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Inhospitable work cultures, isolation and lack of upward mobility. With the job market as strong as it is today in the tech industry, it’s unthinkable that anyone would tolerate those conditions. Yet that’s exactly what thousands of women and people of color must be willing to tolerate if they want to work in the companies driving our state’s most vigorous growth engine.

Researchers have repeatedly highlighted the much higher rate of attrition among women and people of color in the tech industry. While this data set has been openly discussed for years, the numbers aren’t improving. A recent report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted that 80 percent of women in STEM say they love their work and yet 32 percent say they are likely to quit within a year. For black women, this figure rises to 75 percent.

The culture of cruelty in tech is more pervasive than you might think. A broad cross-section of 2,000 U.S. adults who left a job in a tech-related function in the last three years were surveyed about their experiences. A stunning 78 percent of employees reported abuse such as threats, bullying, harassment, sexual assault, etc.

But wait, there’s more. Last year, the Kapor Center for Social Impact released its first “Tech Leavers” study, which reported tech industry losses of more than $16 billion per year in employee replacement costs resulting from voluntary turnover.

Fortunately, the Kapor study also gave some hope. Approximately 60 percent of departing employees said they would have stayed if their employer had addressed the workplace environment issues. So what can companies do to get women and other underrepresented minorities to stick around?

1. Value diversity. Active, consistent celebration of diversity from the CEO and executive team. A young, black mechanical engineer I met from Tufts University needed active sponsorship just to get interviews at most tech companies. Now that he’s been working for a few years, he says that while being one of the few people of color doesn’t get in the way of performing well, he does feel isolated. Having a person of color on your tech team is not a goal. It’s a small start to building an asset of diversity in your company.

Cynthia Mason, SVP of People Operations at Seattle-based Glowforge believes it is important to enable connection among employees to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. And this model has shown to work. The Kapor study reported that creating personal connections among a diverse employee base results in “fewer reports of unfairness, significantly lower sexual harassment, bullying and stereotyping, and lower rates of leaving due to unfairness.”

WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler. (Photo via WTIA)

2. Fully educate on bias. Every company needs to actively build a respectful workplace. While eliminating sexual harassment has been a focus due to the liability risk and more recently the #MeToo movement, it is not enough. Everyone has biases, and everyone can learn to become self-aware as well as help colleagues identify biases. Companies that invest in bias training alongside high standards for respectful behavior among all employees dramatically improve retention among women and people of color.

3. Cultural fit is the enemy. When companies focus on a vague notion of fit, they are isolating unique individuals in the organization, which drives them to leave. Employee differences in cultural background, professional experience, gender, race, and religion are assets. Those differences combine to improve design, execution and economic performance. A culture of celebrating differences means the only “fit” is dedication to the mission. Diverse backgrounds must be celebrated, allowing people to focus on how they can add to the organization, rather than fearing they don’t belong.

4. Ask. It’s really that simple. Company leaders should talk to employees – especially the women and people of color. Ask them what is working, and what’s not. Make ‘stay’ interviews and exit interviews standard practice. Find a way to say yes to whatever is needed to build a more welcoming, outcome-focused environment.

It is notable that the Kapor study of departing employees did not indicate that the culture of mistreatment needed to be eliminated to keep those employees. They only required that the company acknowledge it and genuinely begin the repair. This is a remarkably low bar to keep hard-to-find, high-value talent

We say that we are a data-driven industry. Attrition rates for women and people of color in the technology industry far exceed those for white men. These attrition rates in tech are worse than other industries. Recruiting efforts have been in place for decades to help our employee demographics match our customer base and communities. Yet underrepresented groups are walking away from high-paying jobs. We must make retention a high priority. Those brave companies willing to face their reality are already reaping the social, political, and economic rewards from building a diverse employee base focused on outcomes.

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