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Unlocking the X-factors driving women who stay and succeed in tech

We’ve heard the stories of women leaving promising careers in the technology industry due to a number of factors, including institutional barriers and gender bias. While the challenges women face in the tech industry are valid and deserve amplification, the singular focus on the experiences of those who leave can discourage others from pursuing highly rewarding, purposeful and well-paying careers. 

Worse, it supports a myth that women don’t have what it takes to thrive in the industry. This simply isn’t true. Women are innovating and excelling in meaningful tech careers. We wanted to talk with them. 

To build understanding of the industry and empower women in technology fields, our Capital One® Women in Tech survey —released today to coincide with the Grace Hopper Celebration—sought the perspective of 250 senior-level women in the United States who have remained in tech careers at least eight years and, in order to contrast experiences, 200 who left the industry after three or more years.

The results were encouraging and, in some ways, surprising. Here are the key takeaways:

Loving, excelling at and thriving in their careers

When asked why they have stayed in their tech careers, the respondents’ top three answers were “I am good at this work,” “I love the work” and “I enjoy working with other technologists.” Regarding the X-factors that enabled these women to stay and be successful, “the work itself” was among the top five reasons and “intellectually challenging work” topped the list.

Further, 78% of women who stayed in their tech careers said they were happy with their work. In fact, one of our most surprising findings was that both women who stayed and those who left said they were happy with their work; only 2% of women who left said they weren’t. 

This tells us two important things. First, women are enjoying amazing careers in tech, tearing down the myth that women are unhappy with or don’t “fit” into technology work. And second, for those who left their technology careers, something else went wrong—something about their environment or circumstances got in the way of an otherwise fulfilling career.

Clearing environmental hurdles

Respondents who have stayed in their technology careers also cited good, fair pay and benefits as a top reason. When asked why they might consider leaving, they said, “lack of opportunity for advancement,” “compensation that didn’t meet expectations” and “compensation that was unfair compared to my peers.” This is a clear message to employers that compensation and advancement are key to retaining women in the tech jobs they love. 

To women contemplating working in the industry, I want you to know that amazing opportunities are out there, the field is booming and the pay is on the higher end of all jobs. I have had an amazing career in technology spanning three decades. Like the women in this survey who have remained in their careers, I have stayed because I love the work, the people I work with and the ever-changing landscape that pushes me to continue learning. My career also provided me with the means to be more financially independent, which was important on a number of levels.

In one of the more surprising and gratifying outcomes of the survey, women who stayed also cited flexibility as an X-factor behind their longevity in the industry, highlighting that work-life balance has been important and enabling in their tech careers. This has been the case for me and for my female colleagues, too. Compared to other paths, in technology I’ve enjoyed a great deal of flexibility, allowing me to embrace my career while also actively raising my children and pursuing other passions.

Solving problems with grit and purpose

In addition to these workplace factors, we observed that respondents who stayed in technology careers showed a high orientation toward problem-solving and find this type of work particularly rewarding. More than 90% said they are confident or very confident in their ability to solve a difficult technology problem. They also cited having a sense of purpose as a top X-factor in their successful careers.

Another quality stood out: grit—commonly measured by assessing perseverance, focus and confidence. The women who remained in tech highly rated their ability to persevere at work and said their ability to focus is higher or much higher than their peers. 

This tells us a lot about how to attract women to tech careers and retain them over time. Women love to solve real-world problems, and a sense of purpose helps them overcome work challenges. So, rather than overweighting skills that can be taught, such as coding languages, recruiting efforts should consider this problem-solving orientation and ability to persevere as differentiators. And to keep women in technology careers, employers should provide opportunities for continuous skills development that leverage their high confidence for solving tech problems and connect their work to a compelling mission.

I firmly believe we can foster both grit and purpose in how we raise and educate girls. When I talk with girls, I first ask what big problems they would like to solve. I then share how technology can provide them the tools to do so and how important their insights are. It’s a great place to start: spark curiosity for problem-solving and a passion for missions, then foster a love of technology as a path to achieving their goals.

Finding support at work and beyond

In the working world, women should seek support from management and social connections with other women in tech to continue building their skills and develop a purpose-driven mindset. In fact, women who have stayed and thrived in technology careers are twice as likely to say that peer groups of other women are very important for work success. And they strongly agree that having social networks outside of work puts their work in perspective. 

Role models also play a key role for the women who have stayed in tech, a significant difference from those who left. Among those who stayed, 75% said they have (or had) women role models in their company. In contrast, 44% of women who left said they did not.

For women just getting started, connecting with other women as role models and peers—and, later, seeking out younger women to mentor—is critical. And it’s something I have found especially rewarding. In fact, it inspired me to create our Women in Tech program, connecting women in local chapters across the world and giving them the opportunity to learn, support each other, grow and thrive in rewarding technology careers. 

As a woman in tech, or one of our allies, you can leverage these results to help shape a diverse workforce for the future. If we start with our own organizations, we can support broader momentum across the industry to create a new normal of what a technologist looks like. 

To learn more about Capital One’s® Women in Tech Survey, visit this link.

by Julie Elberfeld, Senior Vice President, Card Technology and Executive Sponsor of Diversity and Inclusion for Technology at Capital One