For insight into the tech sector’s yawning gender gap, consider an exchange that occurred last fall at a conference organized by Geekwire, Seattle’s top tech news site.
A panel discussion was organized around the question: “Who is responsible for managing work-life balance?” The three panelists were all former managers from Amazon, a company so dismissive of its employees’ lives outside of work, according to an earlier investigation by The New York Times, that female employees often felt punished for becoming pregnant and new parents who weren’t birth mothers received no paternity leave.
So it was only a matter of time before the discussion touched a nerve. When panelist Sandi Lin, a former senior recruiting executive at Amazon, said she thought “it’s a fallacy that the company is responsible completely for an employee’s burnout status,” an audience member yelled out, “Yes, you are!”
Lin didn’t respond to the heckler, according to a Geekwire account, and the discussion moved on. But the disagreement, however brief, gets to the heart of one of the biggest questions in tech: to what extent are issues around work-life balance driving women out of the industry as fast as recruiters can find replacements, and what should companies do about it?
The numbers are stark. By the time a women in tech hits her mid-thirties (the age when her male co-workers can expect to see their careers taking off) she’s likely to be considering her exit. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, 41 percent of female tech employees will leave the industry after their tenth year on the job, compared with just 17 percent of men.
Tech firms don’t publicly discuss how female churn is impacting their bottom lines. But it’s probably not a coincidence that the industry is now scrambling to slow the exodus of female workers — or that even Amazon and Microsoft, firms known for taking a dim view toward work-life balance, recently improved their family leave policies.
Work-life balance isn’t the only driver of high churn rates among women. According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee survey, the single biggest reason women exit the tech sector is because they resent being paid less, and promoted more slowly, than their male counterparts. Amazon, for example, has been resisting calls by an activist investor to publicly report on its gender pay gaps, possibly because the numbers aren’t good.
Tech is also infamous for a male-dominated culture prone to overt displays of sexism – the scantily clad female dancers hired to entertain a Microsoft event last week, for example – and countless slights of the more subtle variety. It’s “death by a thousand cuts”, says Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Fizzmint and lead author of the new book, Women In Tech.
But, without question, a central problem with this male-dominated culture may be its tone-deafness on work-life balance. As tech workers get older and “life” starts to morph into “family life”, the balancing act can become trickier for women seeking to start families than for men. While working mothers in every sector struggle to balance work and family, tech’s notorious emphasis on long hours and intensive focus may make the struggle especially acute. In fact, stress over “work-life integration” and a desire for more time with family was second only to pay-and-promotion as a factor in women’s early exit from tech, according to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study.
Working moms — both former and current tech employees — say it’s not simply the stress of juggling work and family commitments. There is also the fear that, simply because they are working moms (or have merely entered their thirties), they’re automatically treated as a “maternity risk” by managers who have become accustomed to workers willing to work around the clock.
“It’s not necessarily conscious bias,” says a Seattle-area mom who has worked at Microsoft and Amazon. “But if you’re a team manager building a team that is shipping a product that is ‘24 by 7’ and you have choice between a woman who is approaching her thirties and a man who is right out of college, you’re thinking, ‘in two years, this woman could be having a baby and I will have turnover, whereas this dude will always be available.’”
Given the issues churn can create for a company’s bottom line, it’s hardly surprising that tech firms have been getting more serious about making female workers feel more welcome. Microsoft has discontinued its controversial “stack ranking” process for employees, for example, which critics say led to women being promoted less frequently. Last year, both Microsoft and Amazon upgraded their policies around maternity leave. Microsoft now offers up to 20 weeks paid leave for new mothers and 12 weeks for other parents. Amazon offers up to 20 paid weeks for “birth mothers” and up to six paid weeks for “all other new parents.”
These family-leave improvements weren’t exactly groundbreaking. Google, for example, was offering eighteen weeks paid maternity leave and twelve weeks of paternity leave back in 2007. For some observers, Microsoft and Amazon’s tardiness reflects company cultures that have never been particularly sensitive to the life side of the work-life equation – former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, for example, once told employees that his own approach to work-life balance was to “give one hundred percent to work and a hundred percent to life,” recalls an ex-Microsoft employee.
The two firms are stepping up their game “likely because they have to,” says Pamela Sampel, a former tech industry executive and human resources specialist who now works as a leadership coach.
“The churn issue really is about the fact that qualified people have way more choices than they once had and so truly it’s like a buyer’s market. If women don’t like what they receive as an offer, or if they don’t like how they are treated, or if the benefits and culture don’t measure up, well, there simply are many more choices now — especially in a place like Seattle that has become a tech hub.”
The potential upside of these changes seems high. When Google raised its maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, the company saw the attrition rate for new mothers fall by half.
But Google succeeded in part because maternity leave was a central piece of the company’s culture from the very beginning, according to Susan Wojcicki, who was four-months pregnant when she joined the start-up in 1999. “At the time the company had no revenue and only 15 employees, almost all of whom were male,” writes Wojcicki, now CEO of YouTube, in the Wall Street Journal. “Joining a startup pregnant with my first child was risky, but (co-founders) Larry and Sergey assured me I’d have their support.” She became Google’s first employee to take maternity leave.
Achieving that sort of success in other large tech companies will take more than a generous maternity leave. Because technology changes so rapidly, employees in the industry are under pressure to continuously upgrade their skills and knowledge — a worrying fact for women considering an extended leave. “The business changes so fast,” says Liv, a Bellevue-based coder and quality-assurance tech who returned to work after her first child to find herself far behind her co-workers. “It was like, I wasn’t here for three months and now I’ve got to play catch-up…And it’s very hard to play catch up when you have a three month old at home.”
In fact, that perception — that new mothers will struggle to keep up in a tech firm — encourages some women to downplay their family life or their caretaker role to avoid being judged by their managers. “I don’t want to make a big deal of the fact that I’m a mother,” says Susan, a new mother who works for a Seattle-area developer. “I try not to bring that up because I do feel like there will be this perception that I won’t be able to put in as much time as a male counterpart.”
One former Microsoft worker tells me she felt the need to hide her pregnancy from her managers for months. Once she was “out of the closet,” her managers were much more understanding than she expected. But the fear that led to her secrecy can be pervasive. “You just don’t want to stand out” as a mother, she says.
To overcome these anxieties and potential biases, tech firms are experimenting with ways make it easier to return after time away. Amazon, for example, has a new program, called Ramp Back, which allows new parents to gradually increase their workload when they return. Other companies allow parents to schedule their work around their kids. Liz Morgan, a single mother who works as a recruiting professional for California-based LinkedIn, says the company allows her not only to work remotely (she lives in the Seattle area) but provides the opportunity to have a flexible work schedule when needed.
Given that many of the tech industry’s moves on work-life balance have come so recently, it won’t be clear for years whether these attempted cultural shifts are effective. But local tech executives will be watching for changes in at least two specific areas.
First, the industry needs to better emphasize the responsibilities of male parents. Although many companies are offering more paternity leave, new mothers get way more time off than new fathers do – 20 weeks for new “birth mothers” at Amazon versus six weeks for “other new parents.” There are physiological reasons for this, but it also helps sustain the idea that family issues are mainly for women to deal with. The tech industry needs to make paternity leave so normal that “it’s no longer considered culturally acceptable to not take time off, regardless of gender,” says John Vechey, CEO and co-founder of Pluto VR, a Ballard-based virtual reality startup.
Despite his leadership role at a busy startup, Vechey plans to take leave when his second child is born. Ultimately, he wants to see that practice become so routine that it’s longer a question of “‘Oh, you’re a women and you feel bad about taking time off.’ Instead, it’s just (that) all people take time off when you have a baby. That’s just what you do.”
Second, the tech industry needs to recalibrate its assumptions around motherhood and work productivity. Companies “need to change the narrative around young mothers,” says Anne Krook, who worked at Amazon in a number of leadership positions, who works as a consultant, mentor, and trainer for graduate students on the non-academic job market.
“I actually like hiring women with young children because in my experience, no one knows the value of a half hour better than the mother of a young child. It may be true that the twenty-year-old guys are happy to work until midnight on Friday. But they also think it’s totally fine to have a Nerf war in the office, and women with young children do not fart around like that. They are much more efficient. And they are brutal prioritizers.”
Krook and others suspect that some of this new narrative will emerge as the tech sector reassesses long-standing assumptions about long hours and productivity, and collects more data about the bottom-line value of diverse teams and collaborative work strategies. But these reassessments will need to be nudged along.
Morgan, the LinkedIn recruiter, argues that individual women will need to do some of the nudging, by demonstrating to their managers that a work schedule built around parenting doesn’t hurt workflow. “Companies can implement these policies,” Morgan says, “but it really is up to individuals to make those policies work for them, and to speak up when there is too much work or responsibility or you need more flexibility.”
There also needs to be trust that senior managers are sincerely behind the new work-life rhetoric — trust that depends, in part, on the forcefulness of signals from top leadership. That’s a dilemma. Because while younger CEOs, such as Vechey at Pluto VR or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – who recently took two months of leave when his daughter was born – seem anxious to improve industry norms on work-life balance, it’s not clear that a Jeff Bezos or a Satya Nadella shares that sense of urgency, given how relatively slowly their respective firms have moved on these issues.
And yet, the longer established tech firms take to translate correct-sounding corporate policy into meaningful, on-the-ground cultural reality, the further behind these firms may fall in the escalating talent war.
That point was driven home by the Geekwire panel last fall. Shortly after Geekwire posted an account of the panel discussion, a commenter wrote to “thank” Amazon, Microsoft, and other Seattle tech firms for being such unresponsive employers: the steady exodus of burned-out tech workers, the commenter noted, was creating a huge pool of new hires for the commenter’s company.
By offering these refugees a work environment where they “can actually engage in family activities and have kids,” the commenter noted, “I get an employee with a good work ethic … and I don’t have to pay to relocate them as they’re already in Seattle.”
“Thanks to those companies in Seattle that have no concept of a work-life balance. Don’t know what I would do without you.”
Paul Roberts is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Washington Post, Newsweek, New Republic, and more. His latest book, “The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification,” was published by Bloomsbury USA last year. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amazon HQ construction photo by Flickr user Sunrisesoup.