Never been promoted? You’re not alone.

At first glance, you might think 54% is ok. After all, a majority of the women surveyed say they’ve been promoted. If you read it again and think about the fact that it says EVER, it’s depressing. Many of the women who said yes have also experienced discrimination in at least one review. So if this keeps happening and you’re thinking maybe it’s just you, it might not be!

I’ve been hearing more and more stories from women like myself with 10+ or even 20+ years of tech experience who switch jobs every 2 years because they can’t seem to get promotions any other way. It’s just heart-wrenching and, frankly, bad for business to keep losing employees and paying more for new hires. Read the replies and quotes of this Twitter thread and you’ll see a fraction of the stories that have been shared -- some anonymously. For those saying, “maybe it’s just her”, why are other companies willing to hire external women at a higher level but not promote existing employees? And why is this happening across the industry? It’s not just a seniority problem. It’s not just a US problem. It’s a systemic problem.

The diversity efforts that started years ago are working, and that’s great! We’re seeing a massive increase in the number of women (and people from other underrepresented groups) joining the tech industry as junior developers. But we need to figure out how to handle promotions, retention, and salary/title equality now before they give up and leave too.

Manifestations of Gender Discrimination

The world has come a long way from the obvious “We don’t hire women'' days, but there are subtle ways in which it still bars women from the tech industry and eventually drives them out. Women seeking management positions often hear phrases like “She’s too emotional to manage people,” or “I don’t think [so and so] would feel comfortable reporting to her.” When these things are spoken in break rooms and behind closed doors, it’s not apparent to women why it keeps happening. They only hear about it later talking with former colleagues who apologize for not saying anything at the time. Those former colleagues act astonished like this is a one-off issue and not something that happens ALL THE TIME.

If you do end up getting the responsibility of managing a team, then when you approach management to get it formalized or try for a salary bump, you’re often met with phrases like: “You’re already doing the job. Why does the title matter?” and “Do you want to be a manager or a leader?” Like what the heck does that even mean? Obviously, you’re already leading the team.

If you can’t get that first promotion internally, it stunts your entire career. Every manager posting seems to require previous management experience. Evidently you can’t be a manager without having been a manager before? So you have to sidestep into the same role at another company and wait some arbitrary amount of time to try for the promotion again. This doesn’t seem to be true for men though. Studies about implicit bias show that men are seen “for their potential” rather than women who need prior experience.

For women trying to enter management, we’re quite used to this game, but it actually starts much earlier in our careers. In getting that first bump from entry-level engineer to senior (or even mid-level sometimes), women are constantly told that the requirements have changed. Moving the goalposts is a common tactic bad managers use to avoid telling people what they really think: that they can’t explain their bias.

Women also face a number of systemic roadblocks to promotion including not getting credit for the projects they’re on. It’s quite common for men to get direct credit for ‘leading a team’ but when there is a woman driving the project it’s a “good team effort”. The first time this happened to me, I was crushed. Now I just know who my allies are and aren’t. We talk about how women don’t brag enough about themselves, but how about the fact that saying “good team effort” just reinforces the notion that it wasn’t a personal achievement?

You might not have the advantage of sports clubs and water cooler conversations about the game last weekend (or other traditionally male topics). It’s true that women in tech organizations are trying to change this, but for many of us working at small companies where we are the only woman, you don’t have sponsors within the company to help get you promoted or recommend you when there is a job opening that might be a bit of a reach. NOTE: sponsors are different than mentors.

Why now?

It’s true that these problems aren’t new (as evidenced by all the research linked in the previous section). And we’ve actually come a long way even in the last 10 years, but we still have a long way to go. Now is a very important time to enact change because the women who took a risk and changed careers or completed CS majors 5 years ago when diversity initiatives first really took off are now facing their first promotion challenges.

Many privileged men with the right experience get their first promotion to senior developer about 5 years into their careers. Whether or not you agree with this, it’s pretty standard across a lot of smaller companies that don’t use junior or mid-level titles. Not everyone will be ready by then, but I’m tired of listening to talented, driven women who took a big chance to break into tech some of whom I personally told “it’s better now” struggling with the same problems. Just getting “senior” added to a title seems to be “like pulling teeth.” Meanwhile, these same women are watching less talented, less experienced more privileged men pass them by.

That’s depressing. What can I do?

The common theme we see here is unequal treatment. A lot of times it’s not blatant or obvious, but subconscious bias is still there.

If you have authority to change the HR practices in your organization, start here:
  • Create awareness of the problem
Have a discussion about discrimination in promotions. Use examples from personal experience, ones we’ve shared here, or from someone else you know. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, have a buddy share or a friendly HR person to share a situation anonymously without blaming individual managers or shaming the people trying to get promoted.
  • Check if your hierarchy is really as flat as you think it is.
Flat hierarchies and self-organizing teams are a myth. There are people in leadership positions; they just don’t have the titles or compensation to follow. You don’t have to have a formal hiring process to acknowledge the team-appointed leaders, but you should formalize it. This will help not only with equality but also with cross-team communication and external communication. And if something does happen to your company or they have to leave, you haven’t set your employee’s careers back a decade(or however long they stay with you) by not promoting them.
  • Formalize the requirements for promotions (and hiring)
By formalizing the requirements, it makes everyone less subject to bias when deciding to promote or reject candidates. Be aware though that these should be qualitative requirements. An arbitrary number of years is not indicative of the ability or level at which someone is performing. Compare the promotion requirements to those of external hires. Are the standards higher for your internal candidates? If so, you might have better luck leaving your company.

Once the standards are set. Don’t increase them. Minute adjustments can be made, but if the goalposts keep moving every six months, you’re back to square one.
  • Be aware of promises made when hiring.
I’ve seen this happen to me and seen it happen to countless other women.

If it’s not the new employee; it’s an existing employee seeking promotion being treated unfairly.

I understand it’s not just a gender issue here. There are plenty of examples of this happening to everyone, but it disproportionately affects women and people of other underrepresented groups. Documenting the requirements for hiring and promotions will benefit everyone.
  • Rectify past mistakes
Once you have a formal set of requirements and have ensured that new hires and internal promotions are treated equally, go back and check the effects of your past mistakes. There may be people who have been outperforming their current role. Granted, not everyone wants to take on the additional responsibility of a promotion, but at least make sure they are getting the respect for the work they’re already doing.


Women already face innumerable biases at work. The promotion pipeline is just one way in which we as an industry are doing ourselves a disservice. It is, however, one we can change and we need to do it fast. As more women join the tech industry, we need to make sure we’re retaining them instead of losing them to the injustices that have caused other women to leave the industry for decades.

As I’ve been mentioning throughout, this is a conversation about women and mostly white women at that. It’s not a conversation about diversity in general. Some of these steps may help make the process more fair for everyone, but you’ll need to go even further to combat other forms of bias like racial, LGBTQIA+, and immigration status discrimination.


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