Why Are Women Leaving Science, Engineering, And Tech Jobs?


Jane Porter

October 15, 2014

Recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows U.S. women working in science, engineering, and tech fields are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within the year.

It’s not for lack of enthusiasm or passion. Of those women surveyed, 80% say they love their work, yet many still report barriers to getting to the top.

“Women entering STEM fields have a much shorter runway for career takeoff than women entering other industries,” according to the report. “To begin with, they’re starting later because of the time it took to get a Ph.D. That intensifies the ticking of their biological clock, which in turn pressures them to step up the pace of their research progress.”

Companies like Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer have been putting programs in place to help balance out this pipeline of leadership. But a number of factors need to be addressed before the issue can be resolved.

A Sense Of Isolation

As predominantly male fields, it’s no surprise a lingering old boys’ club attitude in the science, engineering, and tech industries isolates women. Surveyed women describe these as the “lab-coat culture” in science that encourages long unforgiving hours, the “hard-hat culture” of engineering, and the frat-like “geek workplace culture” of tech.

These environments tend to make women working feel out of place as a result. It’s that sense of isolation that may tend to prevent women from climbing up the ranks.

Biased Evaluations

Women surveyed also felt their performance reviews were biased, with 72% of U.S. women sensing gender bias at work in their evaluations. It’s a claim that has been well-documented elsewhere.

A study of performance reviews in Fortune from 28 companies in the tech space found that nearly 88% of women received critical feedback versus 59% of men. The word “abrasive” appeared on women’s reviews frequently, while that word was totally absent from men’s reviews.

Lack Of Sponsors

One of the most important paths to career growth is having a sponsor who can advocate on your behalf and help open doors for you.

The Center for Talent Innovation study found that 86% of women in the U.S. don’t have sponsors–a factor significantly holding women back from progressing to more senior level positions. What’s more, while 70% of women resist confronting their boss about a pay raise, 38% of women with a sponsor advising them would make the request.

Lack Of Women Mentors

One of the challenges the report found is women in high-ranking positions are less inclined to help women advance in their careers. This lack of senior women role models is one significant factor contributing to the lack of women at the executive level, says Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook. “The reason there aren’t more women computer scientists is because there aren’t more women computer scientists,” Goldfein adds.

Some companies are working to overcome such disparities. At Pfizer, for example, pilot program Leadership Investment for Tomorrow targets high-potential women and minorities at the middle-manager level by providing assessments, education opportunities, and mentoring. This program focuses specifically on managers at the mid-level, as this is the time they’re most likely considering leaving the company.

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