Women Leave Tech Jobs Because They Can’t Climb the Ladder

It’s the glass ceiling, not work/life balance, that is pushing women out of tech, study finds

3 min read
Illustration of a woman who cannot climb a ladder that goes no further, while a man climbs a ladder that extends high up.
Illustration: Eva Bee/Getty Images

While companies tout their diversity programs aimed at attracting women to tech, the percentage of women with computer science careers has fallen in recent years, and women leave the field at a much higher rate than men.

There have been a number of theories about why that is true. Sexual harassment has gotten a lot of recent attention. Then there’s a 2016 study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation that suggested the problem is that men have all the fun—or at least an overwhelming share of it—while women in tech end up with the grunt tasks. Others have pointed to work-life balance as the culprit.

This week, job-search firm Indeed released its analysis of the problem. According to a survey Indeed conducted of 1,000 women in tech, it’s the glass ceiling that’s pushing them out—or, less colloquially, the “lack of career growth/trajectory.”

Twenty-eight percent of the respondents cited career-growth issues as a reason they left their last jobs, making it the No. 1 answer. Issues with work-life balance and concerns about a company’s culture were far lower on the list. Twelve percent of respondents found sexual harassment to be a challenge, but not a specific reason to quit.

The fact that there is a glass ceiling in tech is no surprise, even though, as YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, “Men have no special skills that enable them to run technology companies. There are just way more of them, and they’re more aggressive about getting to the next level.”

According to the Indeed survey, only 53 percent of respondents believe they will have the same chance of entering their company’s senior leadership ranks as their male peers.

The lack of advancement of women to leadership roles is particularly affecting women between the ages of 25 to 34, the Indeed study suggested; 27 percent of the respondents in that age group cited it as a major challenge they face in their careers, compared with 20 percent of respondents overall. Younger women also have a big issue with the lack of female leadership in general. Twenty-four percent indicated that they are likely to leave a job because of the lack of female leaders at the company.

Salaries are another reason women in tech are dissatisfied. While one in three respondents cited the salary as an important factor when weighing a job offer, nearly half of the respondents to the Indeed survey (46 percent) said they believe their male peers get paid more than they do. Crucially, only 53 percent feel that they dare ask for a promotion or raise to rectify the disparity.

Of all the problems highlighted by the Indeed report, this is probably the one most easily fixed; 76 percent of the respondents said salary transparency would be very helpful.

More detailed data is below.

Reasons women cite for leaving their last job, according to Indeed’s survey of 1,000 women

Lack of career growth/trajectory 28.10%
Slow salary growth 24.60%
Poor management 24.40%
Other 22.50%
Bored or not challenged in my role 15.70%
The work-life balance did not fit my lifestyle 14.40%
Company culture was not a fit 11.90%
I did not leave voluntarily 7.90%
I have never left a job 7.10%
Limited mentorship 5.00%
Inadequate parental leave benefits 2.30%

Career challenges faced by women, according to Indeed’s survey of 1,000 women

Wage growth 45%
Bias or discrimination (gender, age, ethnicity, etc.) 23%
I have not faced any challenges in my career to date 23%
Inability to break into management or leadership roles 20%
Switching to another career 19%
Coming back after a long absence (such as maternity leave, or after taking time off to be a primary caregiver) 17%
Sexual harassment 12%
Other 3%
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After months of blood, toil, tears, and sweat, we can all expect a much better year

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Photo-illustration: Edmon de Haro

Last January in this space we wrote that “technology doesn't really have bad years." But 2020 was like no other year in recent memory: Just about everything suffered, including technology. One shining exception was biotech, with the remarkably rapid development of vaccines capable of stemming the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year's roundup of anticipated tech advances includes an examination of the challenges in manufacturing these vaccines. And it describes how certain technologies used widely during the pandemic will likely have far-reaching effects on society, even after the threat subsides. You'll also find accounts of technical developments unrelated to the pandemic that the editors of IEEE Spectrum expect to generate news this year.

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