Women can do anything and everything, right? Women can balance the pressures of working while caring for their children. Yet according to a survey of 716 women who abandoned their jobs in the tech industry to care for their children, this assumption is wrong. Women cannot balance family life and a STEM job because of current barriers in place, such as lack of reliable maternity leave policies in companies, workplace discomfort and inflexible work hours. Although many companies face these issues, the male-dominated environment in the STEM industry augments the effect of these issues on women working in tech companies. These issues are at the root of why women are “taking time off” and never returning to their tech jobs. Technology companies have an innate responsibility to tear down these barriers and meet the needs of female workers. If they fail to do this, then the trend of women leaving tech companies will continue and young girls will have to look to the history books for female role models.
Figures such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg would claim that these barriers are not the main reason women leave their jobs, that all a woman needs to overcome these barriers is motivation and mere willpower. Yet, no amount of motivation and willpower will fix these problems alone. It is up to technology companies employing women to implement policies that are in the best interest of women, so they cannot be manipulated by employers.
Among the many reasons pushing women out of the STEM field, the difficulty of STEM jobs themselves is not the cause. Women do not leave technical positions because they lack the capacity to understand STEM fields or think “math is hard.” According to Fortune writer Kieran Snyder, women stop working in these high-demand technical positions because of the culture in the technology industry. At the extreme end of the spectrum, some women feel marginalized in a culture where nearly all of their co-workers are white, straight men under 35. But the majority sense a continuous discomfort from working in an environment where they are an isolated minority. For some women working in tech, parenthood intensifies their initial discomfort of working in a company dominated by men.
Some might reason that women chose this discomfort by accepting these positions. But women did not choose to work in homogenous environments. Those environments were the only option for women interested in STEM fields to do what they love. These environments result not only from society’s lack of acceptance that a women is more than homemaker but also from companies’ failure to provide supportive work environments for returning mothers.
While some tech firms have provided their employees with adequate weeks off for maternal leave, there are still some companies who have neglected the issue. According to a survey by Mother Jones, most young tech firms such as Reddit and Facebook offer 17 paid weeks off to new mothers. But traditional companies such as IBM and GE only offer eight weeks of paid leave. Although today’s startup tech companies provide generous maternity leave policies to their employees, this does not allow older tech firms to be indifferent toward maternity leave policies. If technology companies have a sincere interest in keeping women on their payrolls, all old and new tech firms must provide comprehensive, paid maternity leave policies. It is ironic that companies provide dental insurance, health insurance, fitness centers for exercise, paid vacations, free iPads and opportunities for further college education to their employees and yet limit mothers to only a few weeks off to care for their newborns. Although it may be inconvenient for tech companies to pay for maternal leave, compensation while on leave is critical because not every woman has a partner to support her or can be financially stable without that income. With lengthier paid maternity leave policies, maybe the 85 percent of women who have cited poor maternity leave policy as the predominant factor in leaving their tech jobs will decide to return.
Another factor preventing women from continuing careers in technology are rigid, inflexible work schedules. Technical positions are demanding and time-consuming enough; add the sporadic sleep schedule of a newborn child, and it becomes nearly impossible to maintain one’s sanity, much less adhere to a 9-to-5 work schedule. The inconvenience of a fixed workday does not allow women to meet the needs of their children or of themselves. Technology companies need to give women flexibility and not limit parents to nine-to-five workday hours.
The bottom line: Workplaces are not immune to motherhood. Just because women are not the majority in a tech company does not mean workplaces have the right to ignore the needs of working mothers. It is not the place of a company to assume women who work as software developers, chemical scientists, electrical engineers or microbiologists have no desire to have children and therefore do not need maternity leave.
When all of these issues and pressures are piled together, the trend of women leaving technical jobs to care for their families becomes understandable and a disheartening reality of American society. In the future, these issues will affect many Wellesley students interested in working in a STEM profession. That companies will listen and improve their policies for the sake of their employees is questionable. It is up to us, the future CEOs and role models of our generation, to change the rules of the game and implement our own policies.
Graphic by Padya Paramita ’17, Graphics Editor