Women in Tech and Empathy Work


Does your company undervalue empathy work? 

By Lauren Bacon (Author, The Boss of You)

I‘ve written before about the ongoing puzzle of improving the ratio of women to men in the tech sector. It’s an issue with many angles. There’s an acknowledged “pipeline problem” – a lack of women graduating from university with technical degrees (or emerging from the equally prevalent and valued ranks of self-taught programming); earlier-in-the-lifecycle challenges around how girls are encouraged (or not) to study science, tech and math; questions around how to make hiring processes more inclusive of diversity, gender and otherwise; and issues around promotions, board diversity, and leadership positions.

Frankly, sometimes that seems like such a long list I hardly know where to start. And that’s not including many, many related and embedded issues, like conference speaker lineups, objectifying photos in slide decks, the investor landscape, et cetera. But at the risk of triggering fatigue on the part of those wrestling with these challenges, I want to shine a light on another aspect of the gender-in-tech problem that I rarely see acknowledged: the heavily gendered casting of roles within companies – or in other words, the way that tech companies with female employees tend to place them in “people” roles, while men dominate in technical positions.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I know this comes into the conversation from time to time, but it’s often framed as part and parcel of the pipeline issue: “There aren’t enough women programmers on the market.” While that’s true, I want to talk about the dynamics – and economics – that result from having male-dominated tech departments and women managing non-technical work.

In a recent (and utterly fantastic) piece in Dissent magazine, Melissa Gira Grant writes about how this played out at Facebook, according to a memoir by Facebook employee #51, Katherine Losse. Ms. Grant writes:

From my time in and around Silicon Valley in the mid-2000s, creating gossip product for the benefit of Gawker Media’s tech blog called Valleywag, I came away understanding Facebook as a machine for creating wealth for nerds. Which it is. But the unpaid and underpaid labor of women is essential to making that machine go, to making it so irresistible. Women and their representations are as intentional a part of Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg’s post-collegiate fraternity of star brogrammers.

[…] While [Mark Zuckerberg's] net worth shot upward with each injection of venture capital into Facebook, support employees like Losse scraped by with twenty dollars an hour. Facebook’s most valued employees—software engineers—relied on customer support staff largely in order to avoid direct contact with Facebook’s users. Rather than valuing their work as vital to operations, Facebook’s technical staff looked down on the support team, as if they were not much better than users themselves. “Personal contact with customers,” Losse writes, was viewed by the engineers as something “that couldn’t be automated, a dim reminder of the pre-industrial era…”

Though they pretend not to see difference, Losse, through her co-workers’ eyes, is meant to function as a kind of domestic worker, a nanny, housemaid, and hostess, performing emotional labor that is at once essential and invisible. [Emphasis mine.]

I was struck by Ms. Grant’s articulation of customer-facing and intra-company work as “emotional labour.” That phrase helps me put my finger on something that’s bugged me as long as I’ve worked in tech, which is the way women are frequently cast as caregivers in the workplace – and how the work associated with that aspect of their roles is valued (or not) and compensated (or not) compared to the work performed primarily by men (i.e. coding and other heavily technical labour).

Let me share a personal example. I once spoke on a panel at a tech event; the panel was comprised of digital agency principals, and I was the only woman alongside three men. Afterward, one of my co-panelists told me excitedly that he’d recently hired his first female employee. He was really fired up about it, because… wait for it… “Now we all actually talk to each other! And we break for lunch, because she makes us eat. It’s so much better than before, when it was just dudes.”

(Insert big, giant sigh.)

Now, the thing is, looking back on it, I can see that he genuinely wanted his workplace to have those things, and he didn’t know how to do that himself, so he hired someone (female) to do it for him. I think he really did value her emotional labour, in his way. He just didn’t have the awareness to appreciate that a) women don’t want to have all the emotional needs of a workplace delegated to them; b) emotional rapport cannot be the sole responsibility of one person (or gender); c) I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that woman didn’t have “coordinate everyone’s lunches and facilitate office conversations” in her job description; and d) I feel pretty confident she was not given significant financial compensation for those aspects of her work (even though it sounds like those skills were rare gems indeed amongst her coworkers).

The problem is that while the outputs (better communication, better self-care, a stronger team) are valued in their way, they aren’t valued in visible ways that afford women prestige. The parallels with women’s un(der)paid and often-invisible labour in the domestic sphere are perhaps too obvious to warrant spelling out, but I’ll go ahead anyway: Because we live in a culture that undervalues emotional and domestic labour, a significant portion of “women’s work” (like childcare, food preparation, housekeeping, elder care, and social planning) is uncompensated. And as a result, if you want your company to have someone on staff to ensure everyone is happy, well fed, and comfortable, you will likely hire an “office mom”; that person is overwhelmingly likely to be female; and she is almost certainly underpaid (and afforded less prestige and power) compared to her technical colleagues.

I’ve long engaged in a hobby where, whenever I visit a tech company’s website, I head straight to their “Team” page, and scan for the women. More often than not, I have to scroll past four or more men before I see a woman – and very frequently, her title places her in one of the “people” roles: human resources, communications, project or client management, user experience, customer service, or office administration. (One could almost – if one were feeling cheeky – rename these roles employee empathy, customer empathy, team empathy, user empathy, and boss empathy: all of them require deep skills in emotional intelligence, verbal and written communications, and putting oneself in the shoes of others.)

While I haven’t seen hard data on how this plays out across the industry (can anyone point to some?), my personal experience has been that women in tech are primarily found in these emotional labour-heavy departments, even in the tiniest companies.

(Let me add here that of course there are exceptions – men in HR and communications and customer service and so on, and women coders. I’m speaking here of the gendered way we perceive the roles (caregiver defaults to female, in our culture) and of the broad numbers (about 75% of professional programmers are men).)

This wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself – and I’ll be the first to admit that it is damned hard to hire women into technical roles, as I learned first-hand when hiring coders myself – except that there are a couple of complicating factors:

  1. Coders are lionized in the tech sector, and are compensated for their technical skills with higher wages and positional power – so women without coding chops are automatically less likely to advance to senior positions or command the highest salaries.
  2. There is a culture in tech companies that simultaneously reveres the “user” (at least as a source of revenue and data) and places low expectations on coders to empathize with users (or colleagues, for that matter) – creating a disconnect that can only be bridged by assigning user (and team) empathy responsibilities to another department. An extreme example of this is the frequent labeling of brilliant coders as having Asperger’s Syndrome – and the simultaneous absolution of unskillful communication as par for the course.

So long as we accept these as givens, we will continue to see women in tech struggle in underpaid and under-respected roles while men in tech earn far higher wages and prestige. And we will continue to talk about the challenges of communicating “between departments” without acknowledging that those departments are heavily gendered – and that the paycheques are, too.

I want to add, here, that I know this is complex, and in some ways uncomfortable to talk about, because it touches on topics that are hard to discuss – such as the question of why women don’t seem to be pursuing technical skills at the same rate as men, and are more often drawn to the people roles. Hell, I myself started out as what you might call a technical co-founder (I coded websites) for the company I ran, but at a certain point I hired developers to take that work off my plate because it was important for me to focus on the client relationships, business development, and running-the-company stuff. (That fork in the road will be a familiar one to most founders.) And the developers I hired were mostly men, despite intense efforts to recruit for diversity. I console myself with the fact that as a tech company with two women at the helm, we were definitely challenging norms (and we paid ourselves well, which I believe is important to this conversation), but part of me wishes I’d kept my coding skills up if only so that I could keep up my side of a tech-centric conversation, and so that I could stop having dark nights of the soul thinking that I’m playing into cliches and conventions about women in tech.

What I’d really love to see is for companies to start by having a more conscious awareness of how this dynamic plays out. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hiring male programmers, or women, um, empathizers-of-various-stripes. But we do need to shift the culture, expectations, and compensation if we want to end the power discrepancies that result from gendered hiring practices.

If you work in tech, you can begin by asking yourself how your company fares on these fronts:

  • Are coders encouraged to develop their people skills (communication with colleagues and customers, user empathy, etc.), or are those skills offloaded to other departments?
  • Who coordinates workplace social events and other team building activities? Is that in someone’s job description, or has it simply defaulted to being someone’s unspoken responsibility?
  • Who mediates challenging conversations between colleagues? Is everyone encouraged to increase their skills in negotiation and conflict resolution?
  • How do you determine the pay grades for the various roles and departments in your company? Do compensation levels reflect any unconscious assumptions about the respective value of different skill sets? How do you value your team’s “empathizers”?
  • Who is responsible for managing intra-departmental communication? Are they accorded appropriate levels of compensation and prestige for their leadership and emotional labour?
  • If employees are expected to represent your company in their off-hours (as in the example of Facebook’s customer service team posting photos to their profiles outside of work time), are they compensated appropriately (e.g. with overtime pay, “on call” hours, a bonus structure of some kind, or simply with a higher flat salary)? Do you compensate people-facing roles for this “overtime” in the same way you compensate your coders for long coding sessions leading up to a launch?
  • How do expectations around external communication and branding (e.g. posting about work-relevant topics on personal social media profiles) vary across departments? To what degree are employees expected to update their social media profiles for the purpose (spoken or unspoken) of making the company look good? Is this work included in job descriptions? Is it paid labour?

I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this – my thinking on the subject is evolving, and there’s lots to unpack here. And I know I have my own biases on the matter, so observations on blind spots, etc. are most welcome.

This post was originally posted at Curious for a Living. Photo credit: rhodes via Flickr. About the guest blogger: Lauren Bacon is the author of The Boss of You. A firm believer that the first step towards building a great business is to create your own definition of success, she has co-authored a bestselling book for women entrepreneurs and convened events for values-driven business owners. She loves French decorating magazines, graphic novels, and working out with her boxing coach. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenbacon.