Seven Reasons Technical Women Quit and How to Keep Them

Written by Karen Catlin

Guest blogger Karen Catlin elaborates on seven simple concepts to keep talented technical women in your company. Take a second and read — you don’t want to lose the best people you’ve got. — So, you’ve worked hard to recruit talented technical women to your company, and you certainly don’t want to lose them. While there are myriad reasons why people leave jobs, there are practices in the tech industry that can create caustic work environments for women.

Here are seven things not to do if you want to retain your female employees.

Women in the office

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

1. Commandeer their Careers

Don’t do this: A few years back, I remember talking with a member of my staff about a newly-approved position on his team. I asked him if he was considering promoting his star employee into this role. His answer? No — because she was a new mom and he knew she wouldn’t want all the travel that came with the job.

Do this instead: Let employees know about opportunities at your company, and let them decide if they want to pursue a promotion, a stretch assignment or a change in responsibilities. Don’t let your unconscious biases impact the career development of your employees.

In this particular case, I pushed against my staff member’s decision. He, in turn, offered her the role. She accepted and proceeded to do an outstanding job.

2. Encourage Exclusive Events

Don’t do this: A friend shared with me that, during her pregnancies, every team-building event that her company held happened to be highly-physical, adrenaline-filled activities. White water rafting, rock climbing and the like. She couldn’t partake in any of them.

Another terror tale from a small tech company in San Francisco — when I asked the director of engineering what the team did for fun, he answered, “You probably don’t want to hear about the strip club we went to last night.” He was right. I didn’t want to hear about it.

Do this instead: Plan a variety of team-building and social events that will be inclusive to all. Or, alternate the more-physical activities with less-demanding ones like a movie opening, mini-golf or a cooking class.

3. Favor the Fellas

Don’t do this: When assigning teams to work on the latest and greatest features, or to look into new technologies, chances are you’re not thinking about diversity. As long as the work gets done, why would you worry about the gender breakdown of the teams?

Well, the women at your company are going to notice. And they’re going to be discouraged if they’re relegated to maintaining existing code bases while the men get to work on choice projects that lead to patentable inventions and career growth.

Do this instead: Pay attention to the gender diversity of your project assignments. Regularly measure how many women are on patent-filing teams and set targets for improvement if the teams are not diverse.

If you don’t have gender ratios on your development teams that reflect the diversity in your office, figure out the root causes and address them.

4. Mentor in the Men’s Room

Don’t do this: I’ve often wondered what I miss out on as a meeting concludes. The men head for the restroom, often talking about the new project, assignment or objectives. What advice are they sharing? What strategies are they discussing in light of the meeting? What decisions are they making, alone in the boy’s room, where women have no chance to weigh in?

Throughout my career I’ve often felt excluded from the just-in-time mentoring and strategizing that happens in men’s restrooms, over beers after work and at guys-only poker nights. And I’m not the only one.

Do this instead: Share any “privy” chats with the wider team. Create opportunities for casual mentoring in inclusive environments — the lunch room is a good place to start.

Over-communicate strategic decisions, career opportunities, customer insight and any trending topics. Include everyone who should be part of the decision-making process.

5. Co-opt the Conversation

Don’t do this: Because men tend to have longer vocal chords than women, their voices are deeper and carry further. In heated discussions, it can be challenging for the women to be heard, and I’ve seen a fair share of meetings where the men easily co-opt the conversation. It’s even worse if the meeting is in a loud restaurant.

Do this instead: Make room for women to sit at the table and give them equal air time. Pay attention to anyone who is being cut off or not called on, and help make sure his or her message is being heard.

The women will notice and thank you. And, you’ll probably end up with a more-diverse perspective on your topic, whatever it may be.

6. Ask: “Could your mom use it?”

Don’t do this: When designing a simple interface, all too often someone will ask, “Could your mom use it?” What message does that send to the mothers and other women on the team?

Do this instead: Ask: “Could your least-tech-savvy friend use it?”

7. Penalize with Push-ups

Don’t do this: To make sure people show up on time, meeting organizers often devise a penalty for being late. I’ve used this approach over my career, and it can be effective.

But push-ups and pull-ups aren’t the way to go. In general, men’s muscles grow thicker in the chest, shoulders and arms, creating more upper body strength than women. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised.

Do this instead: If you want to penalize people for being late to a meeting, find something that will be equally distressing to both men and women. Consider having them sing a song, tell a joke, take notes or bring snacks to the next meeting.

Good technical people are in high demand and they want to work where they feel welcome, included and valued. To retain women (and all employees, for that matter) make sure you have an environment where they can be successful. Look out for cultural habits that can form with a mostly-male team, and develop a workplace that is supportive of all.

Want to hire more technical women? Read this earlier article on FastCo Labs.

I’m Karen Catlin for

Karen Catlin develops powerful women leaders in the tech industry with leadership coaching and advising companies on how to attract and retain female talent. She has an extensive background in Silicon Valley. Formerly, Karen was a vice president at Adobe Systems, and most recently, the CEO of Athentica, an early-stage startup. Follow her on Twitter @kecatlin and see more of her work at