Fixing the Leaky Bucket: What Tech Companies Must Do to Retain Their Best Female Talent

There's plenty of talk in the tech industry about increasing the number of women employed, about the challenges in hiring women, about improving the pipeline by sparking an interest in science and technology among girls who might later enter the field.

Last week, OneLogin platform engineer Isis Wenger became the face of a widely reported effort by her employer in its recruitment of a more diverse engineer base. And on Aug. 4, no less than President Barack Obama announced the importance of diversity among entrepreneurs of startups at "White House Demo Day," inviting them "to 'demo' their individual success stories and show why we need to give every American the opportunity to pursue their bold, game-changing ideas."

Some companies have made admirable, recent improvement in these areas:

- Pinterest, already one of the leaders in tech for hiring women, last week announced its 2016 diversity goals because, as CEO Evan Sharp put it, most big tech companies have made little progress on hiring more women and minorities, which he attributed to the fact "that companies haven't stated specific goals."
- Etsy's approach to encouraging more women to go through Hacker School, and to hiring many junior developers who completed the program, has resulted in Etsy's tech team seeing its female membership rise from 6 percent to 31 percent in just two years, the company reported last fall.
- In 2014, women at the University of California, Berkeley, outnumbered men enrolled in an introduction to computer science course for likely the first time ever, Wired reported.

While encouraging, these signs overlook an essential if not alarming part of the gender diversity struggle. Women are leaving the tech industry because they feel unfulfilled and unsupported. (And Silicon Valley's reputation as a boys network endures, as underscored by the recent news of a "Twitter Frat House" party held while the company was contending with a gender-discrimination lawsuit.) No amount of energy dedicated to hiring more women makes a difference in company cultures when current female employees slip through the cracks.

Culture Amp recently analyzed data collected from 40,000 employees at more than 70 tech companies to determine what drives women to remain in their current roles, and how these drivers differ between men and women. Because Culture Amp surveys collect data anonymously, employees are free to more candidly respond than normal.

The data showed that only 55 percent of women saw themselves staying at their current company for the next two years. Similar results surfaced in a 2014 report from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a research think tank, that showed that women were "45 percent more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year," the Washington Post reported.

The message is clear: We need to support the women already in our industry in finding rewarding, long-term careers. How else can we expect to improve diversity in the future? If we continue expanding our pipelines so more young women are joining the tech industry, who will they have as mentors and role models if established women in tech are leaving in droves?

It's time for companies to accept and address the cultural shortcomings and to start working with female employees to fix them.

Why women are leaving tech roles

In some cases, the differences between male and female priorities at work are striking, which is important to know as we adjust our cultures to respond to the needs of men and women. For women, salary is the 26th most important retention driver, whereas for men it ranks as the third most important. This doesn't mean women don't care about their income - and salary parity is something we should focus on to improve gender equality within our companies - but it does show the contrast in how much men and women care about the same things. If a male employee is thinking about leaving, a pay increase may make a difference in him staying. With women, there are 25 other not-so-trivial factors that are likely to be more important to anyone who's thinking of quitting.

The top five retention drivers for women that emerged from Culture Amp's data were good career opportunities, confidence in company leaders, satisfaction with their current role relative to how it was described to them, open and honest communication, and belief that the company is effectively directing resources towards company goals. The results of last year's CTI report reflected similar sentiments in reporting that one-third of U.S. women in the study felt excluded from social networks at their workplaces, and 72 percent perceived a gender-based bias in their performance evaluations.

Before a manager even begins mulling over negotiating bonuses or higher salaries with women who are thinking about leaving, these areas might be worth exploring.

Gone, and gone for good

The problem is not just that women are leaving. They're not coming back, according to a 2014 survey by Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio. She reported that of the 716 women who had left the tech industry, 88 percent said they had no plans to return.

Women surveyed cited the work environment's inflexibility and lack of understanding as major reasons for leaving. Many found that having children pushed the limits of already high-pressure work scenarios to the point that they chose to quit. Some said they had to resign to have children, since their companies offered no maternity leave options.

Twenty-seven percent of women in the survey said they left due to the discomfort of working in discriminatory or homogenous environments. Often, survey participants were one of few if not the only woman on their teams. Along with the gender issues, they also cited lack of diversity in sexual orientation, age, and race.

It's important to improve the pipeline of women joining the tech industry, but focusing on growth before retention is like pouring water into a leaky bucket. And any spilt water is unlikely to find its way back into the bucket.

Keeping employees engaged

So what can you do to keep female employees happy and engaged? Here are three key options to help improve your retention rates.

1. Surveys to catch problems early - Although much of the data is compelling, it's important to remember that everyone has different needs and priorities when it comes to satisfaction at work. Using a tool such as Culture Amp to survey employees anonymously can help uncover and address employee issues before the exodus of your team members starts.

2. Improve maternity and paternity-leave options - In late 2014, Findery founder Caterina Fake had a team of 13 employees, of whom seven were women. Fake points to Findery's maternity and paternity-leave policies as one of the reasons women found the company so welcoming.

"Many think maternity leave is a significant indication that you value women's work, but having a paternity leave policy equal to that of the women on your team is just as important," Fake wrote on LinkedIn. "You're saying through your policies that caring for children and other family members (is) the responsibility of both men and women - and also that your company's work is the responsibility of both men and women."

3. Allow for part-time work and job sharing - Irene Au, former head of design at Google, Yahoo!, and Udacity, and current operating partner at Khosla Ventures, shared an example of how she helped two new mothers keep their jobs at Yahoo! by overseeing them as they shared a single work role, with each working part-time.

"They were high performers who were diligent, effective, and responsible," Au said. "They took it upon themselves to keep each other informed on all projects, so that they were essentially interchangeable from the perspectives of the teams they worked with."

Encouraging more diversity among job applicants is certainly a key to building a workforce that reflects the world we live in. And encouraging more girls to pursue careers in science and technology is just as vital.

But without a culture that supports women and responds to their legitimate needs - one that encourages them to not only remain but fosters their growth as employees - these efforts are essentially pointless. Rather than putting all of our water into the recruitment bucket, those cultural problems first need fixing if we are to prevent the further loss of key talent at any company.

Belle Beth Cooper is a co-founder of Exist and content crafter at Ghost. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBCooper.