Re-Recruit From the Leaky Pipeline

How did we become so invisible, irrecoverable stats in dreary headline after dreary headline? And what would be possible if we weren’t?

by Seonaid Lee on July 21st, 2015

Pop quiz: Who is going to be the fastest to learn new technical skills, and get them up and running to a production level?

  1. A mid-level manager with no coding experience
  2. A 17-year-old “tech wizard” with two years of hacking experience
  3. An elementary student who loves Minecraft
  4. A 40-year-old mother of three with a graduate degree in a technical discipline who has been home with the kids for a decade

I’ve been watching two sets of articles go past my news feed for years. The first calls to get more people into STEM. The second reports on the attrition of women from those very same disciplines. They focus on different stages: what happens to girls’ confidence levels in high school, how the tenure track plays out, what happens to highly qualified women in IT. They show the steady loss of female talent at all stages of development due to systemic bias and structural barriers — not women’s inherent capabilities or work ethic.

After nearly 20 years of reading such articles, I see increasing concern that we’ve been unable to plug the “leaky pipeline”. What I almost never see, though, is anybody suggesting that maybe we could be doing something to bring these women back.

A rusty, curving pipe along a river.

Photo CC-BY David Medcalf, filtered.

I’m the 40 (well, 43) year old mother of three in number 4 up there. I’m also a drip in the pipeline. That is to say, I have fallen out of STEM on more than one occasion, and eventually dribbled out of the vestiges of my technical career in pursuit of my husband’s tenure track job. For several years I clung stubbornly to the fact that I had made rational decisions, that somebody had to pay the bills, that I couldn’t very well have kids while working in a nuclear research facility, that I was more interested in education anyway… but I recently looked around and realized that even though I thought I had been operating from a place of free will, I have wound up in exactly the same position as my mother and mother-in-law 30 years ago. There was some distress.

My story took a sudden twist last fall when I enrolled in a pilot program to develop the technical and entrepreneurial skills of aspiring tech founders. The program made a targeted effort to recruit women, and reserved 50% of the seats for female students. I probably wouldn’t have applied without the signal that I was not only welcome, but encouraged. My earlier technical training, while staggeringly out of date, has been helpful in getting up to speed with the current technologies faster than most of my classmates. Yet as I reach the end of the program and start looking for either funding or employment, I am repeatedly cautioned that I’m likely to have difficulties because of my age.

My question is, why? I’m a far better developer than I was at 27. I can think more clearly and I have more experience to bring to my work. I can prioritize, juggle responsibilities, make reasonable estimates and meet deadlines. Yet my age and my non-linear work history, rather than being assets and a sign of creativity and resilience, are seen as non-starters.

What is the nature of a narrative that recognizes structural reasons for attrition from STEM, but doesn’t have a corresponding discussion of, “Hey, I wonder how we could get those people back?”

How did we become so invisible, irrecoverable stats in dreary headline after dreary headline? And what would be possible if we weren’t?

Although there has been a recent call to abandon the “leaky pipeline” metaphor, it gives us a clue of how we think about education and career development: fluids in pipes start somewhere and end up somewhere else. They don’t flow backwards, they don’t stop at some point in the pipe and hang out for a while, and they only branch at predetermined locations. The pipeline models success, growth and end states in a manner that implicitly assumes an unencumbered white male, with access to adequate financial and emotional supports, unharmed by structural oppression, with few external drivers competing for his time, and the ability to progress smoothly ever-forward. And as a metaphor, the pipeline envisions attrition as a one-way, absolute process; the people who leave almost waste material, lost forever.

Photo of a group of coders, primarily women, working around a table.

Photo CC-BY Jon Lim, filtered.

One of the things that is common across most STEM disciplines is that they are all-consuming. Dedication is proven by sacrificing everything else, or fitting “life” into the niches left after an 80-hour (plus) work week. The training period is long and likely to be supported on student loans, or paid below subsistence level. As we have broadened the recruitment pool at the front end, we have more people in the system who experience real structural conflicts between identities, some of which result in their choosing to abandon their technical careers. “I cannot balance these things. Something has to go, and it can’t be my (aging parents, children, outstanding bills, mental health) any longer. It will have to be the dreams of (science, code, mathematics, a corner office).”

There are losses all along the route; we are not only missing out on talented young people who never went to study in the first place, but even people who are fully trained and choose to leave the field. Attrition continues long after women go out to the workplace, even into the senior ranks of management.

A large scale study of attrition from doctoral programs, identifies an “attribution error” that arises through this process. We have an intellectual understanding of structural issues, but on a case by case basis, we still wind up unconsciously believing that the process is fair. If a person cannot “succeed” in a particular structure, the cause is thought to lie with them. What might be more surprising, the study found that many people integrate these beliefs not just about abstract others, but also about themselves.

When a complex, messy life comes into conflict with the role of scientist or technologist, there is no real mechanism for rebalancing. Under the rubric of “dedication”, having no conflicting roles turns out to be a vital component in assessing whether the person moves forward in their career. Stopping out or shifting to a part-time position is seen as failure, a sign that the person is not qualified for the work. Not only do colleagues left behind wind up believing this, but the person who has left does as well. I think that this is the reason the leaky pipeline remains a one-way road. We, who have stopped out, or walked away, or changed careers, presume that returning would be impossible. In my case, it took somebody else saying, “You know, you used to be pretty good at that. Maybe you should give it a shot.”

Once Burned

A dandelion plant growing out of asphalt.

Photo CC-BY Jelle, cropped and filtered.

Coming to the end of this writing process, I find myself less confident than when I started. I started out wondering why I was invisible, even to myself. After spending a week reading stories about why people (women, minorities, people with working class backgrounds) are still leaving, it seems to me even worse than it was 20 years ago. Tolerating hostile environments and doing the work of integrating are just part of the job, and they aren’t rewarded.

One of the things I have been thinking about, lying awake while pondering what comes next, is what a company would have to do to deserve to have access to this pool of talent, those lost from the pipeline. We were socialized to prove ourselves in job interviews, to show up willing, to work overtime, to volunteer for the emotional labor, and to accept subordinate roles because we were lucky to be there at all… but once we’ve left, and once we’ve regained our confidence, a lot of us aren’t willing to do that any longer. Maybe it is time to abandon the leaky pipeline metaphor, and reclaim our own skills and talents, rather than accept a role as raw materials to be moved around at whim by a system. Or worse, to contort and diminish ourselves in order to fit in the pipes.

I started with the question, “Why am I invisible, even to myself?” But by the end of the process, I wondered why I wanted to be noticed. I caught myself seeking the approval of the system even as I hold it under scrutiny. The irony is that, as I write this, I find myself wondering whether anybody will want to hire me, knowing I’ve got their number. But then I remind myself that the “stack ‘em and burn ‘em like cordwood” approach was prevalent the last time I stopped working IT, and I don’t want those jobs anyway.

I would extend this advice to the tech industry: in hiring from this pool, you’re pulling from a premium resource, and one that is unlikely to play the games the way you’re used to.

Hey, tech company, you’re just gonna to have to be twice as good for candidates this skilled to even consider you.