One of the panels included four male CEOs who were dubbed “male allies” and who considered themselves avid supporters of women. Attendees were skeptical. A rogue group of women created fake bingo cards to keep track of each time one of the panelists said something sexist or cliched. The boxes included things like, “’I’ve believed in women’s rights my whole life’” and “Blames awkward geeks for abusive tech behavior.” On a different panel, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, told women that instead of asking for fair pay, they should “trust” they will get the right raises as they advance in their career. “It’s good karma” to let the system take its due course, he said; at that, one woman reportedly stood up and yelled, “Bingo!” The crowd cheered, mocking the panelists for their seeming unconscious bias.
Undoubtedly the tech industry has a problem. But it isn’t only a pipeline problem or a toxic workplace problem Women have been working in toxic workplaces for as long as we have been working outside of the home. The truth is, li
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ke just about every other industry, tech has a retention problem.
There are large cohorts of women who do manage to get into the pipeline and then weather the hostile work environments because they love the work. Sadly, a significant portion eventually leave. Various research has shown that somewhere between 50 percent and 60 percent of women in STEM careers will leave the workplace during the key mid-career period.183 Why? Because they become mothers. One survey revealed that 65 percent left their jobs after becoming mothers.184 As with women in other industries, it wasn’t mothering per se, but the cumulative effect of dealing with a repressive culture that made motherhood the last straw. A former motion graphics designer said, “Motherhood was just the amplifier. It made all the problems that I’d been putting up with forever actually intolerable.”
Which brings me back to the Mothers in Tech panel. Our goal was to give advice to women in tech who would soon be mothers. We knew their challenges would be manifold. Not only would they be dealing with their new roles as parents; they’d be dealing with a workplace that is hostile at worst or clueless at best when it comes to women in general and mothers in particular.
Jenni, who is the technical lead of the MySQL team at Yelp, was the only woman in the engineering department when she became pregnant with her daughter, Zelda. At the time, the average age of the engineers was between twenty-four and twenty-six years old. Her colleagues were young men not used to having women around and certainly not used to a colleague who becomes a mother. Jenni shared with the audience that she felt incredibly isolated and alone.
“It’s not that they were purposely trying to discriminate against me; it’s just that they had no idea how to deal with me,” Jenni said.
So Jenni went on a campaign to change her company’s culture. She launched the Yelp Mom’s Resource Group, cajoled the company into providing a mothers’ breastfeeding room and breast pumps, and collaborated with the human resources department to bring in consultants to reframe the company’s thinking around motherhood.
Jenni is enthusiastic about how her company is evolving, but she knows how hard it is to be a trailblazer. “Until it becomes an everyday practice and we provide best practices for others, there will always be a first time,” she told the audience. “You just have to deal with that reality.”
So true. Jenni and other women in tech are following a long-held tradition of breaking new ground for women in the workplace. What is happening in tech right now has been happening in journalism, the financial services industry, and other industries over the last forty years. Sadly, despite all the hard work, we’re still not much further along in any male-dominated industry. Change is happening, but these days we’re seeing glaciers move faster.
“Motherhood was just the amplifier. It made all the problems that I’d been putting up with forever actually intolerable.”
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