Toxic attitudes and inflexible working could be stifling careers for women in tech, particularly working mothers
It’s no secret that the tech sector suffers from a notable bias in gender representation, but new research suggests having access to desired employment benefits, and changing attitudes towards them, could be huge factors in attracting and retaining female staff.
I’ve spent almost my entire career in recruitment, and a lot of that has been in niche technology markets — the type of industry-leading tech that businesses crave so badly but can’t find the staff to operate. I’ve prided myself on being able to connect organizations with these coveted tech professionals, but that has put me in prime position to see just how few women are working in tech.
Looking at some of the leading tech providers, only 21% of the tech jobs at Twitter are held by women, while Google is only slightly greater at 23%. And while businesses have set targets to promote more women to board level, to eliminate the gender bias from the top down, this likely won’t be enough to attract a new generation of female talent.
Though having a role model in your business can inspire staff, it won’t make their day-to-day lives any easier, which is ultimately what’s holding women back. After all, women don’t just need equal pay for equal work, they should also be supported in areas of their lives that are made challenging by working a full-time job, even if men may not necessarily need the same kind of support.
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The challenges for women in tech
It may be an age-old stereotype that women are housekeepers and caregivers, but this is still true for the majority of working women; around 75% of mothers with dependent children are in work.
The reason this can introduce challenges to a woman’s career is that additional daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, caring for children and elderly family members, and everything that comes with those can add up to around 22 hours; this equates to 60% more unpaid work every week.
What’s more, women face additional discomfort throughout their careers when dealing with periods and menopause, and while it’s something they’re expected to live with, it shouldn’t be underestimated how much additional strain this can add to a workday.
While women are contracted and expected to work the same number of hours as a man, their work-life balance is so completely different.
A difference in benefit entitlement for women in tech
We recently conducted a survey of over 2,500 tech professionals and found differences in attitudes towards desired employment benefits, as well as a difference in entitlement to these benefits between the sexes.
When asked which benefits they desire most, 22% of female respondents indicated home and flexible working was important to them, compared to only 19% of men. These benefits would also influence women accepting a job offer, with 24% of females considering flexible working hours important to them, and 39% looking for home working to support their lifestyle.
Despite women wanting these benefits more than men, our research actually found women have lower entitlement to these benefits in the tech industry. Only 58% of women are offered home working, compared to 64% of men. This difference is even greater when looking at flexible working hours, where just 42% of women enjoy this benefit compared to 54% of men.
Women in tech have a comparatively lower entitlement to benefits that would introduce an element of flexibility to their working lives, improving work-life balance in the process, is hugely disappointing given the challenges they face.
Given the prevalence of burnout in the tech industry overall, not offering this kind of support to women in your organization could be an additional contributing factor. Women are already more susceptible to burnout in tech careers, often because they tend to work jobs that are lower in pay and scope than their male peers—this additional finding may help explain why so many working women are going part-time or self-employed to support their lifestyle.
A woman shouldn’t have to sacrifice her career and risk financial insecurity just so she can achieve a sustainable work-life balance; this is something her employer should be supporting her towards.
Flexibility stigma for women in tech
Having said that, a woman’s career problems aren’t automatically solved once she gets access to flexible and home working. Negative, damaging attitudes towards these benefits are discouraging professionals from leaning on them when they need to, and making them nervous about their career progression and job stability when they do.
A 2018 study by Heejung Chung, which measured sentiments towards flexible working by workers who had and hadn’t utilized the employment benefit, found perceptions that flexible working created more work for others, with 39% associating negative outcomes with a colleague working flexibly.
Those who had worked flexibly also admitted experiencing negative outcomes: 39% had faced damaging consequences as a result, and 18% believed it had harmed their career. Working mothers were the segment of people who had felt this ‘flexibility stigma’ the most.
These attitudes are, of course, archaic, as recent research on home working has actually found increased levels of engagement for professionals who spend three to four days working remotely. There also isn’t a blanket flexible working model; it’s meant to be tailored around the needs of the individual, so it’s unfair to make generalizations around something that is so bespoke.
Educate the workplace on employment benefits
Some workplaces promote a culture of ‘presenteeism’, where it’s seen as a matter of pride that you’re at your desk inside and outside of core hours, but this is an unhealthy attitude towards work. For many workplaces, particularly in the tech sector, there’s no immediate need for staff to be in the office full time, as their jobs could be performed remotely to the same standard.
Employers must take steps to change the culture of benefits in their organization. This means producing a statement of benefits making it clear and obvious what employment support is available, and encouraging staff members to lean on appropriate benefits in circumstances where they need to.
This isn’t just for working women, of course, it’s for everyone. Women should be entitled to the same benefits as the rest of the organization and that works both ways; just because an employee doesn’t have a family to take care of or other extracurricular obligations doesn’t make their work-life balance any less important. The message is that everybody has a job to do, and their workplace should support them in any way they can to help the employee get the job done on time and to a high standard.
The best way to instill healthy attitudes towards these benefits is to champion those who’ve used them successfully, and measure this success against previous metrics. If you can demonstrate positive impacts on the workplace as a result of these benefits, you’ll have no issue getting skeptical staff on board.
There’s no quick fix to the gender bias in the tech sector—while diversity intakes and setting quotas will put more women on your payroll, we should be looking to prevent the issue rather than cure it. Making workplaces more attractive to women by offering flexible working benefits, and supporting their development by encouraging access to these benefits in a supportive environment could be an actionable and realistic way to increase both the attraction and retention of female tech talent in the long term.