The lack of gender diversity in technology fields has become a hot topic of late, for good reason. Women and girls are under-represented in computer science degree programs, even in comparison to other STEM fields. The number dips slightly as they enter professional careers, and drops more dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years, just as they could be reaching leadership positions — or starting families.
Some explanations for the decline — discomfort with “brogrammer” culture, unintended or overt bias in reviews and promotion — have more to do with gender than family status. But women with young children face additional challenges to blend their work and home lives successfully. Tech companies and academic institutions must do more to foster welcoming and sustainable environments to mothers in technical fields, not only for the sake of gender equity but also as a smart strategy to increase innovation and the bottom line.
Research over the last decade has documented the trend of women drifting away from technical careers. A landmark 2008 study in the Harvard Business Review found that “on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders, fully 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists are women. But the dropout rates are huge: Over time 52% of these talented women quit their jobs. Most strikingly, this female exodus is not a steady trickle. Rather, there seems to be a key moment in women’s lives—in their mid to late thirties—when most head for the door.”
The study does not cite motherhood specifically, but the timing of the women’s departure suggests a relationship to childbearing years. The dearth of women in academic leadership positions in “math-related fields” was also noted in a 2009 Cornell University study, which specifically cited family demands as a contributing factor.
Motherhood as job skill
By requiring women to make difficult choices between career and family, the tech industry and academia risk missing out on distinct contributions that come from the broader life experience mothers can bring. Becoming a parent inevitably changes one’s perspective; senior leaders have suggested from personal experience that motherhood has increased their interest in finding applied solutions to technical problems and their dedication to making a positive contribution to the long-term future.
Practical lessons include finely honed time-management skills, a ruthless sense for prioritization, and a rich set of conflict-resolution strategies. Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, notes “being a mother gave me a broader sense of purpose, more compassion and a better ability to prioritize and get things done efficiently. It also helped me understand the specific needs and concerns of mothers, who make most household spending decisions and control more than $2 trillion of purchasing power in the U.S.”
Academic leaders echo the sentiment that the experience of motherhood helped them develop greater patience and understanding for their students and junior colleagues.
Given that a more inclusive and representative workforce can improve business outcomes and academic achievement, how can institutions encourage more women to persist in technical careers over the long term?
Provide role models and mentors for young colleagues. Women in senior leadership positions who manage family responsibilities can serve as role models and advocates for younger colleagues. The lack of such role models perpetuates the lack of women in tech fields overall: “The reason there aren’t more women computer scientists is because there aren’t more women computer scientists,” noted Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook. In addition to setting an example, senior leaders are also in a position to help shape the culture of the organization by creating and implementing family-friendly policies — then taking advantage of those policies themselves.
Offer family-friendly leave policies for ALL parents. The tech industry is leading the way in providing time for family leave, in part because it recognizes this benefit as attractive to the women they are trying to recruit and retain. The graph below, from a November 2015 report from The Century Foundation, offers a broad comparison.
Expanding paid family leave — in addition to being more humane and better for the health of parents and children — proves economically advantageous to the businesses as well, resulting in less employee turnover and increased productivity when parents return to work. In the same article cited above, Susan Wojcicki described the positive business effects of adequate family leave in 2014: “When we increased paid maternity leave to 18 from 12 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50 percent.”
Allow for flexible work hours, job sharing, and remote work arrangements. Women frequently point to inflexible work arrangements and crushing workloads as reasons they left their careers when they became parents. Employees can be virtually available not only by email, but also to collaborate with distributed teams via online tools like Google docs or hangout, Skype, Slack, Trello, and the like. Working remotely can save money and be more productive for many, not just moms, and flexible policies can serve as a valuable recruiting tool for companies hiring talent in a competitive market.
Provide childcare facilities, family planning benefits. When Facebook and Apple announced in October 2014 that they would cover up to $20,000 in expenses for female employees to freeze their eggs, a lively discussion ensued whether this was empowering for women who wanted to delay childbearing or more advantageous for the companies providing the benefit. While both employers and employees may stand to gain, asking workers to put off having a family simply delays discussions about improvements to infrastructure and corporate culture that would make it easier for women to navigate changes in work and family life successfully. More helpful to parents—and productive for employers—would be investments in facilities for nursing mothers or on-site childcare.
Create paths for women to return to the workforce after a leave. A 2009 survey showed that a majority of highly qualified women who leave their positions for family reasons intend to return to the field, and indeed 70% did so after a hiatus of roughly two-and-a-half years. (The academic tenure clock is less forgiving in this regard.) Still, mothers face a well-documented “penalty” in pay, performance reviews, and opportunities for promotion. Programs like Return Path provide employees with current skills needed by tech companies, and are a cost-effective recruiting mechanism for employers.
Those who stay
What about the women who stay? What can we learn about their motivations? Reasons behind their continued dedication to technical fields are at least two-fold. First, salaries in the tech industry are attractive. When a recent study of mothers in tech asked 912 women why they stayed, many cited money as an important factor, and 84 percent were, in fact, the primary breadwinners in their family. (Yet, a surprising number downplayed their accomplishments beyond their financial contribution; only about 1 in 10 mentioned being a role model for her children while a third mentioned her partner as the more positive influence.)
Second, and especially among academic leaders, women are more likely to articulate a genuine passion for the work. A computer science professor (and mother) who began her career in the 1950s attests “I never considered giving up. I love science and the independence that it gives me.” When asked what contributed to her persistence in the field, another colleague was puzzled by the question: “I cannot say that I ever had a feeling of ‘persistence,’ since being a researcher is such fun (at least most of the time).”
Those women who manage to navigate the shoals of career and family inspire others by their dedication to both. A successful mid-career colleague explains: “It is a constant challenge to balance career opportunities with being a mother of two young children: not so much in the day-to-day because I feel we have optimized that very carefully. But the extra things — the travel to conferences and to give talks, the opportunities to serve on committees that require evening/weekend/or more travel, those things are very difficult, and I constantly feel the stress of having to say no to things that I really feel I should be saying yes to. On the other hand, I feel that I’m the luckiest person in the world to have these two amazing little children.”
Aside from including a more equitable representation of society, retaining mothers in technology positions throughout their careers will only enhance collective opportunities for innovation and discovery. In celebration of Mother’s Day, let’s recognize and promote the distinct contributions of moms in technology and engineering, and strive to create the institutional circumstances for them to flourish.