The number of women dropping out of the UK tech sector appears to be escalating. This situation would seem to imply that now is the time for employers to put less focus on hiring diverse talent and more on retaining it.
Some 17,000 female tech workers left the industry between Q4 2022 and Q1 2023, despite overall headcount increasing by 85,000. This drop was followed by a further 3,000 women leaving the profession between Q1 and Q2 this year.
So, why is this? Lily Haake, head of technology and digital executive search at recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, believes the situation is a complex one.
First, some companies – particularly the larger ones – have started mandating that employees return to the office for a set number of days. Although they are not necessarily requiring more time on-site, they are now enforcing policies more stringently.
“But it’s difficult for people with caring commitments, and women do 75% of the world’s unpaid caring and childcare, which means these kinds of mandates will hit them disproportionately,” Haake says. “So, reading between the lines, return-to-office mandates could be playing into this.”
Another factor is the increasingly prohibitive cost of childcare. “In London, full-time care is about £17,000 per year per child, so if you have two, you need to make £50,000 just to break even,” Haake points out. “Tech may be a highly paid career, but not everyone’s a CIO.”
To make matters worse, not all schools offer “wraparound care” beyond their 9am to 3pm standard hours.
“But which tech job is that flexible?” Haake asks. “Tech is all about transformation and it often requires long hours and travel. There may be tech roles that are less demanding, but even that’s often not tenable if you have children.”
Long-standing retention issues
A third consideration is the gender pay gap. Female tech workers experience the highest pay gap in Europe at 22% compared with a regional average of 19%. The figure compares with a UK national average across all industries of 14.9%.
But the issue here, Haake explains, is that: “If a family has to make a choice based on wages, they’ll go with whoever is paid the most – and the gender pay gap shows it’s the man.”
A final point is that growing numbers of companies are currently making at least some redundancies to cut costs. Others are rolling back big investments, which is leading to contracts not being renewed in some instances. “We’re seeing more people on our books in general terms, although the number of women isn’t disproportionate,” Haake says.
But there are other more long-standing issues behind the tech industry’s currently low female retention rates. According to career advice site womenintech.co.uk’s 2023 survey, for instance, a huge 56% of women leave the sector when they are between 10 and 20 years into their career. This is double the rate of men.
For many women, this 10- to 20-year mark coincides with motherhood. Such a significant life change is a key point at which women tend to either leave the profession entirely or adopt more flexible working arrangements, such as contracting.
Another often overlooked dynamic is a feeling of not belonging. Nathalie Richards is chief executive of SEO London, a charity that provides education, training and mentoring to young people from underrepresented communities.
“If you do DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] really well, you’ll get a valued professional who feels a sense of belonging to an organisation,” she says. “But many women in tech aren’t seeing themselves represented at a senior level, there’s often a lack of mentoring, coaching and support, and they don’t feel a sense of camaraderie and support from their peers.”
How employers can boost retention
As a result, Richards advocates working on the company culture rather than simply focusing on hiring from diverse groups. This includes providing access to “relatable role models”, particularly if they can act as coaches and mentors.
Another consideration is including DEI-based key performance indicators into the employee assessment process to help enable a more psychologically safe and collaborative environment.
“Embedding DEI in the performance review cycle indicates a more serious commitment, but I’d tend to steer away from financial incentives as they tend to be too rigid and can produce undesirable outcomes,” Richards warns.
Other generally less thought-about approaches for boosting engagement, loyalty and retention are returnship and apprenticeship programmes. A report by professional services company PwC found that three out of five women go back to lower skilled or lower paid jobs after a career break, resulting in an earnings drop of up to a third.
But according to the womenintech survey: “The more companies can offer initiatives like returnships, the more women will feel supported in tech and stay in the industry.”
Haake also recommends simply asking people what it is they want and what they would value. “If you talk to women, they say, ‘Mentoring and the like is great, but we need help with the practical things’,” she says. “So what about a creche on site or paid carer’s leave? It’s benefits like that which can make a real difference.”