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Tech Startups Are So Sexist They're Losing Women Who Don't Even Work There Yet

Women are already vastly underrepresented in tech, and those in the field leave mid-career at alarming rates. Can the industry afford to lose them?

Diana Tourjée

Diana Tourjée

Photo via Stocksy by Simone Becchetti

With 200,000 new tech jobs formed in 2016, there are now 6.7 million technology professionals in the United States, but not many of them are women. Since it has already been established that women are better at computer programming than men, the fact that we are notoriously underrepresented in the tech world doesn't make much sense. So what about startups? More and more of the entrepreneurial ventures are seeding in silicon valley every year, will they be where the tech tides begin to change?

Probably not. According to a recent study released by Women Who Code (WWC) in partnership with Pluralsight, women in tech don't want to work at startups at all. In fact, the majority of women in tech would rather work anywhere but a startup, the study found.

Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code, explained in an interview with Broadly that women aren't interested in startups for multiple reasons. One reason is that women put high importance on benefits that startups are less likely to offer than mid or large-sized companies. According to the study's findings, women put far higher value on flexible work schedules than benefits like stock options. Although the research didn't look at why women would value these benefits, Percival told me her opinion as someone who works with women in tech all the time: "Women are very interested in nurturing other aspects of their lives," she said.

In addition to spare time to develop other interests, Percival believes that the reason many women value flexible work hours is related to family. "I think that it gets to be even more important when a person becomes a mother," she said. Her assertion isn't particularly surprising, given the grave reality that the United States has no federally mandated maternity leave.

It is especially troubling that women don't want to work at startups because startups lead the tech industry. They're the future, where innovation and change occurs, and Percival believes that startups should want women to join their ranks. "What we want to do, especially through this report, is let those companies know—because those companies absolutely want to hire the fifty thousand technical women from our organization—let them know that these are the kinds of things that women value and if you can put them in place faster, you're more likely to attract women engineers," Percival explained.

As it is, there are forces of sexism working against women in the tech industry. Nearly half of respondents to Percival's study said that they thought it was more likely for a man to get promoted than a woman, and "women in leadership roles reported being held back by male-dominated work environments at more than twice the rate of women in mid-level positions or below." There is a lack of women leadership in tech, Percival says, because women are marginalized by passive forms of sexism that, over the course of a career, slowly edge women out completely. Overt acts of sex discrimination are less common today, but "what is far more difficult and almost insidious are the things that are subtle, the unconscious biases that really result in a kind of death by a thousand cuts," Percival explained, adding that this insidious form of sexism in the workplace is often so small "that if you complained about it you'd be 'the weird person that complained.'"

Read More: Does the Tech Industry Even Deserve Women?

This is devastating for women, but also for the tech industry at large. Women wind up dropping out of the tech industry mid-career, "when the industry needs [them] the most," according to Percival, because by then, they are more likely to have garnered "amazing experience" and have the potential to be a leader. She adds that that data shows women leaving the industry mid-career at a rate of 56 percent, which is higher than their male counterparts, and higher than the rate at which they leave other industries.

Another reason this is bad for he industry as a whole? "The data is showing that the US is going to be a million engineers shy of the market needs in the next four years," Percival said, adding that today the market is short 600,000 engineers. According to Percival, as technology advances, every industry is becoming a tech industry and that studies have shown that, eventually, 70 percent of jobs in the US will be tech related.

"So the industry literally can't afford to lose these women," Percival tells me. "[April 12th] was equal pay day, and you see all of these reports coming out that if women were paid equally, if there weren't gender-based wage gaps, that it would actually add 4.2 trillion dollars to the economy," she said, adding that there is another economic factor at play here, too. "At the local company level, when a woman is leaving the company, it [can cost] hundreds of thousands of dollars to train and replace someone at that level. So there's actual fiscal responsibility in having strong teams and supporting strong teams—that human capital piece of the company."

In addition to identifying the problems, Percival and WWC try to remedy them as well. Last year alone, WWC put on 1,500 free technical events for female tech workers in twenty countries and sixty cities around the world. "There are a lot of extremely successful and talented women [in tech] today and we encourage [them] to engage in the broader tech community," she said.