Women in Tech: Keys to Retention

Companies should focus on these critical factors in order to retain women working in IT.

April 17, 2017

4 Min Read
Network Computing logo

For the last 30 years, corporations have been working on hiring more women into high tech. But the statistics for women in technology roles haven’t changed for the positive, and have even gotten worse. A report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) cites studies showing that the quit rate for women in the technology field is more than twice as high for women (41%) than it is for men (17%) and 56% of women leave organizations at mid career. These figures are consistent with findings from the  Anita Borg Institute. Furthermore, self-reporting by major tech companies shows minimal progress, according to news reports.

In response, companies have launched all kinds of programs and are investing significant finances to attempt to address these statistics. As McKinsey & Company reports, lack of diversity impacts the corporation’s bottom line. Teams with a diverse perspectives improve innovation and, ultimately, financial performance.

The tech industry and academia have collectively focused on trying to get more women into STEM fields and thus into tech careers (a.k.a. “the pipeline”) as well as creating better benefits. While this is commendable, it's not enough to retain women on high tech teams. Through my own research, I’ve concluded that the new problem involves retaining women on a high-tech team once they are there. In other words, it’s in the guts of daily life.

Uncovering what’s really going on

While documenting the exodus of women, none of the published research that I have found provides an informed, actionable framework to guide organizations trying to retain women. Recognizing the lack of knowledge, my team and I launched a study in 2013. Starting with in-depth field interviews, we talked to successful women in high tech, ages late 20s to 50s. We wanted first to identify factors keeping women engaged in the job, and then see if the lack of these factors leads to dissatisfaction.



Our inquiry focused on daily work experience, including teamwork, meetings, management interactions, support, and promotions. Using these emerging themes, we created a survey to validate the factors and produced a measure of daily work experience. To date, we have analyzed data from several hundred women, including those who left a high-tech job. Taken together, we uncovered a framework for understanding the challenges and desires of women in technology. We called it the @Work Action Framework.

Critical factors for retention

In brief, the @Work Action Framework cites the most important factors for companies to focus on if they want to retain women working in technology:

  • A dynamic, team where members feel valued. Women thrive in a dynamic work-focused team and/or partnerships. They lead, follow, feel valued, and can talk about life outside of work.

  • A stimulating project. Women love working on challenging technical problems, products, or research questions important to the company, the industry, or the world. They switch jobs when bored.

  • “The Push” with support. Women may not feel qualified for the next challenge. But when pushed by managers or colleagues who support them, they take it on and succeed.

  • Local role models. Women need coaching relationships in their organization that help them navigate work and encourage them to seek promotion.

  • Nonjudgmental flexibility. Women with children thrive if the team and managers strategize ways to flex to everyone’s life demands. Women don’t want to feel judged for family demands. Flexibility shows value.

  • Personal power. Women can have self-doubt about their skills, readiness, and value. With positive feedback, helpful critique, clear expectations, and good coaching, self-esteem increases.

In order to improve retention, employers and individuals can design changes in work procedures and methods, team interaction, how women are managed, what encourages advancement, and how women are coached to maintain their personal power.

By using the @Work Action Framework for viewing the life of women on product and IT teams, we can identify actions we can take to turn the tide. For example, my student team and I are developing games to help women network, collaborate, and create awareness of career choices. We borrow Agile’s team manifesto to help people create and monitor values. We share our team techniques that help modulate individual differences. Together, this can build awareness and change behavior.

I challenge myself and all of us to start talking about retention solutions. We have documented the problem enough. Now let’s expand our impact into daily life at work.

Karen Holtzblatt, Ph.D., is the CEO of InContext Design and a Research Scientist at the University of Maryland. A pioneer in user-centered design who has been recognized by industry awards, and a consultant to many Fortune 500 companies, Karen is now focusing on the issue of women in high-tech companies in order to understand why women leave the field. Karen will be speaking at the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference (@WIEILC) May 23 about retaining women in high tech. Connect with Karen @kholtzblatt.


Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights