The XX Factor

The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women

On the business side of tech, women are much more likely to start at the bottom of the ladder and have a harder time rising.

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A few weeks ago, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put his foot in it at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women and Computing. He said women shouldn’t ask for raises because, “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise.” A new report out today from Catalyst shows that the system isn’t working out so great, at least for women who are on the business side of tech companies.

Catalyst surveyed nearly 6,000 MBA grads working in business roles in tech companies in the U.S. and Canada. Women with MBAs are 6 percent less likely to take their first post-MBA job in the tech industry compared with men. Of those who do enter tech, women MBAs are hobbled by their gender: They are significantly more likely to start off at an entry-level job than their male counterparts (55 percent of women start off entry-level, compared with 39 percent of men), and because they’re starting at a lower level, they earn less money. (The Wall Street Journal has a good accounting of how these salary differentials can have huge impacts over time.)

It’s not just the pay gap that’s an issue for women. I talked to two women who work on the business side of tech companies, and their experiences jibe completely with Catalyst’s research. One woman, a recent Harvard Business School grad, has found that her gender has been a double-edged sword. Her first job out of HBS was as a product manager at a big tech company. She was the only woman out of five on her team, and she felt “like being a woman was a good thing in terms of getting management experience.” She stood out from the crowd, and she was offered a promotion before she decided to leave.

But she worried about the lack of mentors and role models for her at the company if she climbed the ladder. You really need a mentor to get to the uppermost levels, she says—someone who will stick her neck out for you. (Catalyst has found that men have higher-ranking mentors than women tend to, which results in more promotions and better compensation.) When I asked why she couldn’t just have a male mentor, she told me that she would prefer a female mentor, because there’s no chance for misunderstanding. She worries that if she tried to find a male mentor, he might misconstrue her professional interest for personal interest. At the big tech company, “There weren’t too many female leaders to look up to. The ones who were there were struggling to balance work and life, and when they had a child they would peel back the hours.” The Catalyst report notes that the lack of role models is a problem and that it leads women to downsize their aspirations much more than men do.

Then she moved to a startup, where the work culture was a much bigger problem. She didn’t get promoted there. “Did the fact that I was a woman and international hurt me? Did that stand in the way of my fitting in?” she wonders, before saying, “Management was pretty white and pretty male.” Another woman I spoke to, who works on the business side of an education-tech startup and is also a minority, feels that the overwhelmingly white, male culture at her company works against her. There are only a handful of people at the top level at her company, and they are all white dudes. “It’s pretty clear to everyone that there’s only a certain kind of person who will have access to influence.” She describes a very specific kind of athletic, hard-drinking culture that excludes not just women, but also minority men. “It’s very fraternal,” she says. Again, the Catalyst report backs this up, noting, “Among those who took their first post-MBA job in a tech-intensive industry in a business role, men were more than three times as likely as women to say that they felt similar to most people at work (men, 83%; women, 27%).”

And then there’s just straight-up sexism. The woman who works at the ed-tech company says that a few weeks after she started her job, a group of her co-workers was discussing a hotel grand opening promotion where women were allegedly dancing naked in the picture windows. One co-worker “said he could totally picture me doing that,” she remembers. “He thought he was funny! I had to let it go, because he wasn’t a bad guy overall.”

It will not surprise you to learn that women with MBAs are 22 percent more likely to leave the tech industry than their male peers. The HBS grad left her tech startup to work in media, but she still reports some gender-based barriers to advancement. The guys on her team have a standing weekly poker night: No women are ever invited. “Those informal sessions are invaluable from a business perspective, that really move the needle, and I’m not privy to those,” she says.

Both women emphasized the fact they didn’t think any of their male bosses were bad guys—not at all. But their experiences and, more conclusively, the Catalyst numbers show yet again that it’s not enough to tell women and minorities they need to “sit at the table,” as Sheryl Sandberg has, and as Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen emphasized in a recent New York magazine interview. This goes for all female MBAs, not just the ones in tech—there’s a pay gap for all female MBAs, and it gets worse over time. Companies need to do the work themselves to make room at that table and tell the white guys to scoot over.