Fight or flight for mid-level women in tech

Rikki Endsley

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Oct 02, 2008 GMT
Rikki Kite

The Anita Borg Institute recently released a study, which was co-authored with the Stanford University Clayman Institute for Gender Research, called Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level women in Technology. The survey participants were 1,795 technical men and women at seven high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley region. Fifty-five percent of respondents were classified as mid-level, 19.9 percent were high level, and 24.6 percent were entry level.

At more than 80 pages, the report isn't a quick read, but findings and recommendations, graphs, and interviewee quotes throughout the pages help highlight major points.

Among other findings, the report says that women respond with "fight or flight" when they reach mid-level positions, the odds of being in a high-level position are 2.7 times greater for men than for women, women are more likely to perceive the workplace as competitive, mid-level women are more likely than men to believe that extended work days are required for success, and both mid-level men and women value teamwork as well as having an impact on their team, organization, and on technology users.

Because both mid-level men and women surveyed agree that mentoring is important for long-term career development – but not rewarded by high-tech companies – the report recommends that companies create a mentoring culture and add mentoring to company evaluation and promotion policies.

The report found that men and women were equally likely to see themselves as being analytical, risk-taking, and assertive, but men were significantly more likely to see themselves as innovative, entrepreneurial, and questioning, and women were more likely to see themselves as collaborative. Both men and women want to be doing innovative work and continuously learn, and survey respondents unanimously agreed that women must be assertive. The report says, "Female interviewees provided countless examples of fighting to overcome their own cultural background and/or preferred communication styles in order to 'fit in' with the high-tech culture." The report recommends that companies create awareness about the different communication styles of men and women.

When it comes to families, almost twice as many women said they delayed having children (or chose not to have them) in order to reach their career goals. The report says, "Men are almost four times more likely than women to report that their partner has primary responsibility for the household and childcare." It should come as no surprise then that women were more likely than men to rank flex time as an important benefit.

Both men and women were equally likely to hold advanced degrees, but women surveyed were less likely to have computer science degrees. The report says, "If high tech companies consider computer science and engineering degrees a prerequisite for advancement on the technical career ladder, our data suggest that mid-level technical women, who are more likely to have earned a non-technical degree, are at a clear disadvantage. ... High-tech companies need to examine their promotion criteria to include more pathways for advancement to the highest ranks."

Overall, I didn't find anything too shocking in the report when I compare it to my personal experience, particularly when it comes to family/work balance. The section on "perceptions of success," however, was eye opening. The report says that "classic hacker behavior" ranked as one of the lowest character attributes for success. Instead, survey respondents ranked seven other characteristics as most important: analytical, innovator, questioning, risk-taking, collaborative, entrepreneurial, and assertive.

How do these findings compare to your personal experiences?


  • correction

    Thanks for the correction and link!
  • Climbng the Technical Ladder

    The report "Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Technology" was co-authored by the Stanford University Clayman Institute for Gender Research - it isn't just an ABI production. Check out the Clayman Institute's website for other research and events. Other research published this summer was on dual-career couples.
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