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Tech Leavers Study: Tech is a hostile work environment if you’re not a straight white dude

Jane Elizabeth
© Shutterstock / Bruxelle Tech is particularly unfriendly to LGBT workers, who were most likely to be bullied in the workplace.

The latest study on workplace culture in tech shows that a toxic work environment contributes to tech’s overall diversity problems and costs the industry more than $16 billion each year. Quelle surprise.

Do racist jokes matter to workplace culture? What about homophobic ones? Or sexist ones? What do you do if your coworkers make jokes about your immigration status, or tease you about your sexual orientation? Or how about if your boss makes sexist complaints about your work, while less competent coworkers of a different gender slide by without a complaint? What then? Often, the only way a person can deal with this situation is by leaving.

The 2017 Tech Leavers Study brings no surprises to anyone who has been paying attention. Toxic workplace environments do in fact affect employee turnover.  This is the first representative study of tech workplace culture or “what experiences drive employees out of the door”.

Despite numerous diversity indicatives, tech is still increasingly homogeneous. Yet, year after year show dismal growth in diversity stats from the biggest tech companies on down to the smallest start-ups. As the Kapor Center put it, “We know that the causes for disparities in tech are complex; biases and barriers exist throughout the tech pipeline from K-12 education through the tech workforce and venture capital. But to what extent does tech culture drive out talent, resulting in a revolving door for underrepresented groups?”

I am shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in here

Lots of attention is put at the so-called pipeline problem, but little is focused on employee retention. With a poll designed by the Kapor Center for Social Impact and help from Harris Poll, the online survey reached slightly over two thousand adults who left a tech job within the last year. The sample was weighted to reflect current US demographics, including accounting for age, gender, geographic region, race/ethnicity, income, household size, marital status, employment and education.

Here’s what they found:

  • 1 in 10 women experienced unwanted sexual attention
  • 37% of respondents said that unfairness or mistreatment was a major reason as to why they left a company.
  • Men of color were most likely to leave due to unfairness.
  • LGBT employees were most likely to be bullied and/or experience public humiliation.
  • 78% of employees reported experiencing some form of unfair behavior or treatment

This study backs truisms about Tech’s unfriendliness to its female employees. Tech companies were show to be more unfriendly to women than non-tech companies.  Women from all backgrounds experienced and observed significantly more unfairness than men.

SEE MORE: The 17% Problem: Why does the percentage of women in computer science stop there?

Things didn’t improve for men and women of color. They experienced stereotyping at twice the rate of White and Asian men and women. 30% of underrepresented women of color were passed over for promotion.

Experiencing and observing unfairness was significantly predictor of leaving due to unfairness, and the more bullying experienced, the shorter the length of time that employees remained at their previous company.

The staggering cost of unfairness

Let’s say you don’t care about diversity. There’s still a massive expense to this constant exodus of underrepresented employees from tech jobs beyond the human cost. For one, this unfairness costs companies an estimated $16B per year.

Roughly 40% of survey respondents left a company because of unfairness in the workplace. Based on current estimates from the Kapor Center, the staggering costs of employee turnover cost a tech company roughly $144,000 per person in lost productivity, recruiting costs, salary, and other expenses. That’s a lot of money lost by a company just for the pleasure of cracking unfunny racist jokes.

There are additional costs to companies based on this sort of turnover. Loss of reputation means that former employees would be less likely to refer their former employer to jobseekers or even avoid their products. The internet means anyone can publicize the way they were treated at a company; articles about a specific workplace can serve as a warning to other potential employees. The whole point of inclusivity is that people create better things if there are more points of view in the room. What is tech losing out on if it limits itself to just one?

Silver linings?

Despite the unrelenting bad news, the Kapor Center for Social Impact had an optimistic final takeaway. They found that tech companies can retain talent by taking proactive steps to improve workplace culture.  Almost two-thirds of tech leavers said that they would have stayed at their previous job had their employer fixed the toxic workplace.

Other findings showed that a company could achieve lower rates of unfairness, sexual harassment, bullying, stereotyping, and lower rates of employee loss through a diversity and inclusion strategy. This strategy was found to be much more effective than any individual efforts, like unconscious bias training.

Tech companies have a lot of work to do if they want to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce. But at least there’s a small road map for how they can move forward.


The full Tech Leavers Study is available for free here.

Jane Elizabeth
Jane Elizabeth is an assistant editor for

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