The Tech Sector Needs More Women; Here's How You Can Make It Happen

Despite years of continuous discussion and a number of high profile female leaders, most Silicon Valley technology companies still lack widespread diversity. Women remain sparsely represented at venture capital firms, in corporate boardrooms and in executive suites – and they remain a distinct minority among rank-and-file programmers and engineers. Sadly, the situation simply is not improving. But there’s a way forward – and women in tech business can make it happen.

Back in 2008, in a report called the Athena Factor, the Center for Work-Life Policy found that while there was a robust pipeline of women interested in tech careers, more than half eventually abandoned their chosen profession. Earlier this year, an update to the report found some changes in the environment, but little overall improvement.

On the one hand, opportunity abounds: demand for tech talent is intensifying and qualified candidates are in short supply. And yet, the report found that many women in tech still find barriers to success, with almost a third expecting to quit their current jobs within a year.

What makes that so frustrating is that surveys show college-aged women are quite interested in tech careers. Many women start careers in the industry but quickly leave. What happens to all those passionate young women, curled up on dorm room couches writing code?

Sadly, attrition rates for women in tech are more than twice that of men. Nearly 60% of qualified female scientists, engineers and technologists are working in their chosen fields when they’re 25-34. But after that, women start leaving tech jobs in droves – for women 45-60, the number still working in tech falls below 40%, the 2008 Athena report shows.

Departures accelerate when women are in their mid-30s. Experts have a name for the phenomenon: “the scissors,” the point on a graph where the line showing the percentage of male tech workers at a particular job level increases, while the percentage of female workers falls.

What’s happening at “the scissors” point is no secret. Women have had one or two children, and work and family pressures are ratcheting up. But the problem doesn’t begin there. Women make decisions much earlier, in their 20s, that affect their careers once they have children.

If young women and those of us in the industry who support them realized what happens to push women off their career paths, we might be able to forestall some of those departures. I see women facing three kinds of pressures: financial, societal and environmental.

First there’s the money issue – there are powerful systemic financial pressures at play. It starts with the fact that the U.S. lacks affordable day care options: the monthly cost exceeds average rents in all 50 states. Many women crunch the numbers and choose to stay at home.

The financial pressures women face are compounded by social issues. When women marry and have babies, we’re immersed in life beyond ourselves, and an enormous sense of responsibility kicks in. Then comes the self-doubt. I hear women say, in one way or another, “I don’t know if I can devote myself to my husband and children, and balance work full-time.” As a result, many married women end up the lower-earning spouse because of decisions they make in their 20s, opting for less challenging, lower-paying positions than their partners. Whatever their motivations, those choices affect incomes.

Finally, there’s the environment. Women who don’t have a supportive partner and a work environment that embraces their role as working mothers are more likely to drop out.

So what can we do?

There are significant steps companies and society can take to reduce and then eliminate the powerful institutional bias that allows these issues to flourish and which hold women back. But institutions and society are created by people and I want to focus my message on the young women and the entrepreneurs and executives who might be mentoring them.

The message is as simple as it is profound – if fully appreciated early in the careers of young women. Just be aware that the pressures of career and family will be harder than you know. Not everyone will choose to prioritize work over family. But those who strive to prioritize both need to make wise decisions in their 20s to have more freedom later.

Here’s my advice to tech savvy young women entering the workforce:

• If you have the luxury of choice, opt for more demanding work that will allow you to earn more income and get a better job at a better company. If you want to continue working after you have children, you need sufficient growth in your career early, so that you can afford the childcare you want.

• Look for people and places that will support you, and don’t wait until you’re pregnant. Can you call in to a meeting? Will the CEO mind if your phone rings during a face-to-face (we all try to avoid this, but it will happen)? What are the maternity policies like? The 2014 Athena report suggests creating a system of coaches, or sponsors. “Sponsors help their protégés crack the unwritten code of executive presence, improving their chances of being perceived as leadership material. Most important to the companies employing them, sponsors help women get their ideas heard.”

• Be wary of working part-time. No one I ever knew who took part-time status actually worked much less. Part-time status cuts your responsibility and pay, but not necessarily the time you spend working.

• Also know the risks of taking off more than a few months at a time. Women who leave their careers for a year or more need to understand how hard it is to come back to the workforce – that’s especially true in technology, where so much can change in a matter of months.

• Recognize that your career is valuable, too. The years when your children are babies are both fleeting and precious. As a mother, leaving the house in the morning was the hardest part of my day. But this argument cuts both ways. When you’re making your decisions, know that leaving the workforce at a critical juncture in your career, will cost you more than most people are willing to say.

Finally, a bit of advice for women in that moment of vulnerability: Just try to make it work for a little while. I’ve seen many women climb ladders in tech, and some step off before giving it a shot. The Athena report shows that many women leave the workforce – and therefore simply can’t move up the ranks professionally.

I tell the young women in my life, for example, that if you are thinking through the questions about income, day-care costs and whether you can be a mother and a career star, just try to make it work for a couple of months. You’ve come this far. And we need you. Chances are you’ll be able to be both a great mom and a great career woman. The rewards are immense, and not just in terms of professional success.

I’ve spent a lot of time advocating for women professionally, and what I have realized is that we as women, mothers, mentors to young women, have the power to improve the data. If we create the examples of women having long-tenured tech careers, we will create the momentum that is needed to really see substantial numbers of women move up the ranks.

We teach our daughters by our example: Prepare, be tough and be smart about money. Your career is worth protecting.

Juliet de Baubigny is a partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (@KPCB). She advises the firm’s portfolio companies on executive leadership, recruiting, compensation, corporate governance and team-building.