Women in Tech: Challenges and Opportunities

The masculine culture in the tech industry is often cited as a root cause of the gender gap in representation.

by Katherine Giscombe,PhD

At Catalyst, we work with a range of corporations and firms, and we know that women in tech-intensive industries face many challenges in advancing—or even remaining in their jobs. Our research shows that women in these industries are more likely than men to start at lower levels, report feeling like an outsider in the workplace, lack female role models, experience vague evaluation criteria, and leave to join organizations outside tech-intensive industries. What are the factors behind this disparity?

The myth of meritocracy is one major factor. This is the belief—shared by leaders and insiders in many tech cultures—that the work environment is a meritocracy. But research shows that when an organization communicates that raises and promotions are based solely on employee performance, women are more likely to get smaller bonuses than men with equivalent performance reviews. Organizational aspirations to treat everyone on their merits are stymied by subtle biases that are difficult to overcome, or even identify.

But often, bias is not subtle. The masculine culture cultivated and reinforced in the tech industry is often cited as a root cause of the gender gap in representation. Women in workplaces with this type of culture can be made to feel like they don’t belong. For instance, they may be regularly subjected to innuendo and sexist humor. Women report that they don’t often feel safe speaking up and have a difficult time making their voices heard. To cope, women often find that they have to act like “one of the boys” and accept gender discrimination. In addition, studies have found quite a bit of sexual harassment in tech companies.

Women of color deal with these challenges and more. A Catalyst study found that as a result of microaggressions, professionals of color are in a constant state of being “on guard,” bracing themselves for the next insult or biased act. We call this additional stress “emotional tax,” and we found that it decreases a person’s ability to thrive at work.

Our research also found that people of color who are on guard experience a loss of psychological safety at work—meaning they don’t feel that organizational leaders and team members are supportive or willing to back them up in difficult situations. Not surprisingly, people of color experiencing emotional tax were more likely to leave their employers.

But there are ways tech companies can address these issues so that the women in their ranks are able to thrive and advance.
One approach is to focus on the attitudes and behaviors of the most powerful leaders. Rather than burdening employees from underrepresented backgrounds with the work of “fitting in,” savvy companies are instituting interventions to improve inclusive behavior among senior male leaders. One such program, MARC (Men Advocating Real Change), strives to help men understand the critical importance of gender equality for both women and men.
Catalyst has instituted MARC in several male-dominated companies as a first step in educating senior leaders to help create a culture where women are valued team players and future leaders. Thoughtful programs like this will make a lasting difference in career trajectories for women in tech. Just as importantly, they benefit the companies, which gain access to new potential leaders and a more inclusive workplace for everyone. DW

Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.


Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most
powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone.

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