This post is co-authored by Lara Hogan, Senior Engineering Manager and Michelle O’Brien, Political Sociologist and Demographer, Doctoral Student at the University of Washington

Lara: My favorite illustration for what it can be like to be a woman in tech uses a bucket. This bucket starts out full, but over time, it drains; like in the illustration death by a thousand cuts, little things start draining what’s in that bucket until we’re running on empty. From stereotype threat to harassment, from having my safety debated online to being asked, yet again, if it’s my boyfriend who codes, my bucket drains. The problem here is that, at least in my case, what’s in my bucket is not a renewable resource.

I wonder, how many of us have daydreamed about the day we leave tech? How many of us have thought about deleting Twitter and being done with it all? How many of us have intentionally reduced our activity at conferences and online, not because we want to slow our careers, but because of what we have to endure? How many of us have left?

Michelle: There is a socio-economic theory that fits this really well. It’s Albert O. Hirschman’s theory of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. It basically says this: If a customer of a firm (or, a citizen of a state, as the case may be) is dissatisfied, she has three options.

  1. She can exercise voice, and by speaking up, she may affect the firm’s practices and create change.
  2. She can exercise exit, by leaving the firm and going to another firm. In this case, exit might also include leaving tech altogether.
  3. She can do nothing and hope for the best, while suffering the consequences of the grievance or the declining product.

Which of these options she takes is conditioned on loyalty, that is, how deeply she feels invested, either emotionally or financially to the organization.

Lara: I feel that. I think at this point after exercising voice, many women in tech have taken option two: leaving. And very quietly. Every time I see that harasser get a new, shiny job, I inch towards the Exit door. Every time I get mansplained to about Performance, the topic on which I wrote a book, I eye up other industries. Right now, I’m working with option one, speaking up; I’m here to try and make it better for the people who come next. But it’s definitely waning on me. And I’m wondering what happens when a lot of us do leave.

Michelle: What happens in the theory is that mass exit can signal to the ones left behind that there are widespread grievances and that the firm is losing its customers/innovators, etc. This can trigger collective action. However, if mass exit becomes too large, then it deteriorates the networks that are critical to effectively carrying out collective action and exercising voice. So that, if too many people leave, it depletes the human capital necessary for collective action and can stifle voice, so to speak. Basically, if the do-ers all leave, then who is left but the non-do-ers? And then the grievances don’t get aired, and the chances of change are diminished.

Lara: Wow. So what are you saying would happen to the tech industry?

Michelle: An organization facing mass exit can go through a pretty serious crisis because of this. Maybe it goes under. When political sociologists apply this theory to entire states and not just firms, we argue that the costs of going under are too high. Unlike a firm, a state cannot simply go under without some serious fall-out. (Think of the compromises that Greece was in the position to accept with Angela Merkel in the last few years. The Greek state has a very big job to do, pensions to protect, people to represent, so it cannot go under.) So what happens in states is that this pattern emerges between emigration of the highly talented (brain drain) and a peak in collective action.

Lara: Which is kind of like what we’re seeing now: a peak in tweets about women in tech issues, as well as the exodus of prominent women in tech. What happens next?

Michelle: It depends. Sometimes, like in East Germany, emigration fuels collective action as those left behind are struck by how widespread the grievances are, and how many people are leaving. They respond to the signal that mass exit sends. Those who were loyal to the regime stayed behind and protested because they had to. They had so much invested. They wouldn’t leave, but they recognized the damaging effects of mass migration, and critically, they believed that they could wield some influence on the state. Because they believed that their collective action would be effective, they protested. And the Berlin wall comes down at the end of this story. (If you’re getting goosebumps and want to read more, I recommend Steve Pfaff’s engaging book, Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of East Germany: The Crisis of Leninism and the Revolution of 1989.) Of course, tech is not East Germany. There are no violent crackdowns on protest, there is no Berlin Wall, there are no guards to stop women from leaving the industry altogether.

Lara: So what you’re saying is, there’s a framework to talk about what is happening in tech that could lead to some interesting revelations.

Michelle: Yes, I think two major points come out of applying this framework to tech. First, that there is a connection between women speaking up and women leaving the industry. Second, that an important (and actionable!) facet of whether women in tech choose to exit en masse is the perceived efficacy of exercising their voice in the workplace.

If previous experience has demonstrated that the cost of speaking up is low, and the probability that you will be heard is relatively high, odds are that more women will do what you’re doing: choose to stick around and make the industry healthier for those who come after you. If the reverse is true, however, and the cost of speaking up becomes too high - whether it is because you’re not being heard, or people are getting harassed or fired because they are speaking up - then the equation shifts and I think more women will exit.

Lara: What I like about this framework is that there’s hope that women will identify with something here and understand why. And that regardless of what they’re feeling, or how close they are to leaving, I hope they know that it’s normal to feel this way, and they’re not alone.

Michelle: Absolutely. There’s a role for women who are leaving. And there’s a role for those who stay behind, women and men. If the women who are leaving the industry are aggrieved and frustrated and harassed and have had it up to here with this nonsense - are the people who stay receiving that signal? Are they primed to hear the signal? Or are they shutting down? Turning off the radio? Plugging their ears and singing “la la la la” so they don’t have to hear it?

Lara: So there’s a role for each of us. I want to ask you, dear reader, what are you doing to change the tide?

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