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Pipeline or Culture?: What's the Real Reason there Aren't More Women in Tech?

Recruiters, we have a serious problem on our hands. There are not enough women entering technology-based jobs and, according to Rachel Thomas, there is a significantly “high attrition rate for women working in tech” – meaning we’re losing women from the tech industry at a higher rate than we’re gaining them. A recent study has found that, on average, men outnumber women 7 to 3 in tech jobs in New York City, while a new report from McKinsey tells us that women in the tech industry hold only 37% of entry-level jobs – significantly lower than the 47% of women who, on average, are offered entry-level positions in other industries. And that percentage shrinks as the positions get more prestigious – women in tech hold 30% of the managerial positions, 25% of the senior manager or director roles, 20% of the vice president titles, and just 15% of roles in the c-suite.

But while McKinsey are attributing these disparities to the fact that the tech industry doesn’t have enough women with relevant college degrees in its talent pool, others are pointing the finger at the industry’s “unresolved issues with sexism” as the reason why we’re seeing less and less women entering the tech industry and more and more, leaving it.

So, is the lack of women entering the tech industry a pipeline problem or a much deeper rooted problem in industry culture?

Well, research tells us that just 18% of computer science graduates are women. This correlates with other research by Girls Who Code, which tells us that while 74% of girls in middle school express interest in STEM subjects, just 0.4% of high school girls actually choose computer science as a college major. And despite similar performances in their science test, the OECD also tell us that more boys (1 in 5) consider a STEM career than girls (1 in 20).

It would appear from these initial stats that we have a pipeline problem on our hands, and that all we need to do to solve the problem of not enough women entering the tech industry, is to encourage more girls to start taking STEM subjects in college. And surely that’s not something recruiters should have to worry about! The Government should be doing more.

women in tech

Reshma Saujani, Founder & CEO of Girls Who Code

Well, I’m afraid it’s not quite as simple as that and recruiters don’t get off the hook that easily.

The Early Years

Why does this gender parity start between middle and high school? Well, psychologists have identified a number of factors which might set girls back when it comes to STEM subjects and unfortunately, most of them are born out of a culture that promotes male abilities and down plays female abilities when it comes to maths and science.

Teasing in school is a big issue. Even at high school level, teachers and classmates sometimes stereotype girls who are interested in advanced physics and math. As part of her research for her New York Times magazine article, Eileen Pollack spoke to Yale physics undergrads and heard these stories:

“One young woman had been disconcerted to find herself one of only three girls in her AP physics course in high school, and even more so when the other two dropped out. Another student was the only girl in her AP physics class from the start. Her classmates teased her mercilessly: “You’re a girl. Girls can’t do physics.” She expected the teacher to put an end to the teasing, but he didn’t”.

A lack of encouragement is another factor. As Pollack, herself a physics major who didn’t go into academia, writes: “I didn’t go on in physics because not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school.” And although she graduated at the top of her class, none of her professors even asked if she was going to graduate school.

Media stereotypes also play a big part in discouraging young female students from pursuing STEM related subjects. Take the female characters in The Big Bang for example. Female scientists in the show, like Sheldon’s girlfriend, are forced into “weirdo” roles, while the non-scientist (Penny) is the only “normal” female character. Other research has also indicated that when females are exposed to “nerdy-white guy” stereotypes, it too discourages them from STEM fields.

The College Years

But for those female students who do break through these culturally imposed norms and pursue STEM subjects in college, it’s not all plain sailing thereafter.  In her article for Fortune, Pooja Sankar talks about the “intense isolation” she experienced throughout her college years:

women in tech

Pooja Sankar, CEO and founder of Piazza

“I spent most of my evenings alone in the computer lab, struggling in isolation to complete my coursework and watching with envy as my male classmates collaborated amongst themselves to collectively master the complicated course material.”

But upon finishing her education and entering the workplace (she’s worked at both Oracle and Facebook), Pooja was shocked to discover that she was not alone in her experience of isolation:

“I had assumed that American-educated women in computer science would not relate to my lonely undergraduate experience. To my absolute shock, I heard time and again from my colleagues who had attended all of the top computer science programs that my experience was not at all unique”. She continued, “being a woman in an all-male or mostly-male environment, as most computer science programs are, was, for my colleagues as well as for myself, an extremely frustrating and isolating experience”. And “despite resources devoted to encouraging women to enter computer-related fields, college-level computer science education continues to be an isolating, and at times, demoralising experience for many of our country’s top female students.”

Entering the Workforce

Even if young women make it through a bachelor’s degree or above and enter the tech workforce, their battle with isolation is far from over. According to June Sugiyama, Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation, while “most women don’t experience obvious forms of discrimination or sexism” in the workforce, “they face an undercurrent of condescension that leads to a feeling of isolation.” She continued, “I’ve gone to meetups and networking events that at times felt more like a frat party than a gathering of like-minded techies”. “I’ve grown used to being one of the only women in the room”.

women in tech

June Sugiyama, Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation

Her experiences align with research conducted by the Harvard Business Review that claims that 52% of women in STEM careers will eventually leave because of hostile work environments where the company culture is not accommodating of women.

These statistics “should be alarming to an industry so desperate for talent that its hiring practices have led to much-publicised “talent wars”,” says Sugiyama.

“This is not just a “pipeline problem.” Women leave the technology industry because of the culture.” says Alex Howard. And if you think it’s just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention to the women who have been speaking out, breaking down retention and perception issues.

So…Pipeline or Culture?

While the lack of women entering tech would appear to be down to a lack of pipeline, the lack of pipeline is ultimately being caused by the industry’s “unresolved issues with sexism”. The tech industry favours men and its resulting organisational culture is wittingly or unwittingly making that point very clear to any women who think they might like to be a part of it.

So, what can recruiters do to combat non-inclusive cultures in their own organisations and do their bit to start making the tech industry more female-friendly?

How Recruiters Can Improve Workplace Culture for Women

There are a number of things we can do to prevent our recruiting practices and our hiring activities from promoting a mostly male-dominated culture, and open our cultures up to women and actively support them in their career advancement within tech:

– Encourage the taking of an Implicit Association Test – One of the biggest barriers to making progress in gender equality is unconscious bias. The most important first step you can take towards improving the culture for women in your organisation is to take an Implicit Association test in order to find out where your own personal biases lay. By discovering and acknowledging your own biases, you’ll develop an awareness of them and hopefully, open yourself up to change. The Harvard University website has a number of really interesting tests you can take in order to establish where your biases lay from gender to race to age.

Take the tests, learn about yourself, acknowledge your biases, then open yourself up to change. Once you have taken the test, pass it on to your Hiring Manager and encourage them to take the test for the same reasons. Only once we acknowledge gender bias can we start setting goals to change it.

Standardise and formalise hiring procedures in advance – “I was once on a team where the hiring criteria were amorphous and where the manager frequently overrode majority votes by the team because of “gut feeling”. It seemed like unconscious bias played a large role in decisions, but because of our haphazard approach to hiring, there was no way of truly knowing.” says Rachel Thomas.

The most common form of unconscious bias is Performance Bias, which tends to manifest itself in two ways – gender and race. When it comes to gender, relative to females, male performance is often overestimated. This is especially true in traditionally male-dominated industries such as technology and engineering. For example, when 2 identical resumes were presented to recruiters – one with a man’s name, the other with a woman’s – both male and female recruiters found 79% of applicants with the male name and only 49% of applicants with the female name to be “worthy of hire”. A similar result also occurred when recruiters were presented with 2 more identical resumes – one with a white sounding name, the other with a black sounding name. The resume with the white-sounding name received 50% more calls for interviews than those with black-sounding names.

In order to combat this in your organisation, standardisation is key:

  1. Limit performance bias by setting out a standardised set of objectives to do with hiring i.e. the skills needed/desired, in advance of candidate search. Determine what skills, attributes etc. are needed and stick to them. Doing so will go a long way to ensuring that each and every one of your hiring decisions is gender and race blind e.g. the gender or race of the candidate has absolutely nothing to do with the hire, just their skills.
  2. When submitting shortlists to hiring managers be sure to standardise all resumes to remove any possible bias triggers. These triggers include things like candidate’s name which may signal their ethnicity or religious beliefs, the candidate’s gender, the name of university the candidate attended which may be the same as the hiring manager thus creating a bias towards them etc.

I repeat: the hiring decision should be based purely on the person’s ability to do the job, not their gender, their race or where they went to college.

– Stop your over-reliance on referral networks – Don’t get me wrong, referrals are one of the best sources of hire out there. But, if the majority of your tech workforce is made up of men of a particular ethnicity, socio-economic background or academic history, it goes without saying that the people they will usually put forward for referral will be those of the same ethnic/socio-economic/academic background as them, who hold similar values, beliefs and opinions. Therefore, relying on referrals to fill your open roles will only continue to exacerbate the problem of an overly-male dominated culture in your organisation.

– Assess where you recruit – If you aren’t finding the more diverse candidates you need to hire, it may be time to assess where you are advertising/featuring your open roles. Check out university diversity ranking sites like this US one or check individual university websites like the University College London, for their specialised breakdown of their student demographics.

Similarly, if you are trying to recruit more women and all of your job advertisements are being placed on job sites and social sites with a typically high male audience, your advert will not do its job. Be sure to check to determine the demographic usage associated with various job sites and social sites. Check out the demographics has for, for example.

– Test your job ads – Find a digital copy of the last job ad you wrote. Highlight the text, right-click and copy it in its entirety. Now, go to a website called When you’re there, right click and paste your job ad into the text box provided. The Gender Decoder will then tell you whether your job ad is feminine-coded (i.e. if your job is written with more of a leaning towards a female candidate), masculine-coded (i.e. if your job is written with more of a leaning towards a male candidate) or neutral (i.e. if your job has no leaning towards male or female candidates), based on the language you’ve used to construct it.


Too many recruiters are too quick to blame the lack of women in tech on a lack of pipeline, when really at the heart of the issue is a heavily ingrained culture problem. “Teaching more girls and women to code is not enough to solve this problem,” says Rachel Thomas. “If tech culture is going to change, everyone needs to change, especially men and most especially leaders”. As a recruitment leader in your organisation, we hope you’ll be at the front line of that change.


Diversity RecruitingDiversity is one of the biggest and most important issues facing our industry today. Interested in learning more about gender bias and sourcing for diversity? Download our exclusive whitepaper How to: Increase Diversity Through Improved Recruitment and Hiring Processes for FREE now! It will help dispel the myths surrounding diversity and show you best practice for improving diversity hiring processes in your organisation.

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