Article: Why are women leaving tech? Leaders weigh in on office dynamics vs. persistent gender inequality


Why are women leaving tech? Leaders weigh in on office dynamics vs. persistent gender inequality

Dr. Ritu Anand, Former Chief Leadership & Diversity Officer at Tata Consultancy Services, highlights the deliberate steps leaders must take, backed by data, to achieve women in leadership, in a fiery Big Questions-TechHR LinkedIn live session.
Why are women leaving tech? Leaders weigh in on office dynamics vs. persistent gender inequality

If you simply search for women attrition in the tech industry on Google, you will come across a series of studies and articles attributing various reasons to women leaving the field. Some newer reasons being blamed are robots and work from office. So, are we only scratching the surface and not addressing what we already know? Let's consider the recent alarming rate at which women are leaving companies like TCS, and let's discuss a report from 2021 that stated 38% of women in tech plan to leave their jobs within the next two years.

We are well aware that this is not the first report of its kind, but did we take any action to address the problem? The answer is NO! As Raghu (Raghunath) Koduvayur, Head of Asia Pacific Business, IQM Quantum Computers rightly pointed out, the problem does not lie with women but with men who have taken up most of the leadership roles. So, is it time to completely change the situation or address bullying, pay disparity and bro culture?

To find answers to these burning questions, we invited leaders such as Dr Ritu Anand, Former Chief Leadership & Diversity Officer at Tata Consultancy Services, Naveen Narayanan, Chief People Officer at Biocon Biologics, and Raghu (Raghunath) Koduvayur for People Matters' Big Questions debate session in collaboration with TechHR India 2023. Together we discovered insights and practical solutions to fight women's attrition in tech while exploring the Art Of The Possible! 

Building a supportive ecosystem

The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions has been a significant and ongoing topic of discussion in the business world, predating both the pandemic and the #MeToo movement. This issue has garnered continuous attention, reflection, opinion pieces, and analysis. Still, women occupy only a quarter of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies, and their presence on corporate boards is a mere 20%. The recurring suggestion stemming from these discussions is that promoting more women is the solution. However, this proposed remedy fails to address the root problem, as it is not the promotion pipeline but rather attrition that lies at the heart of the issue. Ritu Anand, a pioneer in the field of Human Resources with over 25 years of experience, discussed the factors behind the resignations in 2023. 

“Flexible and hybrid working arrangements have different interpretations for everyone, especially when it comes to underrepresented groups such as women, disabled individuals, and those with different orientations. To address these issues, action needs to be taken from both sides. While organisations have already taken steps to treat everyone equally and have policies promoting equal opportunities, the impact of conditioning from family, communities, and society, which influences choices in education, career paths, and organisations, needs to be acknowledged as well. Unless families understand, accept, and support the aspirations of underrepresented segments, organisations will continue to face the challenge of addressing this issue,” said the Former Chief Leadership & Diversity Officer at TCS. 

“It is important for organisations to make increasing diversity in leadership a genuine goal, rather than treating it as a part-time or feel-good effort. Taking a mission-driven and authentic approach is essential for long-term success. Even in industries like IT, where flexible work options are more feasible, diversity in leadership is still lacking. Each company has its unique culture and ethos, and innovative initiatives need to be launched within each organisation to address this. Overall, a comprehensive and proactive approach is needed to address the issue of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry and beyond,” she added. 

On the other hand, Naveen Narayanan feels that in any industry, flexibility is important, but significant advancements and leaps have occurred due to policy changes, competition, and income shifts. He explained by same by giving an example. “The increase in women joining the workforce in the 80s to 90s was driven by a drop in average income and automation. Providing flexibility for everyone, as seen in Nordic countries and other places, is considered a best practice. However, in some cultures like India, there is still a perception that mothers are the primary caregivers and may have to make sacrifices in their careers during times of crisis. This belief can put their professional advancement at risk,” he stated. 

Empowering choice in work arrangements

The modern work environment should allow flexibility in terms of work arrangements, schedules, and physical location. In 2023, there should be an upward trend towards results-oriented work, hence, focusing on evaluating employees based on their productivity and output rather than the traditional emphasis on hours spent in the office. This shift towards results-based work will foster a culture of employee autonomy and self-management. Simultaneously, it will highlight the growing importance of effective communication and collaboration tools to facilitate seamless interactions among team members.

“With the availability of technology and remote work tools, it is possible to maintain effective collaboration and communication. During the pandemic, many of us successfully adapted to remote work. However, it is important to strike a balance and not revert to old behaviors when it comes to socialization, acknowledging its significance. The biggest challenge lies in taking away individual choice and imposing certain work arrangements,” said Raghu Koduvayur. 

“If the objective is to deliver quality work, it should be encouraged whether it is done in the office or remotely. Technology provides the necessary tools, and discipline plays a crucial role in maintaining productivity during remote work. Providing better infrastructure and tools can further enhance remote work capabilities. Ultimately, it is the implementation and mindset that matter, and we should not hold the individual accountable for the tools they use,” he added. 

Each individual has unique preferences and needs when it comes to work arrangements. While some may prefer coming to the office every day for higher productivity, it may not be the case for everyone on the team. “That’s why, it is important to have conversations and allocate time for informal discussions with team members, regardless of their role. These conversations can provide valuable insights that no survey or service can offer,” suggested Dr Anand. 

“Supporting women and other underrepresented segments of the workforce is essential. The behaviour and culture within an organisation can automatically adapt to the needs and expectations of these segments. It becomes the responsibility of leaders to ensure inclusivity and address issues like bullying and lack of support. These actions can significantly impact retention rates,” she further emphasised.

Embracing diversity by design

Despite progress made in improving diversity and inclusion, countries in the Asia Pacific region still have a significant gender diversity gap on corporate boards compared to Europe and North America. Credit Suisse's Gender 3000 report revealed that women comprise less than 15% of board positions in Asia Pacific, while the figures are nearly 25% in North America and 30% in Europe. Japan and South Korea show the lowest representation, with only 5.7% and 3.1% of women on boards, respectively. The report also indicated a modest increase in the percentage of women in leadership roles globally, rising from 13% in 2016 to 17% in 2019. To address this disparity and promote diversity and inclusion, businesses must undergo structural transformations, focusing on equality, equity, and inclusive design.

“The main point here is to prioritise diversity by design within organisations. This involves dividing the organisation into different parts and assessing the gender representation in each segment. By looking at the data and identifying any skewed percentages, leaders can have discussions with supervisors to address the issue. It is important to approach these discussions as opportunities for development rather than penalties. By implementing this approach at each level, organisations can begin to obtain valuable insights based on the input provided by their leaders. The ability to effectively execute these conversations is crucial, and it plays a significant role in achieving diversity in leadership. Some companies have already made progress in this area, with diversity in leadership reaching 30% to 40%,” suggested the Former Chief Leadership & Diversity Officer at TCS. 

Tech company's role in empowering women

Now more than ever tech companies have a crucial role in supporting women during significant life milestones, such as starting a family, while ensuring that their career progression remains uninterrupted. Earlier, the lack of advancements and thought process restricted both employee and employers to play around with policies, but now companies are fortunate to have a workforce that includes the tech-savvy Gen Z generation, which is more likely to share household responsibilities, reducing the burden on women and allowing them to focus on their careers. 

“Finding the right balance between employee choices and organisational support is crucial. Firms should foster a culture where employees feel supported during breaks or slowdowns in their careers. The focus should be on creating a work environment that respects work-life boundaries, such as not scheduling late-night calls or expecting employees to be constantly available,” said Dr Anand and added, “successful women have shown that it is possible to reach leadership positions by working within office hours and prioritising their personal lives.”

A research study conducted by UNFPA partner Promundo in the United States revealed that a significant number of men acknowledge the importance of gender equality and advocate for more women in leadership roles, both in politics and their workplaces. However, despite recognising the obstacles women face in their professions, many men don’t fully engage in taking action to address gender discrimination or even harassment.

“Bringing men into the conversation is crucial when discussing diversity and its impact on industries, innovation, and business. Men, who often hold leadership positions, play a significant role in addressing the problem. While diversity and inclusion training courses have been helpful, there is still a need to raise awareness and understanding among men. The pandemic provided an opportunity for men to witness the workload and responsibilities at home, prompting questions about work-life balance. By involving men in discussions and ensuring their perspectives are heard, progress can be made,” advised the Head of Asia Pacific Business, IQM Quantum Computers. 

The risks of ignoring women

Neglecting half the population poses risks in various fields such as technology, design, and medicine. A popular example of the same is the airbag design that overlooked the needs of women and children during its research, tragically leading to the loss of 22 adult lives in 1997, with a majority being small women. So, could such a tragic outcome have been prevented had women been taken into account during the initial design process? 

“From a business standpoint, evidence and data show that having women leaders in teams can positively impact revenue and profitability. Diverse perspectives and decision-making lead to innovative ideas and better execution. For example, introducing colour options in smartphones resulted in a significant revenue increase. Women bring unique multitasking skills and excel under pressure, contributing to successful project outcomes. It is important to create an inclusive environment that embraces diverse thinking, backgrounds, and gender to drive innovation and overall success,” emphasised Koduvayur. 

The tech industry's boys club problem

In a scene of The Social Network film, Mark Zuckerberg can be seen wide awake at 2:08 a.m., consumed by his work on a website, after his breakup. The scene portrays the stereotypical image of technology being mostly associated with male coders, further perpetuating the enduring gender gap in the tech industry. On the other hand, no one remembers or talk about pioneers like Ada Lovelace, who is the world's first computer programmer. 

She holds the distinction of being the individual who recognised the potential of the Analytical Engine for purposes beyond mere calculations. Lovelace composed an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers using this groundbreaking machine. Despite her significant contributions, Lovelace's achievements often go unnoticed in discussions surrounding the history of computing. So, is it due to the tech industry’s boys club” problem and how do we solve it?

“Progressive organisations have taken steps to address the issue by creating an environment where diverse workforces can express their perspectives. It's not just about achieving specific percentages for women or other categories, but rather about fostering a culture of inclusivity. When organisations start measuring and valuing diversity, it can lead to a positive change in behaviour. The COVID-19 pandemic offered a glimpse of a different way of life, and there was hope that social behaviours, including gender dynamics, would evolve. However, it's disheartening to see that progress has been slow or even regressive,” said  the Chief People Officer, Biocon Biologics. 

“This problem is not limited to companies alone. An example is how it was addressed in Obama's cabinet, where a rule was implemented to ensure that when a woman raised a point or asked a question, a man had to repeat it to counter the tendency to talk over or dismiss women's contributions. This highlights the importance of challenging the bro culture and introducing new rituals that promote gender balance and equal participation,” added Naveen Narayanan. 

To learn more from leaders about some of the burning questions in today’s world of work, stay tuned to People Matters' Big Question series on LinkedIn. Explore more such themes at the 10th edition of People Matters TechHR India on the 3rd and 4th of August 2023 at The Leela, Ambience Mall, Gurgaon. Click here to register and be a part of Asia’s Largest HR & WorkTech Conference!



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Topics: Diversity, #PowerWomen, #BigQuestions, #HRTech, #HRCommunity

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