — they have a strong sense of self-efficacy, are passionate about their work, have positive support at work, are loyal to their team and others, and cultivate strong personal and professional networks.[iv]
It may seem logical that if you take people who are passionate about what they do, provide them with challenging work and the needed support, and enable strong networks, they’ll be likely to prosper. But most women in tech still drop out of the industry.
Advancing Women Leaders: Insights and Opportunities
There’s a rise in company programs to address bias. But the current structure of work is still so complex that this alone won’t shift the trend.
Tech companies move at the speed of tech advancements, competition, and the pressure for quarterly profitability. What ensues are rapidly changing teams, long work-days that tend to keep people in a reactive mode of work. In many companies now, developing employees isn’t considered a job requirement and the environment is one of everyone for themselves. What that means is that the deliberate process of undoing habitual, gender-biased behaviors isn’t attended to, nor is the process of taking intentional steps to develop one’s career.
But there’s hope. Each month we hear of dozens of companies implementing women’s leadership development initiatives in their organizations. We learn that companies are implementing quotas to fill more senior roles with women. We see the dial changing as the need for diversity in organizations is finally proving itself, as shown in a recent Catalyst article that found that the Fortune 500 companies with the most women on the board boasted 42% higher return on sales and 66% higher return on financial equity than those with the lowest percentage of women on their boards.
Within our STEM women’s leadership programs — particularly the Technical Women’s Leadership Journey — we focus on what we’ve found to be the core elements to most directly advance the careers of passionate women engineers:
Get clear on the real value you bring to your work, your team, and the organization. Be able to articulate your value and declare your passion and goals to others. Ask close colleagues for feedback on your strengths and opportunities. Look for people who can be bridge builders to help you find challenging stretch assignments, new roles, or valuable connections with more senior leaders in the organization.
As teams become the most important unit to get work done, we know very well that diverse teams are capable of bringing some of the greatest approaches and solutions. If organizations want to best leverage talent, they need to build internal skills at rapid team development that embrace diversity. Learn to leverage strengths and embrace diverse worldviews while owning project objectives and deliverables.
It’s been 20 years since my early days at Hewlett Packard, and while the advancement of women in technology has been precariously slow, we may now have a greater opportunity to uplift women’s leadership in tech and engineering than we ever have before.
One way we’re committed to being a part of that trend is to help retain and promote women in STEM fields who might otherwise drop out of the industry. Through our Technical Women’s Leadership Journey, we’re using our decades of research to help women succeed whose careers could stall at the mid-management level. And we’re doing it not just to empower those women, but to strengthen their organizations — and by extension, the industry — as a whole.
Learn more about our Technical Women’s Leadership Journey and our upcoming pilot program.
[i] Ramsey, N. & McCorduck, P. (2005). Where are the women in information technology? University of Colorado, Boulder.
[ii] Pamela McCorduck, Where are the women in IT?, 2005.
[iv] Source: Buse, Bilimoria & Perelli, 2016