Sunday, February 28, 2016

Why Tech Companies Can't Keep Good Women Employees

Nathalie Miller pitches Doxa to a Venture Capitalist
My son recently got a job in development at a Tech firm, and one of the many praises he has for the company, SmartSheet, is that half of its staff are men and half women.

"That's not the usual composition in a tech company," he adds, and indeed, a story on the cover of the New York Times Business section by Claire Cain Miller bears him out, noting that "30 percent of employees at big tech companies including Google, Facebook and Apple are women..."

The question is, "Why?" The NY Times story implies why, but you'll never find the answer stated explicitly, because it's completely politically incorrect--though hardly a secret.

The reason is that women choose to divert attention to their families.

Nathalie Miller, now 34, went on the fast track to career success. Raised in Berkeley, California, she got a degree from Harvard, then moved to VietNam (she's of Vietnamese and European descent), starting a micro-finance nonprofit.

Returning to the US in 2013, she signed on as employee number 20 with Instacart, a grocery-delivery start-up, and watched it expand to 120 employees and 4,000 contractors within a year.

Then "a new employee told her that he had ranked the hottest women at the company, and she was No. 1. She reported the comment to managers, and the employee was fired the next day," reports the NY Times piece.

This brought interest in matching female candidates with pro-women high-tech openings, leading her to leave Instacart, partner with an engineer, and create Doxa, a site that would collect data on companies, give job seekers online personality tests, and facilitate hiring. She hoped to increase awareness of issues important to women by including info on companies' policies.

She built the company to "820 active users and 300 companies on a waiting list to be included," and so sought money to expand. About then she discovered that she and her husband were expecting their first child. She "plotted strategy," and planned to mention her impending parenthood only on a second meeting with potential investors, and then say "...I'm married to a man who will be a primary caregiver, and this is no different from investing in a man whose wife is pregnant."

Nathalie Miller worked diligently to hone her pitch, refining her content and look with a mentor. She met with more than 40 venture capitalists, one a Ms. Yuan of Cowboy Ventures, who said of the software, "It enables companies to be responsive: 'Let's get a maternity policy because we don't want to be up on your platform without that.'" Still, none she approached chose to fund Doxa, and when her engineer partner got greater responsibility at this day job, Ms. Miller was faced with finding a new technical expert. 

The article details issues facing women in Silicon Valley, including differences in men's and women's presentation styles, and the way women are received by male execs and co-workers. It relates the difficulties of a start-up in the competitive tech world to the problems encountered by Doxa.

 Ultimately, however, Nathalie Miller chose another worthwhile path: motherhood.

"Ms. Miller's plan was to take a month off and get back to work," explains the NY Times story. "Then...she gave birth to a girl, Zadie Mai, and changed her mind. 'I feel a mixture of intense love and protectiveness,' she said. 'I want to hang out with the baby forever. There are my real physical needs and the physical dependence of the baby, all this stuff I didn't expect to be so consuming.'

...She decided to take at least six months off, doing some work from home after three or four months," the article notes. "Her husband, meanwhile, had found a full-time job in advertising."

Yep. The setting might now be Silicon Valley, but the same switch of ambition happened to a generation before the millennials. Feminist baby boomers (like me), took advantage of new openings in a raft of fields, and yet found themselves pairing up, responding to biology and, when their babies came on the scene, falling in love. Whether it's hormones, or simply gaining the perspective that raising your own child is valuable and rewarding, women often opt out of promising careers at a certain stage. Is this really a surprise? Or a problem?

Companies may find that they can populate their tech staffs with competent, sharp women right out of college, who serve them eagerly and well for several years and then realize they've "been there, done that." These women know they've got a window of time to have children and raise families, and prefer to fully participate in that (just as they fully embraced their tech jobs) rather than take a month or even a few and then leave their babies in day care or with a nanny.


It's ironic that Nathalie Miller, whose start-up aimed to place women in responsible roles in companies sensitive to women's needs, stepped away from her own such position, lured by the sweet coos of her baby--but it's also laudable and not unusual. Silicon Valley and Seattle, where I live, are filled with growing tech companies snapping up capable college grads, but most of their hires aren't women in the mothering phase (who often carve out part-time or work-from-home alternatives), or older males or females.

I'll be interested to see the proportion of tech companies who keep their women employees throughout long careers. But I expect that many women launched in upward trajectories in these demanding enterprises will be attracted to a pause, the kind that brings a payoff far exceeding dollars and cents.

Photo credits: Top, Jason Henry for the New York Times; below, Laura Menenberg.

5 comments:

  1. Photo credit middle: Laura Menenberg :)

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    1. Thanks, Laura--didn't know if you wanted to be public with this, but the photo was irresistible! Thanks for claiming credit that's due! I'll add it!

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  2. Diane, great post. It's impossible for anyone to "have it all," and women do have it harder because we have creative and professional impulses outside of our drive to nurture. It's a shame that women have been taught that professionalism equates working in an office. Anyone who has managed a household with children and done so well knows how much skill it takes!

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  3. Women deserve recognition for the ability to multi-task! My point in writing this was that the article implied that deciding to be a mother was the result of failing in the Silicon Valley start-up world. Instead, being a mom can be just as rewarding to the capable woman, and deserves as much respect as making a website about company policies. Also, women's careers can be fluid, with different phases, and that explains their lower percentage representation in Tech as well as the "disparity" in average incomes. The "pay" for being a mom is largely not financial, but provides a lifetime bonus to mother and child(ren).

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