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Women in Tech and Empathy Work

A veteran online strategist, web designer, and front-end coder, Lauren co-founded a successful digital agency and ran it for 12 years. She wrote a book for women entrepreneurs called The Boss of You, of which she’s rather proud. These days, she advises tech startups, coaches entrepreneurs, and writes about business, tech, women, & other things on her blog.

I’ve written before on my blog 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 & valued ranks of self-taught programming); earlier-in-the-lifecycle challenges around how girls are encouraged (or not) to study science, tech & math; questions around how to make hiring processes more inclusive of diversity, gender & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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.

15 thoughts on “Women in Tech and Empathy Work

  1. Megpie71

    I think some of this certainly explains why helpdesk work (and those of us who do it) is regarded as pretty much being the “lowest of the low” when it comes to technical work within the IT industry. Being on the helpdesk can be regarded as a sort of penance or an ordeal you have to go through in order to be recognised as worthy of further interest, but if you remain on the helpdesk (or, gods forbid, if you actually like doing helpdesk work) then you’re regarded as being something of a fool. Nobody really listens to what’s coming out of the helpdesk, because the folks on the helpdesk can’t possibly know what’s going on.

    Well, actually, the helpdesk staff probably have a better idea of what’s going on than most of the coders, even if they’re only there for the minimum eighteen month churn period. The helpdesk knows what’s broken, and they know what the users would like fixed (rather than the stuff that management wants tweaked to improve profitability or stats). They’re the ones who cop it when the latest upgrade “release” turns out to have been more of an escape attempt (and the servers slow down, and the systems crash). They’re the ones who get the phone calls and the emails when the user interface is changed without warning. But because their work is customer-facing first and foremost, they’re not regarded as knowing what they’re talking about by the coder-facing and system-facing end of things.

    Quite honestly, I’m strongly of the opinion that all professional coders should spend at least a month every year working on the helpdesk, if only so they can get a grip on what the real problems the users face every day are.

  2. jlstrecker

    Software testing is an interesting example. This article says that women are overrepresented in software testing, and paints software testing as women’s work, because it involves multitasking, thoroughness, and empathy. This article claims that software testing is especially suited to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, because it requires high intelligence, precision-oriented skills, deep concentration, and patience. No mention of empathy!

    Back in the days when white-collar women were relegated to the stenographer pool, I suppose businesses still had customer service, communications, human resources, and project/client management departments. I suppose those departments were mostly staffed by men. I wonder if the status of those workers and the nature of the work changed as more women entered the field?

  3. Cas

    I am an the sole female engineer in my team and I feel I constantly rebel against this expectation. It’s oh so very subtle but its there. Although I would say the admin assistants actually struggle with this daily. We have two in my group one under 30 and the other over 60. My group on the whole is on the older side and were around when we called admins secretaries and their attitudes and expectations of these two women is rather surprising/upsetting at times. The admin under 30 is definitely looked down on as not being as good as the older one because she doesn’t baby and act like a personal assistant. I believe they are both very underpaid for the amount of support they do for our group.

    ….Plan the monthly birthday party and listening to project managers complain about business processes is definitely not in their job description.

    1. Minaria

      Yeah, I’ve had similar experiences – I’d ask if you work for the same place, but obviously that’s not the case. =p

      Taking (hand-written) notes for my boss during meetings to type up and email him later? Definitely not in my job description. Now that I don’t bring my notebook, he’ll sometimes ask someone else to take notes… but it’s still such a bizarre assumption that I just would take notes for the entire meeting just because I like to jot down any tasks that get assigned to me. And I’m not sure the new note-taker has ever been asked to type them up after a meeting.

      Or: boss gone, suddenly I have to deal with delegation of tasks and everyone else on the team comes to me with management questions? I am not an assistant boss; I do not get paid for this; I did not ask for this.

      The “administrative assistant” actually is there for ordering, travel booking…. but I’m guessing she wasn’t compensated for organizing the yay-your-wife-is-having-a-baby cake & card.

      I actually did intern for a company that had an HR person specifically delegated to stocking the snack bar (with a monthly budget), running the dishwasher, buying the coffee grounds (you had to make it yourself) and tea bags, keeping track of birthdays, running the yearly company party, etc. – it may have even been specially titled. (‘scrum keeper’?) I was the only women in engineering, but a lot of the guys visibly appreciated her work. I definitely think it helped that she was hired to do all those tasks, and they weren’t added on as an afterthought.

      In any case, there was an internal way to give brownie points to people, and every now and then she’d do something (like announce the snack bar monthly order just came in) that would get her a lot of brownie points – I hope they gave her a nice bonus with them, but I was only an intern so don’t know. It was definitely great that the “invisible” work was visibly tied to a specific position, and didn’t get pushed on anyone else…. like the lone female engineer.

      1. Cas

        Gawd! I hate the note taking. If something needs to be written down all eyes some how go right to me. Therefore I now make it a habit to never bring paper/pen to a meeting unless absolutely necessary. I’ve actually met many women who do this as well.

        1. jlstrecker

          It doesn’t leave women with many good options, does it?

          Don’t bring pen/paper/tablet.
          – You can’t take your own notes.
          – Maybe nobody takes notes, which is bad for the whole team.
          – Maybe the task falls to the other woman on the team.
          – You’re playing along with the idea that notetaking deserves a lower status.
          – If you actually like being the notetaker, you don’t get to.

          Recruit a man to take notes.
          – If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you can do this.
          – It’s extra work for you and you spend some political capital.

          Convince your team that notetaking is a prestigious, masculine task.
          – Um, good luck with that.
          – You’ll still be responsible for baking cakes or whatever.

          Demand recognition/compensation for notetaking and other feminine tasks.
          – More likely to backfire than succeed.

          Call the meeting leader on his behavior. “How come you always pick me to take notes?”
          – More likely to backfire than succeed.

          Work somewhere less toxic.
          – If you’re lucky enough to have this option.

        2. Minaria

          to follow on to jlstrecker: I think overall you make a verygood point (it’s a difficult position to be in, one basically has to chose between being seen as easy to work with and your own time), I do have one quibble: not wanting to do something does not necessarily reinforce something being low status. It can mean that, but doesn’t have to: for example, many people hate public speaking, and thus wouldn’t want to give the high-profile high-status product presentation to Critical Client C.

          So… ideally it’s possible to refuse along the grounds of “I’m not good at that” or “I hate that” instead of “that’s a stupid thing to do.” This is probably (even more?) difficult, but I just wanted to say that a refusal doesn’t equal putting something into a low status every time.

          Of course, sometimes it’s reasonable to refuse with “that’s not worth my time”… or at least think it, wistfully….

  4. Julia

    If you take a small startup with a team of developers doing everything, seemingly uniform, you still notice a segregation of functionality by gender. Job should be completed, no matter if some parts are interesting or not. The key is, your senior male developers might refuse to perform some tasks, where female developers, usually juniors, get assigned to pick the slack. After awhile, they might find themselves pigeonholed in testing and/or bug fixing, fixing/finishing somebody else work or anything considered too boring/simple for some brogrammer egos. Then they don’t gain necessary experience, don’t get credits and better pay etc. Also, men on a team would be only judged by their technical knowledge and potential, while women would be required to be team players and accommodate everybody.

  5. Rachel

    With regards to empathy, I have been very discouraged as of late by the lack of empathy I have witnessed coming from some engineering managers (all males) at my company. I am in a tech support position,and I tried to move to other open release engineering and prof. services positions. Though I did not have 100% of the skills they were looking for, I had a good many of them, and I believed I could have learned the rest quickly and gotten up-to-speed if the managers were interested in helping me out a little and encouraging my growth. Instead, I was flatly turned down, which seemed very odd to me, because if the tables were reversed I would do everything in my power to help others in the company who wanted to improve themselves and get ahead. It’s also good for the company to promote from within. There was just no empathy there for the fact I was a fellow employee of the same organization. In fact, during my interviews for both positions I was told that the manager interviewing me “did not want to spend his time babysitting me” to get me up-to-speed. I was so insulted by this, as I would never call it babysitting if I am learning new skills to get up to date. I guess helping others to grow is not something they want to spend their precious time doing.

  6. S.P.Zeidler

    What I’ve seen is the attempt to push female employees from technical jobs into “project management” positions, especially for projects that are un(der)funded and un-endorsed, in the expectation that a woman can plead and beg her co-workers to do work they have no time for and which is also really low on the official priority list, thus wringing more work out of everybody.

    The funny thing is people always seem to be surprised that “as a woman” I am not ecstatic to escape tech work and go on the pleading track instead. Never mind that I’d rather have my fingernails pulled than have to do a job of that kind (not least because I’m really bad at getting other people to do work they don’t have to do).

  7. Deldelp Medina

    I want to thank you for explaining my experiences to me. For such along time I thought if only the powers that be could see how smart, dedicated, and intuitive I am I will get ahead. Instead I was relegated to lunches and cards.
    I know am older and wiser and realize that I have to open my own doors for me to succeed to the level I desire. As I build my own companies I will keep in mind not just the cultural and gender dynamics but also my own place within in them.

  8. Russell Coker

    In regard to the reference to the Wired article in this post, firstly Aspie traits are very obvious in various geek communities. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in mid 2009, I would have gone through the assessment process years earlier if it wasn’t for the fact that I mostly associate with people in the FOSS community and I don’t seem so different from other people there.

    That said, in my paid work I’ve spent more time working with helpdesk people etc than any of my colleagues because working with people in other groups is clearly in the best interests of the company. So I guess I count as one data-point against the idea that AS involves not working with other people and doing only technical work. It’s not an issue of empathy in this regard, it’s an issue of what logic dictates is the most effective way of getting the job done.


    jlstrecker cites an article about Specialisterne (who’s Wikipedia page is worth reading). While the article makes some useful points it’s missing many noteworthy facts. Specialisterne is owned by a non-profit organisation and aims to train people who otherwise have extreme difficulty in finding a job, this is a really good thing, but it doesn’t have much relevance to the experience of most Aspies in the IT industry. Most of us complete a CS degree (or something related such as Engineering) and get a regular IT job. Of the people who meet the AS diagnostic criteria, the vast majority are able to be reasonably successful without needing a company like Specialisterne, it just takes more effort for us than it does for NeuroTypical people.

    1. Lauren Bacon

      Hi Russell,

      Thanks for pointing out the rationality of collaborating with people in helpdesk positions – that’s an excellent point. And to clarify, I certainly don’t want to downplay the representation of people with AS or ASD in geek communities; rather, I wish people would quit bandying those labels about quite so freely, without giving serious regard to their amateur diagnoses. It bothers me that in the tech sector, people seem very willing to simply slap an “Aspberger’s” label on someone rather than ask deeper questions about our industry’s biases towards black-and-white thinking about logic *versus* emotion or extrovert *versus* introvert.

      The presence of people with AS in the tech sector should, in my view, make us more sensitive to the shades of grey between those polarities, and more wary of dichotomous thinking, rather than less. And it does people with AS a disservice when we label every antisocial coder or empathy-challenged startup founder as having Asperger’s. There is a meaningful difference between having an ASD and neglecting to develop one’s emotional skills, and it reflects poorly on those of us in geek communities who don’t bother to learn about that difference and think before we speak.

  9. Russell Coker

    The issue of amateur diagnosis is a bit controversial. Some people on the autism spectrum take offense at claims that many people in the FOSS community and other geeky groups have Aspie traits. I don’t, I think it’s a reasonable broad summary of the situation.

    I think the real issue is whether being on the autism spectrum (either proven via diagnosis or suspected) should be taken as an excuse for doing unexpected things. In most cases I think it’s more of a reason for giving someone a really clear explanation of why they should do things differently.

    As for the presence of Aspies making people more aware of shades of grey, I think that is mostly only going to apply to people who have been diagnosed (not the NTs who associate with them and not undiagnosed Aspies). There’s nothing like having a psychologist diagnose that you think differently to 99% of the population to make you consider the variations among people.

    Extrovert vs introvert is another issue entirely, I’m an extrovert by Aspie standards as are a significant portion of the people giving lectures at computer conferences.

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