The Glass Ceiling Is Made of Bad Managers

Statistics from the US tell us that more than half of women in STEM leave around the 10/15 year mark. Specifically within the tech industry 40% drop out within 10 years of graduation. The problem is mirrored here and is problematic on a number of counts, especially as both the US and the UK face shortages of technical people.

A tech giant released their diversity numbers last week, prompting a media frenzy which resulted in one of of the co-authors of this blog spending these 3 minutes on Channel 4.

Not much can be said in 3 minutes. Perhaps we can both fit more into this blog.

Statistics from the US tell us that more than half of women in STEM leave around the 10/15 year mark. Specifically within the tech industry 40% drop out within 10 years of graduation. The problem is mirrored here and is problematic on a number of counts, especially as both the US and the UK face shortages of technical people.

Girls dropping out of STEM from the age of 5 is one part of the problem. Retaining the women who make it past the first set of 'pipeline leakages' is equally important part. Work done with young girls (as per the Stemettes) is important to boost the numbers entering. In becoming Stemettes they've decided to join an incredibly creative industry where their efforts at problem-solving are literally changing the world as we know it, and where as an added bonus they'll be paid on average 33% more than their non-STEM counterparts.

A study some years back found 5 main reasons for the attrition.

  1. Machismo and a culture that makes women feel unwelcome.
  2. Isolation.
  3. Opaque career path as a result of the lack of mentors and sponsors
  4. Rewarding risky behaviour
  5. Work life balance.

Many companies focus on the second and fifth, with good reason. It's a quick win to help women feel less isolated by setting up women's networks and to institute policies that will help women manage their work lives and their home lives.

We're going to focus on the third reason, the lack of sponsors and mentors. In the tech industry, there is a well covered problem of poor management and only in the tech industry would the idea of getting to know your reports as human beings be considered an innovative approach.

We reckon that it is harder for women to survive a bad manager, for three main reasons.

Reason 1: Stereotype Threat

If you want to make a woman perform worse on a maths test, there's an easy way - have her identify her gender on the front. This also works for black students in maths, and white men shooting hoops. This is called Stereotype Threat, and is covered thoroughly in the book Whistling Vivaldi.

There is no one kind of Bad Manager, but some of the (many) habits of Bad Managers are undermining, lack of support for their reports, refusing to pass on positive feedback or opportunities... we could list more. In exhibiting these behaviors, they actually reinforce for women (and other minorities) all of the reasons why they don't really belong, and shouldn't really be there. This is Stereotype Threat.

Reason 2: Broader Networking

A woman's network tends to be broader than a man's - by including more people at other companies - whereas men's networks reach further upwards. This means that women are less likely to have sponsors to advocate for them, and actually end up complaining of being over-mentored. Ironically, this makes it easier for women to move, leave Bad Manager behind, and go on to be successful at other companies, including non-technology ones.

A recent piece of research found that the qualities women sought in mentors and sponsors differed from men. This had a knock-on effect on what mentors and sponsors actually did for a woman's career. Finding the right kind of sponsor to mitigate against a Bad Manager is critical, and it's something that we try to instill with pre-career girls on the Student to Stemette mentoring programme.

Reason 3: Bad Experiences with no outlet

63% of women in STEM report having experienced sexual harassment [source], and women fear - rationally - reporting this because they face having their concerns ignored, victim blaming, and firing (here's someanecdotal data). It's such a problem that groups like the Ada Initiative have been set up solely to tackle it in subsets of the industry.

We have a bystander problem which includes Bad Managers. They allow their female reports to be casually undermined, don't protect them when they are harassed, ignore concerns when are raised, or just aren't considered safe to raise the concerns to. GitHub recently had a very public education in this: a recent blogpost on improving their diversity and culture contains the observation "If people feel like they can't speak up, you'll never hear what they have to say, and you'll never know they're not saying it."

First and foremost, as women in STEM, we're problem solvers - here are three solutions to the above. They are ideas for turning a glass ceiling of Bad Managers into an accessible rooftop of Managers, and perhaps Good Managers, who allow great talent in all of its forms to surface and flourish.

The 3 ways to Retain

1. Have exit interviews and LISTEN to them. There's every incentive to gloss over the facts in an exit interview, especially if you think that you might want to come back some day. Frame questions positively, such as "What kind of things were you looking for in this new role?" - because people look to address the things that they were most unhappy about, or "What did you need 6 months ago to stay?", because leaving isn't an overnight process.

2. Have a sponsorship "quota". Have all of your leaders independently find employees in an under-represented groups, get to know them, and then advocate and support at least one of them. High performing minorities might even get more than one sponsor. This has the power to be transformational of these people's careers, and of the diversity of your organization. Every success with diversity shows that there might not be a lot of women and under-minorities, but if you go looking you find extraordinary talent. Go looking.

3. Foster retention programmes with the same fervour that you foster recruitment programmes. Returnerships, women's networks and diverse speaker series are great, especially when they support actionable personal development programs that don't just gloss over structural inequality or provide platitudes ("be more assertive!"). Highlight their achievements to provide visible role models, internally and externally - this will help them find sponsors. Have a clear plan for how you will develop under-represented groups within your organization.


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