In an era of job losses, women in tech — and the diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that boost their representation — are taking a hit. Here’s a look at the trends, and what they mean for women in STEM.
By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor
Since early 2022, the tech industry has been rocked by a series of sweeping layoffs that may continue into 2024, with women and underrepresented groups reported to be disproportionately affected. But is this the whole story? And what can women engineers do to rejoin the workforce if they have been affected by these layoffs — or by the pandemic-related work breaks that preceded them?
According to 365 DataScience, a tech workforce training firm, more than 150,000 people were affected by layoffs in high-tech fields in 2022, and by January 2023, another 68,500 had been let go. And Revelio Labs — a workforce data analysis firm that synthesizes U.S. data from sources such as the tech layoff tracker Layoffs.fyi and the talent database Parachute List by Rocket — concluded that those tech industry cuts disproportionately impacted women and other traditionally underrepresented groups. Women and Latino workers, who made up 39% and 9.96% of the tech industry, respectively, were 46.64% and 11.49% of those laid off between September and December 2022, for example.
But those numbers may be misleading. According to 365 DataScience, the highest percentage (34%) of those let go worked in roles dubbed “other,” and the next-highest percent (nearly 28%) worked in human resources (HR) or talent sourcing, while only 22% were actually software engineers. In fact, according to Layoffs.fyi, almost half of human resources and recruitment employees were laid off by tech companies, compared to just 10% of engineers.
Even so, there are data within these findings that may sound an alarm for women engineers and technologists. People with roles specific to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are being cut — and that may mean less emphasis on hiring or rehiring women and other marginalized groups.
“After 2020, global protests against racial injustices led to significant increases in DEI budgets, and there were immense strides in representation for racialized people, women, and more in the tech industry and beyond,” said Maeve Plummer, director of research and learning for the Toronto-based DEI consulting firm Feminuity. “However, many companies follow a ‘last in, first out’ layoff policy, and that is undoing a lot of progress. Under this logic, employees with non-dominant backgrounds, who were more likely to be recently hired, are more vulnerable to layoffs.”
The statistics bear out Plummer’s statement, with 65 percent of HR professionals surveyed by the online publication HR Dive saying they follow last in, first out (LIFO) policies when determining who gets pink-slipped. “We would like to see these decisions be far more data-informed, not just considering tenure, but also performance evaluations, organizational achievements, and existing skill sets, just to name a few factors,” Plummer said.
Layoffs coming on the heels of a global pandemic that had already impacted women disproportionately may seem like another setback, but it also puts the spotlight on possible solutions.
“A huge number of women disappeared from the workforce during COVID. That gap has been somewhat closing but it’s still not great,” said Alexandra Levit, a best-selling author, workplace futurist, and partner at PeopleResults, a talent and business strategy consulting firm. As women seek to re-enter the workforce, whether after a tech layoff or a pandemic-related work break, they are finding that more companies are requiring at least some return to the office, creating a familiar challenge for women hoping to balance careers and families. “This climate is not a super-friendly place for women and underrepresented minorities,” Levit said.
“I think [we need] to reimagine what professionalism and work mean,” Plummer added. “During the pandemic and now with ‘return to work,’ many primary caregivers, who are disproportionately women and transfeminine people, exited the workforce. A key issue is the lack of flexibility in work environments. Companies will better retain and attract people with caregiving responsibilities and many others when they offer flexible schedules, part-time work, project-based work, and remote work options.”
Returning women are also finding barriers in the form of “network bias,” Plummer added. “Dominant groups are more likely to have a robust network with specific connections,” Plummer explained, and that includes connections who can offer referrals. “It’s incredibly important to challenge traditional recruitment methods, like referral processes. When a workplace loses diversity, referrals are even more likely to increase homogeneity, like a feedback loop.”
Doubling Down on DEI
In recent years, social and political storms have revealed a troubling trend. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become politicized, resulting in backlash from some in dominant groups. This blowback isn’t a new phenomenon — it often occurs when a society changes — but how can it be countered?
“It seems like there’s a concerted campaign adding to misinformation,” said Maeve Plummer, director of research and learning for the Toronto-based DEI consulting firm Feminuity. “Ironically, what many workplaces need to do is create safer and braver spaces for skeptics to voice their hesitations around diversity, equity, and inclusion, with subject matter experts who can debunk these ideas and show them why DEI is for everyone and imperative to the future of their enterprise.”
By definition, DEI is inclusive, not partisan or ideological. “It’s rooted in shared values like human rights, fairness, opportunity, inclusion, dignity, and respect,” Plummer said. “All of us, no matter our political orientation, can align on that. With DEI, teams collaborate more effectively, and employee retention meaningfully increases. Teams that invest in DEI are ultimately more creative, innovative, and productive.”
So this is not a time to shrink back, but to double down. “With layoffs being concentrated in functions like DEI, marketing, and HR, coupled with existing patterns of occupational segregation, there is a pronounced adverse impact on groups experiencing marginalization,” Plummer explained. “When you stop making DEI a priority, the representation and outcomes [for] women, racialized folk, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with disabilities are negatively affected.
“In 2020 the trend was to invest in DEI,” Plummer said. “Now it’s about who’s going to stay the course, who is truly invested and committed to these efforts, and who’s just using DEI for optics but not impact.”
Plummer’s thoughts are echoed by DEI consultant Janice Gassam Asare’s recent prediction in Forbes (“The History of DEI Resistance in America,” July 13, 2023): “The DEI space may see several shifts and iterations in the upcoming years,” she wrote. “As climate-related disasters become more prevalent, there will be an increased focus on environmental justice and how it intersects with racial justice. Despite efforts to defund DEI, younger generations of workers will continue to prioritize workplaces that center DEI. Though the language and terminology of DEI will change, the main objective will remain the same: creating environments that help members of the most marginalized communities to thrive.”
Interestingly, it’s women leaders who tend to champion DEI. A recent McKinsey study, Women in the Workplace, found that, compared with men at the same level, “women leaders are up to twice as likely to spend substantial time on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities — such as supporting employee resource groups, organizing events, and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups. They are also more likely than men to take allyship actions such as mentoring women of color, advocating for new opportunities for them, and actively confronting discrimination.”
Mounting a comeback
Losing a job is hard, but Levit advises women who are laid off now to maintain their career momentum. “Getting laid off can spin you into negative self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, but knowing the layoffs affected many people at once can help,” she said. “Freshen up your skill set, look at the skills of people at your level and slightly above, and study job descriptions to see what companies want. Finely tune your resume to those specific things.”
And if you’re returning to work after a few years off, she said, “Things are moving fast and you need to show you understand how things are moving. Having career durability and the applied technology skills will set you apart.
“Five years ago you could rest more on your technology skills and not as much on the oversight of technology, understanding how technology integrated into your job,” Levit added. “You can’t be a tech person now and not have that in your resume in some form.”
Study after study has shown that women self-select out of potential jobs far more often than men, so Levit urges women not to knock themselves out of the running before they even apply. “Even when men only have half the skills for a job, they still apply,” she said. “Have confidence that you can learn things on the fly and trust your experience and ability to assimilate information. Men are absolutely ‘fake it till they make it,’ and we need to get better at that.”
She advises women looking to secure a leadership position to look carefully at organizations to see if there are other women in leadership. Are underrepresented minorities in leadership positions, and have they stayed? “You can read between the lines fairly easily, and if you ask smart questions in interviews you can determine pretty quickly if it’s a place where you can thrive,” she said.
Artificial intelligence (AI) ranks high on the list of technologies to keep up with as it begins to automate many jobs held by humans. “Anyone, not just women, especially in software development, should understand that it’s not going to be as easy to be gainfully employed as it was in the past,” Levit said. “For the last two decades, technology engineering was a wonderful market — you could go almost anywhere and make a great salary because talent was in such short supply. Now, more and more programming and technical engineering roles are being automated. A lot of those jobs are going away, or at least some portions of them.”
Levit, whose online course “Futureproofing Your Career” is part of SWE’s Advance Learning Center, emphasizes building career durability as a safeguard against such external disruptions. “In the case of technical engineers, that means developing an entirely new skill set, gaining the interpersonal skills that you might not have honed over the years because your strength was technical ability,” she said. “Before, you just had to know how to program or build something. Now the role calls for applied technology skills, such as oversight of smart technologies that help you do your job more efficiently.”
Learning how to work with AI, rather than against it, is the key. “Be willing to go out of your comfort zone and figure out how to contribute value in an environment that’s becoming increasingly automated,” she said. “Think about how smart AI might give you insights about your business. You don’t have to build an AI yourself, but you can learn to leverage the people who do.”
Levit said AI can also help boost DEI as a human resources tool. “AI allows us to be less discriminatory during the hiring process, evaluating people based on their skills and not on their name or education,” she said. “For existing employees, AI can benefit DEI by replacing subjective performance reviews with more data-driven feedback.
“But I would caution that AI should be balanced with critical thinking,” Levit added. “There can be bias baked in, simply because AIs are built by fairly homogenous people, typically men between the ages of 25 and 35.”
Laura Gardiner, director analyst for the tech research and consulting firm Gartner Inc., also believes organizations should strike a balance of AI and human data points when making personnel decisions. “There should always be a balance of manager or peer evaluation with system-generated data,” she said. “What that balance is will depend on the quality of your data and the quality of your management. Has the organization invested heavily in manager training and retraining around performance management? Is your data reliable, mature, and validated?”
If nothing else, there are opportunities in today’s job market for those who know how to use AI to their department’s or company’s advantage. Such “AI whisperers,” as they have been called, are commanding significant salaries, according to the Los Angeles Times (“$335,000 pay offered for ‘AI whisperer’ jobs in red-hot market,” March 29, 2023). As women seek to return from this latest round of high-tech layoffs or pandemic detours, learning how to make the most of the latest in AI technologies could be a wise choice.
Outlook for the STEM Pipeline
Though progress toward gender parity remains slow, there are some encouraging numbers for the next generation of women engineers in specific disciplines. According to SWE research, nearly 60% of degrees in environmental engineering in 2022 were earned by women, and more than half of biomedical engineering degrees were. More than 6,000 degrees in mechanical engineering and 4,723 in computer science engineering were earned by women in 2022, showing strong interest from women students.
Does that translate to employment numbers? Those answers are harder to find, though there are certainly industries where talent is in high demand. “The number one area is healthcare,” said Alexandra Levit, a best-selling author, workplace futurist, and partner at PeopleResults, a talent and business strategy consulting firm. “If you can adjust your skill set to the healthcare domain, I think you will probably never have an issue getting employed again.”
In fact, over the next decade, the industries predicted to show the highest percent growth in engineering and computing jobs are construction (13%), healthcare and social assistance (12%), and agriculture (11%,) according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Other sources point to progress for women in STEM fields overall. A National Science Foundation report, “Diversity and STEM: Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities, 2023,” stated: “While men and Whites make up the largest share, the STEM workforce has been gradually diversifying, with increasing representation of women and underrepresented minorities. Fewer women than men work in STEM occupations, but their employment in these jobs grew at a faster rate. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of women in the STEM workforce increased 31%, relative to a 15% increase in the number of men.”
Finally, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 is bound to spark growth among some engineering firms. In an August report (“One Year into the Inflation Reduction Act: Significant Benefits Unlocked, and What Comes Next”), the Roosevelt Institute reported that “[…] nearly $300 billion in public investment is helping catalyze $503 billion in private investment in 21st century industries like clean energy. Analysts at Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs estimate that the total amount of clean energy spending by the public and private sectors by the end of the decade could be between $1 and $3 trillion.”
An August White House fact sheet on the IRA’s progress reiterates that clean energy may be a field worth looking into — for newcomers and returning workers alike. “The private sector has announced more than $110 billion in new clean energy manufacturing investments, including more than $70 billion in the electric vehicle supply chain and more than $10 billion in solar manufacturing,” the sheet states. “[Since 2020,] the private sector has announced approximately $240 billion in new clean energy manufacturing investments.”
The fact sheet also notes: “Investments in clean energy and climate since the IRA was signed into law have created more than 170,000 jobs, and the law is projected to create more than 1.5 million additional jobs over the next decade according to estimates by outside groups.”