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Silicon Valley needs to change how it treats working mothers

‘I came back to work from maternity leave, and a month later, I was let go’

Illustrations by Caitlin Foster

Over and over, Emily Holtz Patterson heard the same questions when she started looking for work a few months after the birth of her second daughter:

“So, I see this gap on your resume… "

“Are you sure you want to come back? Are you sure you want to go back to work?"

“Tech changes so fast. How are you going to keep up?”

Patterson has a degree in management information systems and 10 years of tech industry experience; it had never taken her more than six weeks to find a job. But for the first time in her career, she was sending out volleys of job applications, and getting only a handful of screening calls in return. When she did interview, she found herself repeatedly answering the same question: what was this mysterious gap on her résumé?

Patterson’s experience reflects a dilemma in the tech world. Faced with growing criticism of Silicon Valley’s gender diversity problem, many tech companies have invested in feel-good programs that encourage girls to pursue STEM learning, like Girls Who Code and Iridescent, or to study computer science in college. But it’s only just starting to work on the other side of equation: providing the training opportunities, flexibility, and mid-career on-ramps that make it possible for women to stay in the tech world after having kids.

A 2013 analysis found that half of female STEM professionals leave the field within 12 years

The data on the career trajectory of women in computing shows why this challenge is so critical for the future of the industry. A 2013 analysis found that half of female STEM professionals leave the field within 12 years, compared with less than 20 percent of women in other professional fields. These women aren't switching to other fields; rather, STEM professionals are much more likely than other professionals to leave the workforce altogether after having kids.

The reason may be an industry culture that stymies mid-career women. A 2016 report from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) blames the retention issue on “workplace conditions, a lack of access to key creative roles, and a sense of feeling stalled in one’s career.”

That makes women coming back from maternity leave or child-rearing — often referred to as “returning women” — a key test for the industry. Returning women can be rebuffed by an industry that is often criticized for its institutional and cultural biases against women — or they can be embraced as a way of closing the industry’s gender gap.

“The tech industry is desperate for highly skilled workers,” observes Lisen Stromberg, author of Work, Pause, Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. “They need to reframe their hiring policies so that women want to work for them.”

Those hiring policies can be particularly tough for women who are trying to return to technical roles. During an interview process, “a lot of what you’re asked is, ‘tell me about a project you’ve worked on recently’,” says Kathryn Rotondo, an iOS developer who now works for online training company Udacity. Rotondo is the creator and host of Motherboard, a podcast that collects stories from mothers working in the tech field. Rotondo’s own experience returning to development work after the birth of her son a decade ago informs her understanding of the subject.

“The team I was on at the time was an ActionScript development shop,” Rotondo recalls, referring to a programming language that was widely used in the days when Macromedia Flash ruled the interactive web. “The iPhone had come out, and Flash was being killed, so the work was drying up on my team… I came back to work from maternity leave, and a month later, I was let go.”

Suddenly, Rotondo was in the middle of a job hunt — but with a rapidly depreciating skill set, and a baby at home. “I remember my colleagues going home and studying up and making passion projects on iOS,” she says. “I was going home to my baby, and still nursing at night and being exhausted and not having the wherewithal to keep up with changing tech. That made me a less valuable person on my team, and made it harder to find work when I was out of work.”

“I came back to work from maternity leave, and a month later, I was let go.”

Stromberg argues that women tend to overestimate the skill barrier to returning to work. “There’s the perception that if you’re out of the path, it’s too hard to get back in.” But she notes that women who return to the workplace after pausing to have kids often come back with significant soft skills, like knowing how to make efficient use of their time.

“You can teach someone a new computer program, but you can’t teach someone these soft skills very easily,” Stromberg says. “I talked to one CEO who basically said to me, this is my secret weapon: I go out and hire these women and they rock my world because they are more mature and more committed. A lot of executives found these returning women very effective after they got over the immediate hump of ‘I need to learn this month’s version of Slack.’” 

Diane Flynn is focused on helping women get over that very hump. After pausing her paid work for 16 years, she returned to work as the CMO for GSVLabs. While she was initially overwhelmed by all the new tech tools she had to learn, it didn’t take her long to get back up to speed. Soon, she started hearing from other women who envied her return to the working world.

“There were so many people in my community who wanted to do what I just did,” she tells me. “What I heard over and over was ‘I have no confidence.’ It hit me that there is this huge pool of talent that is not being deployed.”  

“What I heard over and over was ‘I have no confidence.’”

Those conversations inspired Flynn to team up with a small group of women to found Reboot Accel, a “career accelerator” focused on getting women back into the workplace. From an initial eight-week cohort of 50 women, the company has expanded to eight cities across the country, and more than 700 women have now participated in its programs over the past two years. This fall, it’s running a road show with a group of companies, including Facebook, Survey Monkey, and JetBlue, that are actively trying to recruit women who are returning to the workforce.

Flynn is keen to note that tech professionals are not unique in facing barriers to re-entry. “Any role you take now has a technology component that probably didn’t exist a few years ago,” Flynn says. “If you’re in HR, you need to know how to use a CRM. If you’re in law, you have to know how to use Google Docs. We use Slack one week, and the next we’re using Telegram. There are so many things you have to know and just be comfortable with.”

While the skills required to return to the tech workforce depend on the particular role, the need for flexibility is a constant. Flexibility is what drove Maura, who wished to remain anonymous for this article, to take on a part-time contract with a well-funded startup rather than a full-time job when she returned to tech after having her second child. Soon, she was working 30 hours a week, and talking with the company about turning her contract work into an actual job.

That’s when things fell apart. “I was told to choose between a permanent full-time position, which was described as 50 to 60 hours a week, or to continue on a part-time contract — which would mean no benefits and no equity and not great pay. And I was told that the reason I was being asked to work these longer hours was because they needed to ramp up the velocity by hiring someone who could work longer hours.”

“There is research that shows that if you work more than 40 hours, you get less productive,” Maura observes. “It is extremely frustrating to me as a parent, and as someone whose spouse works two jobs, to be told that to be effective I have to work more than 50 hours a week. If you can’t figure out what to do with someone who has lots of seniority and skills, just because they don’t have as many hours available as someone with fewer family responsibilities, then maybe you need stronger management skills.”

“This isn’t a women’s issue. This is a business issue.”

Maura’s experience reflects one of the key recommendations in NCWIT’s 2016 report on increasing women’s participation in computing: supporting flexible schedules by making flexibility the norm for all employees.

Stromberg vehemently agrees. “This isn’t a women’s issue. This is a business issue,” she tells me. “We have spent the last 20 years making this a women’s issue. In that time, women’s workforce participation has stagnated, while [other countries in] our peer group [have] made huge progress. It’s affecting our economy… we have a talent crisis coming up if we can’t keep women and men engaged.”

After interviewing women throughout the tech industry for her podcast, Rotondo thinks that companies are now doing a better job of providing the kind of flexibility that makes it easier to return to the tech workforce. “I’ve seen a lot of companies expand their leave,” she says. “I’ve seen companies work on improving their processes for things like training managers to talk about leave, so that the first conversation they have with an employee who announces their pregnancy is not the first time they’ve ever talked about it. I’ve seen companies work on providing a more consistent and better experience for women returning from leave.”

What’s still missing, Rotondo observes, are “those on-ramps to help women — or maybe dads who left — get back into technical roles.” One promising approach to building these on-ramps lies in “returnships”: apprenticeship programs aimed at getting mid-career professionals back into the workplace. While the specifics of these programs vary from company to company (here’s a partial list), typical returnships are designed to ease the return to work for people (often women) who’ve been out of the workforce for an extended period of time. Returnships offer a combination of paid work experience, mentoring, and skills training, and may last anywhere from eight weeks to a full year. At the end of a returnship, a returner may or may not be hired as a regular employee, but at the very least, they have more recent experience on their résumé — and some new skills and contacts.

While returnships have occasionally been criticized for exploiting the insecurity of mid-career returners, Flynn thinks they can play a useful role in bringing women back to work. “Diversity and inclusion people love the idea of hiring returners,” Flynn says, “but then you get to the hiring managers, and they get scared that these people are dinosaurs. So returnships are low-cost, and low-risk. They give both people a chance to try it out.”

That kind of mid-career entryway may be particularly valuable for women who are seeking their first technical positions after having children, like Eraina Ferguson. Ferguson decided to move into the tech field when she was expecting her third child.

“You may need to dedicate three months or six months to skilling back up.” 

“I built my first app through this program called Apps Without Code when I was literally nine months pregnant,” says Ferguson. “I auditioned for Apple’s Planet of the Apps and got to the second round; I was able to submit the basic framework for a jobseekers app, and I did it without code. And I was like, ‘Wow, I can do this without code. But is that really what I want to do?’” Ferguson subsequently enrolled in an online course that’s now training her to be a front-end developer, with the idea that she can build her startup — or get a full-time job. 

Ferguson’s investment in her own tech skills maps onto the advice Rotondo has for mothers who are trying to return to technical positions. “You may need to dedicate three months or six months to skilling back up,” she says. “I would encourage other moms to have patience with that process.”

Patience paid off for Patterson. After running a gauntlet of hiring managers who scratched their heads at the 18-month gap in her résumé, she connected with ItemMaster, a tech startup that hired her for their product management team.

“My current boss was very comfortable with the fact that this happens, and it’s not a big deal,” Patterson says. “Because it’s a smaller company, there’s a lot less ingrained expectations. Because we are a smaller team, it’s a lot more flexible.”

Her experience reflects the words of wisdom Stromberg likes to pass on to mothers who are looking to return to the work world — whether in the tech sector or beyond.

“Don’t worry about the path,” Stromberg says. “Make sure you’re choosing the right company.”