Why We’re Losing Women in Tech – Consequences of Workplace Inequities & COVID-19
Jeff Tollefson, President, Minnesota Technology Association 

Minnesota’s economic future is largely dependent on developing the skilled tech workforce needed to drive innovation and power increasingly tech-enabled business models (read my recent blog post on this topic here). As we strive to increase the number of Minnesotans working in tech careers, we cannot afford leaks in our existing tech talent pool. But cracks are indeed forming, exacerbated by COVID and long-standing workplace inequities. And the talent we’re most at risk of losing? Women. 

Earlier this month, CIO magazine published an article titled Women in IT are Burned Out and the Pandemic is Making it Worse, describing how COVID has compounded the disproportional stress women face in the workplace. This is causing many women in tech to leave or downshift their careers, potentially erasing nearly a decade of progress toward gender equity. 

Featured in the story is Jadee Hanson, CIO and CISO of Code42, who comments on the strains of balancing life and work during COVID and the potential broader impact on our tech workforce. 

“I feel it for myself and I know my teams absolutely feel it too. It’s just this endless cycle of not being able to fully focus on your work for the period of time that you’re used to and it’s intermingled with added home responsibilities as well,” says Jadee.  “We’ve been slowly making strides to equality in the workforce. Since the pandemic, we’ve seen women leaving the workforce at a much higher rate. Which is sad and scary because our workforce is not going to look quite the same. It’s going to be a lot less diverse if women keep opting to pull themselves out of working in this industry.” 

Jadee’s observations are backed by data in the 2021 Women in Tech Report published by TrustRadius, where it’s reported that 57% of women have felt burned out from the mandatory work-from-home caused by the pandemic. The struggle to balance being both a working professional and a functioning parent is leading to a mass exodus of women from the workforce. In 2020 alone, 1.2 million parents exited the workforce with a staggering three-quarters being women. 

The Women in the Workplace 2020 report from McKinsey summarizes the burnout issue well and worth highlighting here. 

The events of 2020 have turned workplaces upside down. Under the highly challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are struggling to do their jobs. Many feel like they’re “always on” now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. They’re worried about their family’s health and finances. Burnout is a real issue. 

Women in particular have been negatively impacted. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. And the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders. 

As a result of these dynamics, more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. This is an emergency for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity. 

But as McKinsey points out, this crisis also represents an opportunity. If companies commit to building more flexible and empathetic workplaces, they can retain the employees most impacted by the challenges of remote work and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term. 

Minnesota tech leaders recognize the importance of advancing the careers of women technologists as a key talent retention strategy. To this end, Susan Davis-Ali, President of Leadhership1, has a featured article in the current issue of MN Tech Mag titled Retaining a Diverse Workforce, making the business case for increased gender diversity in the workplace. The story also features Rick King, who presents actionable ideas for developing female talent based on results achieved at Thomson Reuters over 11 years through its Leadhership1 program. Thomson Reuters was awarded a 2020 Tekne Award for this impactful work. 

Issues related to gender equity in tech are not new, but COVID has certainly magnified and intensified the challenges women face as they strive to succeed in tech careers while fulfilling family responsibilities and maintaining personal happiness.  Minnesota’s pool of available tech talent is already relatively shallow and we cannot afford further leaks in the pool (or pipeline), particularly as it relates to women in tech. The Minnesota Technology Association is working closely with a coalition of CIOs from leading Minnesota companies to address this critical issue and we look forward to sharing more about this initiative in the coming months.