The Truth About Attrition


We love this scene from the movie Coach Carter, in which Coach Carter (played by Samuel L. Jackson) delivers these sobering statistics to his basketball team: “In this county 33% of black males between 18-24 get arrested. So look at the guy on your left. Now, look at the guy on your right. One of you is going to get arrested.”

Now, if you’re a woman working in technology, you only have to look at the woman on your right. Because one of you is going to drop out mid-career. That’s right, the attrition rate in the tech sector for women at mid-career is 56%.

And that is only one scary number. Here’s another: Fewer women enter STEM careers now than they did in 1985. That’s right, 1985. In fact, that number has been steadily dropping since a peak in 1991.

women in tech


The fact is, dropping out of science and math starts in elementary school, and continues right up through graduate school.

There are many, interrelated reasons for this. One reason is that fact that the prevailing stereotypes that women don’t excel in STEM subjects actively discourage them from entering these jobs. Belief becomes reality: Studies show that professors at research institutions strongly favor male applicants over female applicants, even when qualifications are equivalent. Surprisingly, even female professors share the same bias.

But the impact of stereotypes doesn’t stop there. These attitudes also operate in the workplace. It’s an open secret that the work atmosphere in technology is competitive, aggressive, and downright hostile to women. The “guys’ club” macho atmosphere often leaves women out of networks and diminishes their opportunities to advance.

 What does attrition look like?

In our work as executive coaches, attrition is not just leaving work, but also disengagement. Many women, and also many men, drop out by disengaging. They go through the motions, but without enthusiasm or motivation. This kind of “emotionally dropping out” is widespread. In fact, Gallup, who has been tracking employee engagement in the U.S. since 2000 found that only 32% of employees in the U.S. report being engaged at work: involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work

For women, there are many reasons for dropping out, whether it’s literally leaving their work, or simply disengaging:

  • lack of opportunity
  • hostile workplace
  • incompatibility with family needs
  • not seeing a leader role you aspire. Many women feel that what it takes to make it to the top runs counter to their core values. They just don’t see appealing role models for leadership.

The tagline of our Power2 Leaderlab program is this: “You create the game, you create the rules” (thank you Indie.Arie’s for your song, “Just Do You.”) That means: If you want to go, it’s your choice. But do it with intention. Whatever your choice, take charge of the trajectory of your career. Choice is power.

What does it mean to do it with intention? Well, just becoming aware of your lack of engagement is a big insight. We go through the motions, but don’t stop to ask ourselves this important question: Why are we dropping out? We ask our participants to be honest with themselves, to make a deliberate choice by answering these questions.

  1. First of all, even if you stay in your job, in what ways are you dropping out, or disengaging? Are you doing only the minimal, or coasting in some way, resting on what’s familiar or easy?
  1. Are you doing this with intention? Is it a deliberate choice, or do you just find yourself at an impasse in your development? Are you actually depressed that your core values aren’t met at work, frustrated with the lack of opportunity or with the organizational politics?
  1. If you do find yourself disengaged, make a decision. Decide to actively disengage, to coast and enjoy what you have, or to re-engage, and do what it takes to get past the impasse.

Attrition: not just a woman’s problem but a human problem

Business suffers whenever anyone drops out mid-career. Not only is it a huge loss of talent and organizational knowledge, but also robs companies daily in terms of absenteeism, lost productivity, and tardiness.

Changing attrition rates starts by defining it as a human problem, not as a women’s problem. The groups on the margins—women and minorities—are the canaries in the coal mine. They are the first to notice and sound the alarm to an issue that eventually (if not currently) affects us all. But it’s not their problem, no more than car pollution is only a problem for people with asthma. They may notice it first, but it affects us all.

So, if you find yourself disengaging, but don’t want to, then ask yourself what you can do to re-engage. What help do you need to find your motivation, to change a culture that doesn’t suit you, or to find allies to support and challenge you? And in the words of Coach Carter, drop us a line, and we’ll do everything in our power to help you get to the next step.

Spread the word
  • No categories