5 mins

The recent wave of layoffs across the technology sector has had an outsized impact on women in leadership positions, can the trend be reversed?

It’s no secret that the past two years have been turbulent for the technology industry. In 2023 alone, some 260,000 workers were laid off by more than 1,000 companies, according to data from layoffs.fyi. That unwelcome trend seems poised to continue, with January seeing another surge in layoffs, after things seemed to be settling down towards the end of 2023.

What gets missed by those topline numbers however is the outsized impact this industry turmoil is having on women, particularly those in leadership positions.

In an October Forbes article, Claire Rutkowski, a senior vice president at Bentley Systems, noted that in 1984, some 35% of tech leaders were women. By 2022, that figure had slipped to 32%, and further fell to 28% by 2023

A 2020 Accenture survey had already shown that women leave tech jobs at a 45% higher rate than men. Considering that women in tech have reported progressively lower levels of job satisfaction and heightened concern over pay inequity in the years since, the gender discrepancy in attrition rates is likely even wider today. 

Just what is causing so many women to leave the industry, and what can be done to stem further losses?

Isolation, bias, burnout

Global workforce data points toward two major culprits in tech’s ongoing female-leadership brain drain: representation and retention. Women account for roughly half of the global workforce, but make up only about a quarter of tech workers in the UKAustraliaBrazilCanada, and the US. In India, women comprise 34% of the tech workforce, but hold managerial roles in fewer than 9% of firms. Of the women who do enter the industry, more than half are likely to quit before age 35.

Heather, a 35-year-old former tech-startup vice president based in California, narrowly avoided becoming part of this statistical cohort when she left her executive role in December 2023. While job stress and a toxic work culture were the primary reasons for her departure, she notes that the company’s lack of diversity exacerbated those challenges, leaving her burned out and isolated.

“I’m 35 and Asian, and my co-leaders were white men in their forties,” says Heather, who is not using her real name for fear of professional retribution. “As a younger minority female in an exec role, I just felt like there was a lot more condescension towards me, like I had to do more to prove myself.” She notes that although she had some male and female allies at the company who were “very helpful,” many others were “very not-helpful.” Heather’s sense of alienation is an all-too-common thread when speaking to women leaders in tech.

Reema Khan is the San Francisco-based founder and CEO of the technology-focused private equity firm Green Sands Equity and a Women in Science and Technology Ambassador to the United Nations. “Rising to a leadership role in the tech world is difficult for women,” Khan says. “The cultural biases absolutely continue to exist.”

Even in workplaces that do have some female representation, a lack of diversity in leadership can breed loneliness. The few women that do manage to ascend the ranks often find that they are set apart from their existing network of female colleagues, while simultaneously shut out by male peers, Khan says.

That lack of support is particularly detrimental in today’s industry landscape, where reduced headcount has led to increased workloads and corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts are under attack.

For many women in the industry, the potential rewards are no longer worth the costs. “Most feel like they’re doing multiple roles in their jobs, yet they’re still dealing with a lot of the biases that women in tech face,” says Jossie Haines, a former VP of software engineering who now works as an executive coach for engineering leaders and women across tech. 

In the absence of inclusion efforts, women of color, and those with families faced the highest toll. Heather, who has three children between the ages of two and five, says that despite having been her family’s primary breadwinner while working her grueling executive role, she estimates that she absorbed 75% of the household’s domestic and childcare duties. Heather’s experience is typical, according to 2023 survey data from the Pew Research Center, which shows that women breadwinners still perform the lion’s share of housework and caregiving.

As the demands on her time intensified, Heather knew something had to give. “Sacrificing my job – especially one that was as toxic as mine was – felt like a no-brainer,” she says.

Building an inclusive culture

How to reverse course? The first step is perhaps the most obvious: companies should adopt policies that are known to be effective for retaining female talent, irrespective of industry. These include the opportunity to work remotely and at flexible hoursequal and transparent pay, and, particularly in the United States, providing robust healthcare benefits packages.

However, providing a supportive and inclusive culture matters more than it may seem. Studies of the particularly male-dominated open-source software space have found that when women have access to mentorship and networking opportunities, and when they see people who look like them achieve success, they are less likely to leave their role. This sense of community becomes key.

“People think that women leave tech because they want to go start a family,” says Haines. “Yes, that’s obviously a factor, but the number-one reason is actually lack of inclusion. It’s the burnout from microaggressions and being treated poorly. And so the whole reversal of focus on building inclusive teams is going to cause a huge gap in women wanting to stay in the workforce.”

Khan agrees that companies, and the industry as a whole, are sorely in need of a culture shift. “We need to stop using women as symbols and start using them for their ability,” she says. “We often give them important titles, but second- and third- guess their choices and leadership. Women are often brought on as peacekeepers in messy and unstable cultures as well. We need to give them autonomy and sovereignty in their leadership roles.”

As for Heather, she doesn’t rule out the possibility of someday returning to tech, but only on her own terms. “I would have to either see a lot more structural, cultural change within leadership teams overall, or work at a female-owned and majority female-operated company,” she says.

In the meantime, Heather has taken to TikTok to talk through her career experience and the decision to quit, as well as offer advice to others in a similar position. Her anonymous account bio identifies her as a former tech VP and “current CEO of exposing leadership secrets.”