Women in tech - why enterprises need to tackle systemic issues affecting retention, not just recruitment

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 28, 2023
Although many tech employers are doing more to tackle diversity, equity and inclusion and wellbeing issues than ever before, job satisfaction levels among women in tech appear to be falling.


Worryingly for such a male-dominated industry as tech, job satisfaction among female employees around the world appears to be on the wane. 

In fact, only 28% of the 1,321 women questioned for cloud-based enterprise learning provider Skillsoft’s 2023 Women in Tech Report indicated they were ‘extremely satisfied’ with their jobs compared to 44% in 2021. The three areas causing most unhappiness were growth potential, current pay and managerial support.

Unsurprisingly then, nearly two out of five were thinking about changing roles, while 28% said they were thinking of quitting altogether. The top three reasons for doing so mirrored the causes of their dissatisfaction: a desire for better compensation, a perceived lack of equity in opportunities, and ineffective leadership.

So what is going on here? Why despite the apparently endless Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives rolled out by tech companies, do women in the sector seem more discontent than ever, with all the ramifications this situation has for staff retention?

Jo Stansfield is Founder and Director of DEI consultancy Inclusioneering and Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University. She believes that the current rise in dissatisfaction levels could, in fact, turn out to be a blip:

The potential is that this is a short adjustment rather than an ongoing downward trend. Since lockdown ended, we’ve seen a lot of layoffs, especially in big tech, and in some instances, people are being forced to return to the office. So, it’s quite likely that this is leading to changes in perception among the workforce, which is more about post-pandemic adjustments than a longer-term trend. 

The Agile inclusion paradox

But at the same time Stansfield also recognizes that many women do have grounds for disgruntlement, a situation that manifests in what she calls the ‘Agile inclusion paradox’.  The idea here is that Agile methodologies may appear to reflect many best practices in terms of building inclusion. 

In reality the tech industry, which uses the approach heavily, still experiences ongoing challenges in attracting and retaining minority groups, including women. She explains:

The aim of Agile is to empower teams, which includes providing people with opportunities to collaborate, put themselves forward for work and share responsibility for decision-making. But while it all sounds very inclusive, it’s often not. For example, even in tech teams, women tend to do much less technical work. But the widespread team perception is that technical work is the most important, even if it doesn’t always provide the greatest value. User experience and other softer factors are left out. That would seem to be a very clear indication that, culturally, the work women do is not valued as highly.

A key issue here is that, even if women are keen to do more technical work, they tend to be steered towards becoming project managers or team leaders anyway. But as Stansfield says:

Not only is women’s work less valued, but they’re also blocked from doing more highly valued work as they’re not recognized as making a strong contribution. They’re pushed towards softer skills-based work by the wider team, often contrary to their own ambitions. Roles, such as technical architect and lead developer, are harder for women in tech to achieve than management – and there’s few enough in management roles. That’s where the training paradox comes about – women think they can solve the problem by becoming more and more educated, but it’s not translating into opportunities. That’s because it’s about how skills are recognized.

What women do when things go wrong

The situation is even worse for Women of Color. Although they are often more ambitious than their white, male counterparts, this is rarely translated into career progression, says Stansfield:

As a result, their job satisfaction tends to be lower than that of white men. It’s about autonomy and the ability to carry out work their way. But, surprisingly given that Agile’s supposed to be empowering, it’s clearly not across race. Women of Color have less say in how work is done and lower job satisfaction, which means they’re also less likely to stay.

Interestingly though, women around the world tend to react differently when they feel unhappy with their work situation. According to the Skillsoft report, North American women in tech, for instance, may feel less satisfied with their jobs (77%) than their European colleagues (88%), but they are also less likely to switch roles (35% vs 40%) or employers (37% vs 43%). 

Orla Daly, Skillsoft’s CIO, indicates that this apparent reluctance to take action can be explained by the more precarious employment situation in the US:

In the US, it’s easier to manage a reduction in the workforce, so there’s a huge piece around job security. We’ve also been seeing a lot of layoffs lately, so there’s an element of nervousness. This includes concerns over losing medical insurance, which women put a lot of value on.

Stansfield agrees:

It’s a much more perilous situation for women in the US than Europe, which is driving some reticence to move on. If an employer is providing health benefits, for example, there are much greater consequences if you leave and are unemployed, so the risks are higher. If you feel a greater sense of security, you’re prepared take more risks in changing a situation you’re unhappy with. So, you end up in a reinforcement loop there.

What employers can do to improve the situation

As for what tech employers can do to help improve the situation for women generally, Daly believes that:

It’s a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted solution. Compensation is one of the key drivers behind why people leave so you need to get the basics right. But you also have to continue improving your DEI activities. Training and awareness are super-important here. The need for mentoring and coaching also comes across loud and clear, particularly if there aren’t many role models available, because people are conditioned by what they see and the language that’s used. So, in a predominantly male environment, it’s about how these things tend to influence culture without anyone even noticing. 

Another common - and often overlooked - challenge, Stansfield believes, is inaction around DEI at the middle management layer. She explains:

Senior leaders often do a good job of role modelling desired behaviors and employee resource groups are put in place to offer people support. But the real challenge comes in at the middle management layer. Their role is to contextualize DEI and put it into practice in teams.

But middle managers don’t necessarily have the time or the knowledge of what to do or how to do it. In tech companies, they’re also often white men and haven’t particularly understood why it’s important. Sometimes they can interpret it as women being prioritized over men, which needs to be overcome. So, while they’re probably best placed to work out how to apply DEI, they don’t necessarily have either the skills or the motivation to do it.

Despite this situation, Stansfield says there has been “fairly steady” improvement in the lot of women in tech over the years, although the situation has not necessarily progressed to the extent she would have liked. As she concludes: 

Organizations are doing more about DEI and wellbeing, but it’s not yet rippling through to eliminating bias or systemic problems very effectively. Systemic issues are very hard to change and just taking a cookie-cutter approach to it won’t do as each organization has its own cultural challenges and requirements. I don’t think anyone’s solved the problem of how to get it right overall. But it’s about learning, adapting and continuing to change, so it’s a very reflective process.

My take

If employers really are serious about addressing continuing low levels of women in tech, they truly need to start tackling the root cause of systemic issues affecting retention, not just recruitment. These include fair and equal pay, fair and equal opportunities and middle management attitudes. Without that, they’re on a hiding to nothing.

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