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GHC15: It’s Not Just the Pipeline: Why Fixing the Culture is Essential

I was drawn to the GHC15 session “It’s Not Just the Pipeline: Why Fixing the Culture is Essential” after experiencing oh-so-much in my first three years as an industry professional.  Making it through a Computer Science major in college wasn’t exactly easy and I was staunchly defiant that any of those so-called women’s problems could actually impact me.

I’m bossy, aggressive, blunt, honest, and impostor syndrome is something I relate to, but not in a significant way.  What I wasn’t prepared for was an industry culture that wasn’t prepared for me.

As part of the GHC15 Organizational Change track, Nadya Fouad spoke on what drives women out of tech.  Nadya is a Distinguished Professor and Department Chair of Educational Psychology at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She focused on a study that she worked on answering the question: why do half of women in the tech industry leave the tech industry?

Nadya introduces the basics: that women comprised more than 20% of engineering school graduates in the past two decades, but 11% of practicing engineers are women.  Engineering has the highest turnover compared to other skilled professions (accounting, law, medicine, and high education).

Aside: Nadya explained that out of everything she’s done, this is the subject that hit a nerve with the public and has entered popular culture.

Why is this happening?

Nadya kick off the presentation by referening the XKCD comic explaining how women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineer and Math) are unwilling spokespeople on behalf of their entire gender.

The Study:
Project on Women Engineer’s Retention (POWER): Study Site and method
– 3 year NSF finded longitudinal study
– Formally partnered with top 30 universities with the highest number of women engineering graduates
– As of August 2013, over 5,700 women responded to the survey with 5,303 usable responses
– Thousands of women added comments at the end of survey
– Women asked to self-identify as engineers

The Results:
– 11% of women graduated and never entered the field
– 21% of women left over 5 years ago, two-thirds left to pursue other opportunities, one-third left for family reasons.
– The statistics look the same across ethnic backgrounds
– No differences in self-confidence, outcomes expected and interests between women who stayed and those who left
– There were differences in perceived opportunities for advancement, management and other environmental factors

The Comments:
– Lack of job satisfaction
– Inflexible work schedule
– Male-dominated culture
– Lack of a potential career path

So, are women leaving or are they being pushed out?  Nadya believes that women are being pushed out.

What does a flight risk look like?
– Excessive workload, conflicting work demands, unclear expectations about work goals and standards
– Undermining behaviors by managers and co-workers
– Companies that value face time
– Lack of training and development, lack of support, lack of opportunities

I can definitely relate to the “unclear expectations about work goals and standards” problem.  For an entry level employee, unclear expectations are a death sentence.  In my case, I had management that knew to at least talk-the-talk of being supportive and the checklist of things they should be supportive about.  What was lacking (severely) was communication, proper project planning or expectations about anything. I had a manager that had never been a developer before who would skip out on his own sprint planning.  The developers would sit around and kind of guess at what we were supposed to be doing, sometimes based on an e-mail or offline conversation with our manager, and we usually (more like always) did not deliver what was planned in the sprint.

Nadya flips flips the question: Why do engineers stay?

In a small study, about 600 people, Nadya explores some reasons why men and women stay.  As you can predict, a lot of why people stay are the opposite reasons of why people leave.

What predicts engagement?
– Workload management, not having conflicting requirements.
– Feeling psychologically safe at work.
– Supportive leaders.
– Fair and transparent promotion and mobility policies, avenues
– Equitable developmental opportunities.
– Supportive work-life policies and culture.

Nadya outlines a number of areas in which women’s perceptions different greatly from men.  Supervisory undermining, psychological safety, thinking about leaving and their overall fit are all areas in which women had more negative perceptions than men.

What can we do?
Zero tolerance for bullying, incivility at work.  (I am really, really tired of bullying being tolerated.)
– Supportive interpersonal relations.  (Can we stop calling each other idiots behind each other’s backs?)
– Work-life balance, and more.

And the formal recommendations for sparking change–What can organizations do to retain and engage engineers?
1. Recognize the problem
2. Change starts from the top
3. Implement system-wide changes
4. Implement role-level changes

Nadya quips that as a professor, students do not study for anything that is not on the test.  Hold management accountable by reviewing them.  Too often high-level leadership positions declare goals that their lower-level management is not held accountable for.

(My thoughts: So does this all boil down to management?)

The talk ended and Nadya opened up the audience to Q&A.

Nadya answered a question by sharing a personal story.  She was asked to talk to a large defense contractor in a fix-the-women kind of a way.  The defense contractor wanted to know why women weren’t climbing up the ladder.  The women asked: “Why would they want to follow this path?” when the men were not pleasant to work with.  The men did not do the work to figure out why women were leaving in the first place–they just wanted a band-aid for the problem.

If you see something, say something–men and women.  The best thing that men can do for women.

How do you address casual sexism as opposed to blatant sexism?  Nadya thinks that there is a skill set that needs to be developed to handle these situations.  It’s not easy, and I thought of Clara Shih’s advise during yesterday’s Wednesday Plenary.  Don’t overact and develop a skill set to handle the inevitable adversity.

An audience member shared her story with Google that she struggled to get back to work after having her second child.  Google had a lot of resources for people leaving on maternity leave, but none for coming back. Google suggested that she start a grass roots effort–Nadya cut her off and said, “Am I getting this right?  You just had a second child and they asked you to start the effort?”  Nadya stressed that they shouldn’t be asking women impacted by the problem to run the effort.

I couldn’t agree with this more–the idea that the burden of change falls on the shoulders of women.  I’ve done it and it’s tiring and exhausting.  And as an entry level employee, it was pretty much impossible for all of this extra work to make a dent in anything.  Leadership said this or that was nice and they would definitely take this into consideration (nothing happens).

A woman from Amazon shared a story that she had recently left (was forced out) of a company due to bullying from other women.  She weathered the storm because, in her words, has “a big ego.”  The woman expressed concern for women that did not have the confidence to stick it out.  Her previous company’s management and HR did nothing because they didn’t know what to do.  Nadya didn’t have specific advise, other than referencing Mean Girls, but it’s a problem.

Another woman shared that she was tired of companies not giving dedicated roles to making cultural changes within a company.  It’s exhausting when technical women are asked to put extra effort into making cultural changes but are not paid more or reviewed on their performance in that area.

And another woman shared a story that was all too familiar with something I experienced last year.  Have we learned anything?

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This post was syndicated from Tech Girl Solutions: Finding the Female Engineer.