By Hannah Birch, MD Digital at Node4

Recent diversity discussions within the technology sector have mostly addressed the issues of attracting and encouraging women into the industry, but it is promising to see that progress is being made. More women are studying science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) and entering the workforce each year.

Now we need to turn our efforts to retaining women within the industry and supporting them to reach the top positions. Research shows that 50% of women who start out in a career in tech leave before they are 35 years old, in comparison to 20% in other industries.

Of course, many women take career breaks for maternity leave and further time out to fulfil their parenting responsibilitiesand the research’s cut-off age of 35 supports that this is a major factor in women leaving the industry. Yet, the concern with the technology industry is that the exit rate is significantly higher than other industries. But why is this and how can we rectify it to ensure women have a long and fulfilling career in tech?

Getting back on the ladder

Technology moves so fast. You only need to look back over the past year and you can see how quickly the industry has developed. For women who have taken up to a year off for maternity leave, the industry can look very different upon their return to how they left it. Women coming back to the workforce today, for example, may be unaware of how artificial intelligence (AI), and specifically generative AI, has taken the industry by storm and is revolutionising how we work.

Some of the onus for keeping up with the industry can fall to the women themselves. Reading up on the latest industry news throughout their maternity leave will make returning to the workforce just a step, rather than a giant leap. Similarly, making the most of the Keeping in Touch (KIT) days will help women stay informed about the state of the industry and current hot topics.

But there are also programmes available to bring returners up to speed. Microsoft’s TechHer programme, for example, is a 12-week scheme that enables women to learn and update valuable technical and professional skills to help further develop their careers. This helps women build and refresh their skills that they may not have used in a year, as well as increasing their confidence at what can be an intimidating time.

A crucial part of the course is attending an interview with a Microsoft employment partner towards the end of the twelve weeks. This gives the participants experience in the process that will help them go for promotions and climb the career ladder upon their return – essential for closing the gender gap within leadership positions.

Keeping a balance

Additional measures can also be put in place to accommodate working mothers return to the workplace, ensuring that they can slot back into working life whilst navigating parenthood. Simple policies, such as hybrid working measures, can make a huge difference. Over the past couple of years, steps in the right direction have been taken to make such flexibility more commonplace, and recent government policy has also played a significant role. Since the Employment Relations Bill passed into law in July 2023, all UK employees have the right to ask for flexible working rights. This will play a huge role in allowing mothers to return to work whilst balancing all the demands of their home life.

The COVID pandemic also helped to level the playing field when it comes to work-life balance and childcare. As everyone was forced to work from home, men were able to play a more active role in their children’s lives. This new lifestyle has continued into the post-pandemic world with schemes like Shared Parental Leave enabling parents to play an equal role in domestic duties. This means that women don’t have to take such long career breaks to cover childcare, as men can help share the burden.

Yet not all initiatives need to or should be coming from the government. There are plenty of measures that businesses can implement off their own backs to help their female employees bridge the gap and progress their careers at the same rate as their male counterparts. Not all of these need to be expensive, time-consuming or require huge amounts of effort. Basic support and an effective mentorship programme can make a huge difference in helping working mothers settle back into the workforce. Regular manager catch-ups provide women with the opportunity to keep track of their progress and raise any concerns, whilst mentors can give advice, be on hand to answer any questions and provide support to help women achieve their full potential.

Set up for success

Ultimately, businesses should be taking these steps and implementing these programmes to break down the organisational barriers that can inhibit gender inequality in the workplace. This will create a more equitable and supportive working environment that allows working mothers to thrive and climb the career ladder.

I will put the final call of action out to the working mothers themselves. In order to return to the office and climb the ranks, you need self-belief. Always remember your purpose and your role in the success of the organisation. That will help drive you forward and stop you from feeling out of your depth. Don’t let a career break set you back – time out of a job doesn’t take away the qualities and skills that you had before. The industry needs women to take it to the next level and having a baby does not stop it from being you.

Read more career advice here.