Understanding Mid Career Exodus of Women in Technology


Actually the mid-career exodus of women isn’t limited to technology careers. However, it does seem to be more prevalent. So why is that? Why are women leaving their careers just when things are suppose to be heating up?

In the article Why Business Needs Feminine Leadership by MONIQUE SVAZLIAN, she narrows the reasons for the mid career exodus down to three:

  1. Unconscious Bias around Gender stereotypes
  2. The Double Bind
  3. Likeability Gap

I have addressed the issue of unconscious bias in the article Dealing with the Unrecognized Bias Toward Women in the Boardroom. The fact is that we all have unconscious bias in the work place and so the first step toward addressing and changing that fact is to first acknowledge it. If women are in a work place where they are constantly struggling to feel valued and a part of the team, this will soon lead to thoughts of making a change. Thus a mid career exodus; not necessarily out of the work force entirely, but perhaps to another industry that is more welcoming for women leaders.

I was less familiar with the phrase “double bind” until Monique’s article. She describes it as follows:

Most of us still have trouble associating women with the word “leader” or “leadership.” The result of this is that women are faced with a double bind, and are sent confusing messages as to what leadership style is most appropriate. Most women end up adopting the traditional “command and control” style of leadership that has been the dominant approach for over a century.

Carolina Turner offers another definition is double bind in her article Obstacles for Women in Business: The Double Bind, which is this:

If a woman behaves in a “feminine” way, she may be liked, but she may not be respected or seen as a leader. If she operates in a “masculine” way, however, she may be judged and disliked.

As women struggle to find their true leadership style, juggling back and forth between what they believe is the right way versus the examples male leaders within their organization offer, they find themselves in an unenviable position of not being liked.

In Monique’s article she talks about an experiment that was conducted at Columbia which demonstrates how the unconscious bias can lead to an unlikable position:

Researchers from Columbia’s Business School asked students to appraise the resume of an entrepreneur called Howard Roizen. His resume showed that Mr. Howard had worked at Apple, launched his own software company and been a partner at a venture capital firm. He was a proficient networker and had very powerful friends including Bill Gates. Colleagues described him as a “catalyst” and a “captain of industry”. The students thought he’d be an excellent person to have within a company because he was someone who got things done and was likeable.

Now the interesting part of this experiment was that Mr. Howard didn’t actually exist. When students were asked to review the true owner of the resume, Ms. “Heidi” Roizen, they judged her to be more selfish and less desirable than Mr. Howard, even though she was viewed as being equally as effective.

You might think “how is that possible?” The resume was the same – the only difference being the gender and yet one was viewed as effective and the other as selfish.

“Your career is not a solo sport: JJ DiGeronimo

Imagine going to work everyday knowing that is the struggle you are facing each day. So how do women in leadership, especially those women in technology or other male dominate fields survive and thrive rather than succumbing to the desire of a mid career exodus?

Carolina Turner offers a few ideas:

Women can try to make others aware of this obstacle. I suggest they do so without judgment or blame, by noting that it is not intentional or malicious. Or we can respond to “coaching moments,” like when my boss told me I had an “edge.” I worked in a group of very tough men. I calmly asked him, “Compared to whom?” I was respectfully asking him if he would apply the term “edge” to my much “edgier” male colleagues.

However, just like with many other things in life, it comes down to a delicate balancing act. A Stanford study revealed that those women able to toggle back and forth in their leadership styles are most successful:

In the business world, women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident but who can turn these traits on and off, depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women, according to a recent study coming out of Stanford GSB.

Rather than leave a career you have prepared for and worked within for years because of a struggle due to unconscious bias, learn to rely on your innate feminine traits while also adopting more masculine leadership characteristics:

“The interesting thing here is that being able to regulate one’s masculine behavior does not simply put women on par with men, it gives them even more of an advantage,” notes Olivia O’Neill, PhD ’05, assistant professor of management at George Mason University. “This shows that for women who do want success at the managerial level, the paths are there.”

The study also showed that self-monitoring masculine women received 1.5 times as many promotions as feminine women, regardless of whether those women were high or low self-monitors. “There is no evidence that ‘acting like a lady’ does anything except make women more well liked,” O’Neill said. “Women with ultra-feminine traits, in fact, are still seen as less competent in traditional managerial settings.”

It comes down to desire. How important is it to succeed and become a leader in the technology field? If you are considering a mid career exodus from your technology position, consider first the options available to you.

  • Seek out the counsel of other women in leadership who have managed to successfully develop a style that garners the respect of her male counterparts while still being effective.
  • Speak out to other women about your challenges.
  • Be honest with your manager.
  • Seek opportunities to learn more and to take on projects that allow you to demonstrate your expertise.

Remember, your career is not a solo sport. It takes a network of peers, mentors and sponsors to help you advance to the level you desire. You don’t have to go it alone. Trust me. In my travels I have encountered so many women in the middle of their career who are struggling with the same issues. Together, we can make a difference in how women are perceived and received.

IMG_5268cJJ DiGeronimo, keynote speaker for women, based in Cleveland, presents keynote addresses on women in leadership, diversity in business and advancement for women.

Share This Post


More to Explore

Picture of JJ DiGeronimo

JJ DiGeronimo

Speaker, Author & Thought Leader for Women in Tech & Girls in STEM.

Free Tools for High-Impact Women


Let's Connect

Connect with me on social or join 3,000+ other women by joining the Tech Savvy Women (TSW) LinkedIn Group.