Several years ago, I was working at a major software company. One day, in a meeting about a new mobile app, the product manager used a phrase that comes up a lot in software reviews: "Will it work for your mom?"
While it wasn't my first time hearing the phrase — "so simple your mother could do it" is a trope I've heard in technology nearly every week of my career — that was the first time it struck me as more than just condescending and sexist. It was also illustrative of how inhospitable the industry's work climate can be to motherhood.
Three years later, I'm the CEO of a tech firm that analyzes job descriptions for evidence of demographic bias in hiring. But I also do research of my own, with a focus on the problems faced by women in the technology industry. It's an industry where men far outnumber women, where the women who do stay are often pushed toward non-technical roles, and where the bro-grammer ethos creates a culture that is particularly hostile to mothers with young children.
It's easy to see why so many women leave tech to do other things. But one of the harder questions I wanted to answer is this one: Why do any women stick around, especially in an industry where "will it work for your mom?" is geek-speak for "will dummies like it too?"
In all, I collected stories from 912 mothers who work in technology. While the group is not a fully representative sample of women in the field, it is certainly a large and accomplished group. It includes doctors, PhDs, MBAs, CEOs and company founders. There are graduates of MIT, Stanford and Ivy League schools, as well as self-made women who have created successful tech careers without the benefit of a formal education.
Across this high-achieving set of women, a number of themes emerged. For one, many women stay in tech because their salaries pay the bills. Just 16 percent indicated they have a spouse or partner in a similar or more lucrative profession. The remainder are the major breadwinners for their households, with nearly 30 percent of the women having stay-at-home partners.
Nearly all of them spoke of a strong sense of obligation to deliver a stable income for their families. This often extends beyond their children to include their spouses, whom they want to enable to stay at home or pursue a career path free from financial pressure. As one senior software manager and mother to two girls put it: "There is absolutely no replacement for an IT salary. I didn’t want to leave, but I also would have had no choice [but to stay]."
Breadwinning mothers talk about their earning power with obligation rather than pride. They went into technology because they liked the work, but they are staying because their families need the money. "Liking to code and being paid to learn is why I started. Now the pay is what holds me here," said one software developer with two boys under five.
If you see a feminist victory in the fact that breadwinning moms talk about their jobs the way most breadwinning dads do, don’t celebrate just yet. I was surprised at the number of women who explicitly called out the greater achievement of their partners, even when their spouses are actually less accomplished on paper.
While I didn’t ask the women to compare their jobs to their spouses’, many did: 401 of the women I interviewed (44 percent) volunteered that their partners’ jobs were more intellectual, creative or risky than their own. "My role in the household is to pay the bills," said an aerospace engineer with three kids under eight who is married to a sculpture professor. "I am the practical one. He is definitely a better creative role model for the kids. It’s important that he get to pursue his art, and my income supports that."
Her comments were echoed by hundreds of others. Only about one in 10 of the women talked about being a role model for their children, while roughly a third cited their partners as the more positive influence. One chemical engineer whose husband stays at home with their 10-year-old twins quickly moved past her own achievements to dwell on his. "He is the best role model I can imagine," she said. "I can’t do half of what he can do."
In other words, many of these women aren't recognizing their own choices as important, outside their financial contribution. Perhaps this is just the end result of socialization that teaches women to downplay their own achievements. But it could also be something more: a damaging and potentially corrosive way of thinking that not only keeps women from seeing the personal benefits of their own careers, but does little to inspire their daughters (or sons, for that matter) to follow in their footsteps.
After all, the vast majority of the women I interviewed — some 83 percent — said they had considered leaving tech to do something else. Some wanted to go back to school; about a quarter were interested in part-time work but didn’t believe it was practical; 5 percent said they’d like to stay at home with their kids. And many who did say they wanted to stay in tech were more vocal about their love for the technology and engineering itself than they were about their own careers and ambitions.
The mothers I interviewed would make a dream group of colleagues, motivated by passion for technology and a strong sense of personal responsibility. It’s a shame that as an industry we aren’t doing more to keep them.
But it’s also a shame that as mothers in a demanding industry where we are outnumbered, we aren’t doing more to acknowledge and share our own successes. The women I interviewed bring credentials, experience and a killer work ethic. They balance demanding day jobs with active parenting responsibilities. Both their children and their colleagues are lucky to have them as role models. Yet as a group, they are quick to downplay the significance of their achievements.
As a mother in technology myself, it leaves me wondering: If we can’t claim our contribution, how do we expect anyone else to acknowledge it? It’s well past time to change "Will it work for your mom?" from a question we ask about the ease of a product's use to one we ask about an industry and how well it mentors, attracts and retains the talented women in its midst.
Kieran Snyder is the CEO of Textio and has spent the last 11 years working for technology companies. She holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a mom.