By 2029, there will be 3.6 million computer jobs in the US, but there will only be enough college graduates with computer science degrees to fill 24% of those jobs. For decades, the US has poured resources into improving gender representation in the tech industry. However, the numbers are not improving proportionally. Instead, they have stagnated and initiatives fail.
Women make up 57% of the total workforce. In comparison, women make up only 27% of the tech workforce. Of the 27% who join the tech industry, more than 50% are likely to quit before age 35, and 56% are likely to quit by mid-career.
So questions arise: Why does the tech industry have a retention problem? Why are women working in tech quitting in such high volumes? What factors contribute to this low retention of women in tech, and what kind of support do women need to stay and succeed in it?
I am an information science researcher who studies gender and information technology, women in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—online communities and open source software. My team at the University of Tennessee conducted research to address these questions. We’ve found that retention plays a big role in the gender gap in tech, and that online and physical spaces that support women can boost retention.
Women leaving the tech industry
Research shows that women face many challenges in the technology industry. The gender pay gap is serious. Women do not have the same opportunities as men. For example, only 18% of chief information officers/chief technology officers are women. And women are treated unfairly.
My research team focused on the experiences of women in the technology industry with a particular focus on the treatment they receive in the workplace and the nature of the support systems for women who succeed. We studied open source software communities because open source software communities are an extreme example of gender inequality. Seventy percent of all software supporting the technology infrastructure is open source, making open source software integral to the future of the technology workforce. However, women make up only 9.8% of people contributing to open source software projects.
In seeking answers to this tech industry retention problem, our research found that women’s negative experiences ranged from minor to severe harassment, sexism, discrimination and misogyny to outright death threats. Their expertise is questioned, their contributions are not acknowledged, and their roles are diminished. They face constant harassment and deal with normalized abuse, often hearing that “the kids will be boys,” and face isolation because they often greatly outnumber men.
The impact of these negative experiences shows evidence of multiple levels of harm. For example, individual harm experienced by one woman leads to incidental harm to other women who are discouraged from participating, resulting in further collective harm to the open source software community in the form of fewer women participating. Taken together, these negative experiences are detrimental to the retention of women in open source software and the technology industry in general.
The problem of culture
The mainstream media often mentions the toxic “tech bro” culture of open source software. In recent years, high-profile leaders in open source software have been exposed for their abusive behavior.
Open source software icon Linus Torvalds has resigned from the Linux kernel after his toxic, abusive emails to other developers were highlighted in the media. His decision to step down came as a result of questions about his abusive behavior in discouraging women from working as Linux kernel developers.
Another towering figure in this field, Richard Stallman, was forced to resign from the Free Software Foundation and MIT after a very successful career in open source software due to his views on pedophilia, as well as multiple incidents of sexual harassment by students and faculty at MIT for 30 years. These types of public incidents of unprofessional behavior by tech leaders have a chilling effect on women’s participation and perpetuate toxic behavior.
Support systems for women
In our research on support systems for women in technology, we observed and documented the value of women-focused online spaces in the form of social, emotional, technical, and networking support. Based on our results, the key to supporting women in open source software is online spaces that focus on female participants and are easily accessible through the websites of open source software organizations. The spaces help because they provide a sense of community for women working in open source software.
These spaces are mainly but not exclusively for women. Examples include Fedora Women and Debian Women. When women face discrimination and misogyny, these spaces allow them to reach out to other women and seek social and emotional support. Women mentor and coach each other to explore the toxicity of the tech industry and find ways to support gender equality.
Additionally, we’ve found that women flourish when supported by community guidelines, such as codes of conduct for online spaces, personal events, and professional organizations. We found that codes of conduct often become advocacy tools for the equal treatment of women in online open source software communities. They act as tools for both women and allies.
When women are supported by mentors and allies and can network in their communities, and when they see role models who seem to be succeeding in tech communities, they are less likely to quit. The retention problem can be addressed by addressing the tech industry’s gender disparities with online and physical spaces that focus on women, policies and practices that ensure equal treatment of women, and female mentors and role models.
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Reference: The retention problem: Women go to tech, but also get kicked out (2023, March 3) retrieved March 5, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-retention-problem-women-tech-driven . html
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