Women in Tech and Empathy Work

Women in Tech and Empathy Work

I’ve written here 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 & 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.


  1. Jen

    Another, more subtle differentiation I’ve seen a lot of is the division of labour within technical roles: Developers are mostly male, QA/Testers are mostly female. It’s not as strong a segmentation as technical vs. HR, Marketing or Admin, but it’s there.

    And while the developers are often lauded for their innovations, it’s rare that anyone is championing those who are “cleaning up” those innovative bursts to ensure they’re not negatively impacting the products. It’s another empathizer-of-customers role, hidden behind a technical role. But the pay & prestige discrepancies are still there.

    Even within technical roles, women are still pretty obviously being “streamed” as caretakers. It’s another bias worth being aware of as people look at gender balance in their technical teams, and who they’re hiring/mentoring into which roles.

    • Lauren

      Excellent point. Thanks, Jen!

      • Brenna

        In my personal experience as a female Front-End Developer, I’ve also found this to be true. I can’t say whether or not it’s *because* of my gender, but there are certainly high expectations for me to take on project management duties in addition to just coding.

        • Lauren

          Brenna, I’ve seen that happen a lot, too. It would be interesting to discuss this with your colleagues to see whether everyone is getting similar input…

          And of course, you might be a natural Project Manager! But is it what you want to do, and are you pursuing it from your own interest or because others are pushing you in that direction?

          • Brenna

            Thanks , Lauren.

            It’s definitely something I’ve been asked to do, and maybe that is because I am a bit of a natural. But natural or not, I’m certain I’d much rather be coding!

    • Julia

      I found that even within the same level Software Developer roles, women are still expected to do more “caretaking” and “cleaning”. Such as get assigned more bug fixes, implement customer features on demand, finish and fix things after male developers, do testing (if the company has no QA dept), write user and internal documentation, take everything male developers don’t want to do. It’s not just they are assigned it (if it’s a small team, there are many tasks to accomplish) but it’s a segregation of duties, where guys don’t do this kind of work, perceived as boring and lacking creativity. My personal experience, and not just in one company. Like, I quit one such company to start as a Software Developer implementing crucial features, a couple of years later after the team grew bigger (all guys), I again found myself in a “cleaning lady” position… It’s too much of “we need servants to pick after us” kind of attitude (did Mommy always pick their cloths or something?). Even the most understanding ones, who find it unfair… still don’t feel like doing the “menial jobs” themselves.

  2. Darren

    Very interesting piece. Your experience echoes my own. The other role I often see women in is Project Manager. Its still a technical role, but it has obvious ‘Mother Hen’ requirements.

    Unless I missed it, you didn’t address the common belief that women are, biologically speaking, more empathetic than men. I know nothing of the science of this, so I would make no claim either way.

    That said, skimming the Wikipedia article on the subject suggests there’s a case to be made for it. If you accept this belief, then there’s going to be a natural trend toward more women in these empathetic roles. Women shouldn’t be expected to fill those roles, of course, but biological imperatives matter, in my experience. In 100 years, I expect that there will still be more female nurses than male ones.

    As for compensation and power, the other factor worth examining is scarcity. Finding good programmers has always been harder than finding good marketers or customer support personnel. Compensation should reflect this, too.

    The tech industry is a huge proponent of meritocracy, and so it’s difficult to clinically measure the impact of the empathetic employee. I just mention this as another barrier to deal with.

    Having just finished reading “The End of Men and the Rise of Women”, there’s no doubt that the so-called ‘soft skills’ are increasing in value in the workplace. The book is full of evidence that supports this, and soundly argues that women have already or are on the cusp of dominating the workplace.

    However, I expect that the tech industry will be the last frontier to be visited by this trend toward a more female-centric workplace and culture.

    • Lauren

      Darren: You raise some points that are well worth discussing. Some thoughts, which I’ll keep brief (and which are therefore sure to be incomplete):

      Biology & empathy: From what I’ve read on the subject, there is some evidence to show that estrogen helps develop areas of the brain that are believed to help us read facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal forms of communication. So women may have a head start on men when it comes to empathy. That said, there is a lot of nurture involved here, too – and boys & men can be taught empathy skills just as well as girls & women. I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that society benefits when everyone is empathetic enough to understand the impact of their actions on others. I would propose that we are doing men a disservice when we “outsource” their emotional skills to women – teach a man to fish, and all that.

      Scarcity & compensation: I’ve heard this argument before, and I get it to some extent. As an employer, I can say that my approach to compensation was to evaluate several factors, including level of training/experience, level of responsibility (eg how many people report to them? How much responsibility do I expect them to take for decisions? etc.), and what value they contributed to the company (in both quantitative & qualitative terms). Certainly, scarcity of skill sets factors in, in that one needs to offer competitive wages in order to be attractive to applicants & retain good staff. But my point is not that coders should be paid less; it’s that I’d like to see the culture change that rewards coding above all the other skills that go
      Into making great technology.

      Meritocracy: I agree there’s work to be done on assessing the impact & value of emotional labour. There is some research to show that diversity (of race, gender, class, ability, skills, viewpoints, etc.) strengthens team performance, but that’s not really the same thing. I’d be interested to see research on workplaces where empathy is embedded in the culture – and maybe even better, where “soft skills” (sidebar: that phrase bugs me, though I get how it’s useful – it smacks of weakness to me rather than strength) have been taught to team members & there can be a before-and-after comparison.

      • Johnson

        “Biology & empathy: From what I’ve read on the subject, there is some evidence to show that estrogen helps develop areas of the brain that are believed to help us read facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal forms of communication.”

        Sorry but you simply cannot make that sort of gender-based generalisation unless you also acknowledge the studies that indicate testosterone improves spatial awareness and assertiveness. And where does that leave you in your quest for more women in technical roles? Probably better to acknowledge there is variation in both genders than try to imply that women are somehow innately better suited to some stereotypical role in the workplace.

  3. Steve

    Oh wow, totally hit me in the gut, this one. I’ve totally been guilty of looking for a “office mom” type-hire. Although, until reading this, hadn’t realized that I’d been expecting that role to be filled by a woman. I want to go re-read our last job posting for our client manager role, because my memory is that *all* the applicants for the position were women. The role is totally an empathetic-skills one (champion our clients’ needs in the office).

    That being said, my 2 most senior developers are also women. I don’t have a team-page on my site (currently), but I think we’d be 2 guys (Jeff & I), then 3 women, then 4 more guys a the moment.

    Also potentially curious, is that of my 2 female-dev hires, both came aboard after we removed “soft skills” in the job descriptions we were hiring – they’re both hardcore, awesome nerds.

    Also: what font am I typing in? I can’t get enough of the f’s. Fiffer-feffer-feff!

    • Lauren

      Super interesting re: removing soft skills from your job postings! Employers, take note.

    • Lauren

      P.S. The font is Rambla; it’s a Google web font.

  4. Laura

    I don’t normally leave comments but in this case I felt compelled to. I am currently the only female in my company, which a few years back decided to focus more on digital rather than print design. Despite trying to teach myself how to code in my own time – as I was never given the chance in work – I have been actively discouraged from doing so and told that in terms of progressing my career that project management is definitely the way to go.

    I am intelligent, hard working and I love to learn. I’ve been getting into some back end code as well recently, with the encouragement of an ex-colleague who said he saw great potential in me.

    Recently, there has been a job going for an Office Manager, the role of which includes dealing with clients, answering phones, ordering office suppies – all the stuff the boss doesn’t want to do. And what a surprise, he wanted a woman to do it!

    • Lauren

      Hi Laura – I sure sympathize, as I’m sure do many other women who have been in your shoes!

      I can only encourage you to follow your coding passion – please don’t let the bastards bring you down. The skills are so valuable, and if coding lights your fire, then go go go!

      Let me know if it would be helpful to share some learning resources.

      • Laura

        Thank you so much Lauren! Your post and your motivation has helped my through my day today. I’ve just been asked to make the tea for the client – again. Not one of the other male members of staff are ever asked. *Deep sigh.

        • Lauren

          Oh yeah – I’ve been there. And answering phones during the office manager’s lunch hour… and being asked where to locate office supplies and the copier code… tell ’em you’re too busy coding. 🙂

        • Kenia

          This is why I feign ignorance with coffee-making/tea-making/copy-making/faxing/etc. skills. I remember a man at work asked me if I knew how to make coffee because the pot was empty and apparently he didn’t know how to make more himself (note that he didn’t specifically seek me out because I’m a woman, my office door just happens to be right next to the coffee pot!). I just looked at the coffee brewer, raised my eyebrows really high in confusion, and said “I have no idea, I’m sure whatever coffee-to-water ratio you choose will be just fine.”
          (P.S. – I’m an engineer in the aerospace industry.)

  5. Belinda Darcey

    Very thoughtful post. There’s a classic book on emotional labor: “The Managed Heart” by Arlie Hochschild. She examines how and why waitresses and flight attendants are expected to smile as a job requirement, no matter what mood they’re in. She also includes first-hand accounts from domestic maids and nannies, who reveal fascinating insights on the employer/employee relationship between races and genders.

    Re- the issue of fewer women attracted to coding, I would also add that this has a lot to do with the way that computer sciences have traditionally been taught. Many studies point to the way that girls (generally) learn better by collaboration versus competition, and are (generally) more interested in practical or social applications than abstract theory. When they are shown practical demonstrations of the possible ways that code can be used to create something useful or beautiful *before* they begin studying programming, they are more likely to see the point of it and stay engaged and interested.

    For the record, I’m a front-end developer/designer (CSS/HTML/PHP/Javascript/Adobe PS, AI). We are often dismissed by other ‘hard core’ programmers who believe our code is easier to work with. Granted, the math may appear easier, e.g. you can learn CSS in a few weeks, but only the most rudimentary level of it; it takes years to master it. The task of writing original code to produce an appealing, uncluttered interface for humans that includes all their necessary functions is not for the faint of heart. To say nothing of getting it to display consistently across a variety of screens.

    But I suspect a lot of the bias stems from the fact that our work involves writing code in the service of visual beauty and user-friendliness (all touchy-feely emotional/social stuff). As if beauty had no function or practical value. Never mind that without it, no-one would even glance at their work, much less want to buy/invest in it. Yet we are still paid less and considered ‘non-critical.’ Can you imagine the designers of a car chassis being considered non-critical?

    • Lauren

      Yes! to all of this. So well said. Thank you.

    • Tim Chevalier

      “Many studies point to the way that girls (generally) learn better by collaboration versus competition, and are (generally) more interested in practical or social applications than abstract theory. ”

      Citations please? The book _Unlocking the Clubhouse_ makes the latter claim, but it was debunked by later research that showed that when Carnegie Mellon removed barriers for entry into the CS major, female CS majors were better at and more interested in CS theory than male CS majors were. It’s also an interesting data point that math (as a field) has had better luck integrating women than CS has, though only up to a point.

      I would certainly buy that people who aren’t cis boys tend to get punished for being competitive, and cis boys get rewarded for being competitive.

    • Leigh Honeywell

      Looks like there’s a new edition of The Managed Heart that came out last year, thanks for the reminder!

  6. Meagan Hampel

    Yes!! You are bang on, Lauren. I work in the “empathy” side of a tech company, mainly with other females, while the sysadmin/developer half of the company is totally dominated by men.

    Personally, I find programming fascinating, and am interested in learning more. However, I don’t want to learn on my own using an online tutorial, and would prefer an in-class, sociable setting to learn. Does this sentimentality automatically preclude me from having a successful career in the field? The way things stand now, I would have to say yes!

    I look forward to the day when programming is presented as a creative, collaborative career, and not something that antisocial men do a dark corner of the office…

    • Lauren

      Hi Meagan – I know there are a lot of groups springing up for women who are interested in learning to code alongside other women (and often, men too, though the focus is on women). If you’re in a big enough city, there may be one near you. Try doing a web search for “women learn to code [your city]” and see what comes up. You may also find kinship at your local hacker space.

  7. Portia

    I can’t favorite this post enough. Your prose eloquently explains why I left a helping profession (education) for a more technical career (software engineering). I enjoyed the process of sharing knowledge with my students, but slowly became fed up with my hard work being ignored and trivialized.

    Now as a programmer, I feel like my contributions are more appreciated and valued. I only wish that in time we could offer all working individuals the respect they deserve for their time and effort.

    • Lucretia Pruitt

      Wow. Thank you. I went the other direction – from programmer to teaching CIS and it always felt like I was having to re-prove myself on the tech front every semester. It wasn’t just to students though, but rather to men who worked for the universities (not normally male professors within my department, but those in higher up positions) who seemed to believe that I would naturally want to teach the “softer skills classes” rather than the straight up coding ones.

      I’ve been trying to put my finger on that for awhile… There’s also a bias in academia with regard to female professors. Actually moreso than I experienced coding. Hmm… Bears further thought,

    • Lauren

      Thanks, Portia! I can totally relate. And I’m really glad to hear you’re being appreciated for your work.

  8. karl

    I agree with what you are saying and certainly feel that emotional intelligence should be better valued.

    I also think another, not often discussed factor is at work. It appears to me that our society offers higher extrinsic rewards for jobs with lower intrinsic rewards. That is to say; if I end the day and can think to myself ‘today I did this and it was worthwhile’ I will receive less money that if I end the day thinking ‘today I did this and why would I return to work tomorrow’

    This was a factor in me stopping working in a worthwhile role (growing food) and moving to IT. I wanted to buy land and so needed a less intrinsically rewarding occupation with higher extrinsic rewards.

    I believe this is why important jobs (parent, teacher, nurse) receive less money than irrelevant ones (rock star, advertising executive). I went as irrelevant as I could stand and have worked in IT since.

  9. Apollo Sinkevicius

    Great article. Issues of attracting AND retaining under-represented talent for our tech companies have been in my “priority queue” for about 7 years now. I’ve helped build 9 companies so far and I get the incredible impact on the product and companies diverse teams have.

    One area I want to disagree with you on, from personal experience, many of the “empathy work” disciplines are becoming as well-paid (if not better paid) than code work. Examples? Not sure how it is in many other markets, but in Boston good account managers, UX, UI, talent management, and customer development folks can and often do make as much as developers. And some of the best developers are getting how embracing “empathy work” makes them a lot more powerful product people. You build better product, that connects with more PAYING users, and out of the sudden you are the hot stuff.

    Why? PAYING customers have a lot of choice out there and companies are seeing direct correlation between empathy work and those “holly” metrics of churn and contract expansion.

    • Lauren

      Hi Apollo – thanks for this. It’s great to hear that salaries are evening out in your area. Where I am (in Vancouver), my experience has been that there is a significant gap in pay scales, with PMs, account managers, etc. earning mid-high five-figures and coders earning low-to-mid six. That said, those numbers are entirely anecdotal and could definitely stand to be properly researched & cited.

      I do think that the business case for UX skills (for example) among developers has been made to some extent – though I would argue that it has not seeped deeply into the general culture within the tech industry. I would also suggest that those empathy skills have not generally been applied to coworkers the way they have been to end users, customers & clients, and I think there’s room for improvement on that front.

  10. Lucretia Pruitt

    Love this post Lauren!

    This rolls into some observations I’ve noted over the years in more than just tech settings. For instance, if a man is listed as an “assistant” anything, the underlying assumption seems to be that he is being groomed to take over a role from someone else moving up the corporate ladder. However, the word “assistant” when used in conjunction with a woman has the exact opposite connotation… Put the word “assistant” in a woman’s job title and it is immediately taken to be some form of secretarial, care taking, or “emotional overflow” position.

    The “office mom” or “team mom” role seems to be one that both men and women seem to automatically assign to women – no matter what their actual job is supposed to be. Oddly, I was utterly non-maternal in work settings until after I actually had a child. I was never the nurturer until my own daughter awakened that in me – yet having children seems to be a liability when it comes to being female and in tech. No one has ever asked my husband or male friends with kids if they thought it might interfere with their dedication to their jobs – but I and many other women I know have.

    This aspect of the women-in-tech (as well as women in business in general) bears more scrutiny. Glad you are shining a light on it.

    • Lauren

      Interesting observation re: “assistant.” Thanks!

  11. Jean-François

    You mention that “women without coding chops are automatically less likely to advance to senior positions or command the highest salaries,” but I think in that case it’s gender agnostic; anyone without coding chops is unlikely to be promoted to a senior position, at least in any sane environment.

    Thinking about it, pretty much all the women I have met in a technical environment seemed to embody the pattern of “office mom” you mention; I’m not sure as to why, though. Unfortunately, I doubt they were compensated for that, although it sure made the working environment nicer — and that they should be compensated for it!

    • Lauren

      Excellent point – that is definitely the case regardless of gender. Thanks!

  12. Linda

    I’m in a technical role (analytics) at a startup. We’re a company that’s ultimately driven by building mathematical models on data, and I’m the one trained as a mathematician. I explicitly wasn’t brought on board to be the “people person.” And, in fact, I’m a pretty stereotypical geek in personality.

    But I’ve still wound up doing a ton of the emotional labor. Being the “good cop” to soothe hurt feelings and improve relationships with difficult employees or consultants. I’m happy to help, but it often seems that my (male) coworkers assume that I’m a “nice girl” by nature and that empathy is something that comes automatically to me and thus something they shouldn’t be expected to do.

    Guys: empathy is work. For everyone. Certainly for me. If I have to call someone who’s in tears and on the verge of quitting and make her feel appreciated, that takes time and effort for me, just as it would for you. Refusing to do it is a form of laziness. If you don’t respect emotional work, if you think it’s beneath you, you’re going to have problems making your business succeed, and you are going to *burn me the fuck out*, because every hour I spend being the good cop is an hour I spend *not* doing math.

    • Jashshea

      Wonderful points throughout, Lauren. I’m female, but I find it incredibly difficult to be the emotional support for others in the office. I’m not a coder. I work in dev, tech, & project management and I have very little patience for the empathy part of the job. To be clear, this is something I need to work on, but it doesn’t come naturally to me.

      Oddly enough my husband is an absolute rockstar at this, but there’s a cost – i.e. him not doing the job he’s there for AND he’s emotionally drained from taking on others’ problems.

      • Lauren

        Hi Jashshea – I think empathy is, or at least can be, a learned skill. And I would love to see those skills included in the skill-building tools (training, professional development, etc.) that companies provide to employees. If you can spend money on training your staff on using the new phone system, you can train them on how to communicate more effectively.

        And it’s very cool that your husband has the skills. I’ve learned an enormous amount from my partner, who’s a negotiation consultant and a pro (literally, I guess) at both verbal and nonverbal communication. That experience reinforces my belief that they are skills, not just personality traits or biological imperatives.

    • Lauren

      Yes, yes, yes. Thanks so much, Linda.

  13. Martha

    Your piece saddens and gladdens me in alternate waves. Gender (and race and class) was so obviously the elephant in the room at Innovate/Activate last year it took my breath away. Now I have an inkling as to why. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. The first step towards changing the culture is to call it as we see it and challenge the assumptions that underlie the digital empire in the same way that we have challenged the multitude of other empires in our history.

  14. Nell

    Thanks so much for this post. I am a woman in my mid-30s working on moving into programming as a career and have a work background full of “soft skills” that I am actually quite proud of, and I realize that even caring about this issue– how people are included, valued, used, etc.– is itself an act of empathetic or emotional labor. I agree with the person who said empathy is difficult work and a skill that must be honed, and often through the significant application of tough, in-depth thinking. I have never arrived at a satisfying end to very challenging emotional interactions through sheer instinct or womanliness alone. The brain is definitely involved in keeping what we consider to be the heart open.

    • Lauren

      Beautifully put, Nell. Thanks so much for your contribution to this conversation.

  15. Donna

    When I was a programmer I once got a job review to the effect of “I don’t know why, but any project she’s on just works”. Because I talked to other people, I suppose… ;^)

    And yes, I ended up doing SQA eventually ….

    • Lauren

      Right – and it’s interesting to me how there’s this conflation of introversion and lack of EQ. One can be introverted and be an empathetic, skillful communicator. It’s not about how outgoing or social we are on the personality level, but rather how well we are able to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

      • Linda

        One of my pet peeves is modeling things as a one-dimensional spectrum: on one end, “good at coding and math, low EQ, male” and on the other “bad at coding and math, high EQ, female.”

        People cling to that mental image because it simplifies things, and because it gives them an excuse for laziness. If you associate “people skills” with stupidity, then you don’t have to develop any.

        The reality is: in a tech company, especially a young one, everybody has to pull their weight. If you’re totally in the dark about technology, you need to educate yourself. And if you have lousy interpersonal skills, you need to improve. If there are too many people on the team who make enemies at every turn, or alienate potential customers, then the company *will not survive*. You can console yourself by saying users are stupid or women are stupid or salesmen and marketers are sleazy — but you will have a dead company, and dammit I’d rather have a live one.

  16. Bonnie Kawchuk

    Lauren, thank you for sparking a conversation about “emotional labour” in the workplace. Brava!

    I couldn’t agree more that organizational culture and expectations need to shift. Companies—and let’s be clear, these issues go far beyond the walls of technology companies—need to take a closer look at hiring practices, job descriptions and the value placed on this “invisible” labour. Yet culture is created by those who belong to the community. So while leadership is taking a look at their internal practices, women, too, need to take an honest look at how they are participating in the role of “office mom”.

    In the case of your co-panelist’s lunch-eating female employee, the story, as it was told, is enough to make anyone cringe. But it begs a closer look. “She makes us eat lunch”? Why is she involving herself in the mid-day eating habits of her co-workers? It is one thing to make sure our children are eating their peas and carrots, but transferring this role of mom to the workplace is far beyond the call of duty.

    We need to stop and ask how much of the emotional labour that we find ourselves performing in the office is truly being delegated to us. How often do we as females—knowingly or unknowingly—assume the role of caregiver when we see the need?

    I see this every day in my work as a women’s leadership coach. My clients bring stories of frustration and confusion about the very scenarios you list in your post. And yet when we unravel the situation there is usually some way in which their behavior is contributing to or, in some cases, creating the situation.

    Don’t get me wrong, saying no to some tasks may create more political turmoil than it is worth, but there are many tasks we don’t need to take on. We can make different choices by focusing on our job description and setting boundaries with a lightness of touch and respect.

    Somewhere between women observing how they perpetuate the role of caregiver at work and the organization doing its fair share of change, there can be a shift. Inch by inch. And in the meantime, women can take heart in knowing that emotional intelligence, superior communication skills and the capacity to consider multiple viewpoints are the hallmarks of fine leadership. So hone those skills—on content that is of strategic importance to the organization—not on coordinate the company drink night.

    And by the way, Lauren, we share the same hobby. I always scan a company’s team page to count the number of women in leadership. Not such a time-intensive hobby, is it? 😉

    • Lauren

      Yes! Hear, hear to shared responsibility. Thanks so much for a very thoughtful response. Lots to chew on here!

  17. Allison

    Thank you for addressing this, Lauren. It’s not about women being more or less empathetic; its about these valued skills being recognized and compensated.

    I hear you about mixed feeling of losing skills by moving away from the programming side. I’m in business analysis now (is that empathy driven?) and haven’t programmed in ages.

    Most of my friends in software are women in empathy roles. In today’s software market, those skills are essential to the end product but, what I’ve seen, the empathy type jobs are remunerated as minor supporting roles. I completely agree with you when you say.

    “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 “.

    I went for afternoon tea today with two young women who I’m mentoring through the UBC Computer Science department. I left inspired by their enthusiasm and brain power. These two will likely end up in management and programming – non traditional areas for women in tech. I’ve been encouraging them to learn different types of coding on their own, to do personal projects and to be strategic in choosing companies for work terms (I.e. What skills can they develop through the work term?). Happily, they’re doing it. And I’ll be contacting my friends to see if I can connect them with volunteer programming positions, etc. It makes me hopeful.

    • Lauren

      “It’s not about women being more or less empathetic; its about these valued skills being recognized and compensated.” Exactly.

      It is so great that you are mentoring young female computer scientists. It’s one thing to learn the technical skills in the classroom, and another to get the real-world wisdom from someone who’s worked in the field.

  18. marykmac

    You could so easily illustrate this blog with a picture of Joanie from Mad Men.

    Which actually makes me wonder – is part of the devaluing of the “office mom” role that you get paid in emotions rather than money? One of the things that’s interesting about Mad Men – and this covers the “she makes us eat lunch!” anecdote in your post – is that everyone is constantly singing her praises and saying how they couldn’t do it without her and how much they appreciate her. Yet it’s firmly established in the show that, whilst she’s paid a lot more than the other women, she’s not the same levels of rich as the finance or creatives. I wonder how much that dynamic plays out – the work you’re doing is emotional, so we’re going to repay you with gratitude and nice words rather than that nasty money?

    • Lauren

      That’s an interesting question! Thanks for raising it.

  19. Pat H

    You had me listening right up until the ampersand.

    • Lauren

      Uh oh. Next time I’ll be sure to use a plus sign instead. 😉

  20. tara

    Lauren –
    This is such an important, and brilliant post. Thank you for writing it.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how emotional labor contributions aren’t valued economically – not only in business but in education, social work, medicine, etc. I think part of the issue is that the dominant players in our society are so tuned out about emotional labor that there isn’t awareness that there is such a thing as high quality and low quality emotional labor. The guy in charge might have a notion that he needs someone to help with the people stuff, but he probably doesn’t recognize the people as something where you can have star talent – if you pay for it and look hard for it – or as something where you can have mediocrity.

    Because the same types of players are shaping the academic research agenda around parenting, happiness, wellbeing, workplace culture, etc. we aren’t really studying and identifying what excellence looks like when it comes to doing emotional work. There’s a real impoverishment of our collective knowledge here.


    • Lauren

      I love where you’re taking this, Tara – I hadn’t thought about it with the frame of excellence / star talent in the realm of emotional labour. That’s a rich topic. Thanks for adding it to the mix.

  21. Judy Bishop

    I’ve spent 20 years in management at technology companies. In some cases, I’ve been one of the cheque-writing founders. I can from with deep experience that rarely has this subject been better covered than in this piece by Lauren Bacon.

    Today the “dudefest” at most tech firms continues, unabated. In fact, given how increasingly-tolerant society seems to be of brilliant narcissists, it’s actually getting far worse.

    I personally deal with it by being senior enough that I can make changes (sometimes forcibly), which isn’t a solution, of course. But if I were earlier in my career, I’d say ‘stuff it’ and join an industry that had a higher collective EQ.

    • Lauren

      Judy, wow. Thank you so much. That means so much.

  22. Anke

    Fantastic article! I know many women who struggle with this at work – male colleagues “use them to unload emotional baggage and the women fail to set boundaries. They make their male colleagues feel good about themselves but never get compensated for it.

    But I think once we recognise this, it is up to us women to make sure we don’t sell ourselves cheaply. Why do women so willingly flock into jobs as secretaries / assistants etc., working very hard and not getting paid well for the very qualified work they do? Women need to go on strike and not go into underpaid professions. They need to seek out well compensated jobs until the discrepancy ends.

    I have always gone for highly paid jobs as I refused to be underpaid and have found that male dominated companies were very happy to hire me. They just didn’t have enough female applicants. I have seen in inside the investment bank as well. I work on a trading desk, and whenever we hire graduates, all the guys want to become traders and all the girls want to go into sales or research. Even if we seek them out and encourage them to join us, they do not want to be traders. I think a lot of it boils down to self-confidence. Men think they are worth it and assume it is below their dignity to earn little money, while many female employees willingly go for badly rewarded positions that they perceive as less “tough” or competitive.

  23. katja macura

    This post is a really great articulation of the unspoken assumptions about gender roles in IT and in business. I wonder if a similar examination of women in different industries, finance for example, would create a similar feeling of resonance to women working in those fields.

    For my part, what I love about being a ‘senior’ resource is being able to say NO to taking on those extra tasks that I may be able to do competently but are not the best use of my skills or time. It’s taken me a few years and a lot of self awareness to get out of this ‘over-functioning’ mode (as I call it) and simply stop these behaviours which I believe are wrapped up in not only basic gender assumptions as you point out, but also expectatations about the time I had available as a single woman (dont get me started on that one, lets just say I don’t have a stay at home partner to do my laundry or cook my dinner) and personally, some degree of unhealthy perfectionism as well. It was definitely uncomfortable to stop these behaviours. There were more than a few awkward pauses when I didn’t jump in, but ultimately I think stopping gained me more respect in the long run, and certainly helped me to focus on the work I enjoy and do well.

    I have also seen men with more care-taking personality types step into these roles with some small unspoken hit to their reputation and rate of advancement, which speaks to the value these ‘soft skills’ are accorded as you also point out. And there may be other consequences as well. I have seen several female colleagues stress and burn themselves out to the point of illness because of the extra expectaton (which comes from others but also themselves) to fill these gaps. And the toll of being the go to ’emotion handler’ is not insignificant.

    Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the dichotomy I’ve experienced in my career, where I’ve often been the only woman in the room. Ive been fortunate to have had some good female role models early in my tech career, and to have worked with amazing men and women. I have never been exposed to the blatant sexism and old world cronyism that some of my friends in other industries (such as finance, forestry, utilities) have. Still, I do feel that while my sensitive nature was valued in some ways, I also felt I had to downplay my femininity and toughen up in order to be fully respected. That was difficult at times because it led to feelings of in-authenticity and a work persona due to the dissonance.

    These issues around emotional work run deep! Thanks for articulating it and creating the space for an honest discussion.

  24. Catheryn

    This stereotype is also very pervasive in other technical fields not just in software. Mechanical and Electrical Engineering women usually end up in the Project Engineering roles where the men are more prevalent in design and analysis. It is hard to say if this happens because women are encouraged to take the softer roles or if they gravitate to them, but I know I have had to be very diligent to continue as an analyst, though I also have direct reports. For the Government contractor I work for there are no women senior scientists, which is concerning. The mechanical engineering department recently promoted a woman as the engineer manager and within a few weeks she held a round table with her new women engineers and us more experienced engineers. The biggest concern was “how do we stay technical”. I was one of two woman that was able to stay technical. One woman stated “like Catheryn you need to find a good male mentor to help pave the way”. I was dismayed by the perception.

  25. Karin Pinter

    I’ve spent 14 years in the web/tech industry, and whilst I started from the ground up (web design & coding through to SEO) paving my way to recognition amongst my peers, I hadn’t stopped to think that I still tend to hire male programmers. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a female tech at that level (besides designers) – at best it’s been me providing that technical service to another female entrepreneur who was providing business development & client relationship services her client base…
    One of the interesting insights from working with this type of client has been one of self worth – stating mine and being challenged by other female business owners who shied away from what I felt was my rightful fee based on my knowledge and experience.
    Lots to think about here, thank you!

  26. Cara

    I think a lot of what you brought up is true in every field. Gender stereotypes are everywhere, so much so that the people who would otherwise support equity get wrapped up in defending their gender making rational and reasonable conversation almost impossible.

    It’ll change though. Women (and men too but mostly women) who stay at home to raise kids will realize the immense profit to be made in coding; it’s so unbelievably easy and you can do it at home. any time of day, perfect for stay at home parents (read that as moms). Eventually we’ll see more women in the field.

  27. Brian Millar

    As a tech loving and nerdy guy I personally wish more girls were into tech, maybe then I’d have a girlfriend and not a bunch of blank faces staring back in bemusement at me whenever I mention anything even slightly technical. It annoys me that so many people cast those of us who are knowledgeable in tech into an elite group of genius weirdos.

  28. thorn

    the flip-side of this, is: think about what happens in the workplace to women like myself who would be simply terrible office moms and don’t give a sh!t what, or whether, anyone eats. i don’t work in a tech role, but have had guys say to me ‘you’re such a mom’ — because they weren’t paying attention and just assumed. then, when they really figured it out, they got a bit pissed off and decided i was ‘not nice’. people — men and women — could stand to do some work on their imaginations.

  29. Cezary

    Good work pointing out “empathy” as the skill.

    Software development takes years to learn to do well – often costing hours daily. And at the cost of other skills. The tools are designed for focused work adapted to how most men thing. Whether that’s a usability or tool design issues – that’s another story. And it burns people out intellectually (as opposed to emotionally).

    The combination makes it hard to “burden” women with this kind of job. It’s like mining – if a women really, really wants to – men make getting the job difficult so in the event of blame, it’s “I tried to discourage you, but you didn’t listen”.

    On top of that, for many men pressuring women on the job feels like sadism and abusive. Of course, pressuring men is “safer” in this regard, because they are more likely to respond with anger and retaliation than hurt. And there are other common psychological differences and social bias I won’t get into.

    “Gender diversity” is a pointless goal, unless it really improves how the business performs – i.e. clients happily purchase more stuff. If there is any improvement from introducing diversity, it only suggests a bigger inefficiency in the company. If a female specialist is not hired simply because of gender bias, than that isn’t gender bias, it’s ignorance. And you don’t fix ignorance with a “gender diversity” policy. You fix it with knowledge or changing the job to where the lack of it isn’t a problem.

    For simplicity, let’s say a company needs: “empathy” and “tech work”. For tech work, few people are competent. Usually, only men have enough passion, focus and disregard for their health to not only get the sufficient skills, but even slightly stand above the crowd. So – hiring them costs a little money. High demand, not easy to learn, hard to replace without costs, value is observably proportional to skill level, etc.

    Not true for “empathy work”. Basically, if you’re a woman, you’re qualified. Sure, technically savvy men are usually very deficient in this area, but “empathy” is still a commodity – since women are around half the population. Need more empathy? Hire a woman. Done.

    So the paychecks are as low as it costs to replace one woman with another. Tech guys and girls are harder to get.

    “Empathy skills” for women are as common as “knowing how to use a computer” among men. It’s important for business, sure, but it’s also as abundant as air and as cheap as the minimal wage.

    Here’s what “a fair comparison” is: if men with some technical aptitude still spend 10 hours a day honing their skills, what if empathetic women spent 10 hours a day honing THEIR skill?

    They would absolutely rock like no tech guy could ever catch up to by improving their lousy “people skills”. And such women probably already do. They don’t even have a though about gender “inequality”, because they are impossible to replace. I won’t go into the business development implications – that’s an article in itself.

    Women lobbying for “equal rights” and “attention” without focusing on skills and company profits are just not trying to be indispensable enough as individuals. They are often completely clueless about business (like many tech oriented men anyway) and their own happiness and fulfillment (also like many tech oriented men).

    “Unions” of women are hurting their own careers and limiting their personal and individual potential by engaging in gender related overgeneralizing. They also often prefer a job in a “safe, secure, stable” job working for morons instead of a risky, unstable, performance/commission-based job for bright entrepreneurs – who usually are much deprived of an “emotional workforce”. Those potentially highly lucrative jobs and positions are taken by men, who’ve eventually surpassed women on the “emotional side” by making it up with inhuman amounts of hard work, sweat, tears and years. They can stomach the risk, because of their mastered “people skills” which are rare on that level – even among most women.

    Here’s the summary: many women don’t pursue the edge with “empathy work”, like e.g. men do as hardcore software developers. And even if they did – many companies would be too incompetent to leverage that (just like with hardcore software developers).

    The problem is not about gender bias, inequality, fair compensation, overtime, respect, delegating emotional work to other departments – those are just silly explanations hiding business ignorance and inefficiency.

    There are women making insane amounts of money, with dream jobs, having world-class teams working for them and pursuing whatever passions they have. And the businesses they work for are making an impact like no other. Not because they’ve found a place where their gender was respected or favored – but because of who they became as people working hard with what they had – whether the work was technical or not.

    One example from when women in tech were almost non-existent compared to today: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ASK_Corporation

  30. Allison

    @ Cezary While I agree about the comment of focusing on one particular skill can take time away from learning from others, there’s usually time to learn some empathy/people skills. I too spent hundreds of hours coding. But there are many hours in the day – how many coders who go home and play video games for hours? Basic people skills are _skills_ that can learnt and practiced and honed. For some, it’s an innate ability. For others, we need to learn . I took time to learn how I can work better with other people. I read a bit, took a couple one-day classes on conflict resolution and even hired a work coach during an intense work environment. That may reveal a deficiency of EQ on my part but learning some conflict resolution skills really helped.

    Also, not wading too much into innate ability, even if most men are better than most women at visio-spatial ability, this does not mean all women have low visio-spatial ability. There may be fewer women than men but there are still women out there with visio-spatial ability. And are visio-spatial and empathy mutually exclusive? One can parallel park a car and hug a child.

    @marykmac I’ve been thinking about what you said about valued vs compensated. For empathy work, currently there’s no measurement or discernment. Not quite as @ Cezary said “Basically, if you’re a woman, you’re qualified.” but close.

    Personal story about office managers. The last contract I worked at, the office manager ROCKED. She pulled the office together and made everything run smoothly. You could see her intelligent hand in every detail. On top of that, she was also coordinating the UAT. I’ve also worked at an office where the Office Manager sucked rocks. She was petty, pedantic and above making an effort. I understand hiring and keeping an employee like this is reflective of management. But I hope (though I doubt) the two positions were paid differently, I would guess the awesome office manager would get paid the same as the mediocre office manager.

    Since my prior experience with the grumpy pants office manager, I’m a big fan of a place where they hire well. I wonder if that’s a good indicator of other traits of the work place or just good luck?

    I hope in the future, there will be more financial compensation for quality empathy work. I’m not sure how it will be measured but it does improve the office life quality so much, at least for me.


  31. Lauren Lee

    As a woman in tech, I can certainly relate. Especially before I perused a masters degree in information systems, colleagues advised me to consider other fields that would emphasize my “soft-skills” – even going so far as to say that a tech degree would not make me any stronger of a person or employee!

    When you mention the “pipe-line problem” I think about perceptions such as these and the great value in recognizing and discussing them. Thank you for this post!

  32. S

    So many angles to respond from.
    I’ll chime in from 4.

    1. It’s amazing how deeply “boys are this way, girls are this way” dominates this discourse. You’d think it was 1950.

    2. Women: Don’t do the office mom work. Men: Do the office mom work. Get out of your comfort zone, everybody.

    3. Jackson Katz, anti-sexist male activist on masculinity.
    http://jacksonkatz.com/index.html Jackson Katz

    4. Privilege and power: It’s never just handed over.

    • Andrea

      Wait… Re #2: How about: Women, men: if you’re one of 10 in an office, do 10% of the office mom work.

  33. CatherinaLucy

    Probably better to acknowledge there is variation in both genders than try to imply that women are somehow innately better suited to some stereotypical role in the workplace.

  34. Joe Cardillo

    Some really interesting discussion here. I just wanted to chime in w/this article —> http://qz.com/52277/etsy-figured-out-how-to-fin-more-women-engineers/

    Being aware of and not making excuses for the ways in which gender and other distinctions operate, allows us to combat unspoken assumptions and maintain a diverse workforce. You can’t just make a pipeline argument because the problem is the whole ecosystem of tech biz is infused with these things you talk about. Because they are unspoken they have power.

    • Joe Cardillo

      @Lauren I just noticed you published this column on Quartz too so you’ve probably already read the Etsy article. Woops..

  35. Kronda

    Here’s a conversation I had with my former boss at my first review after graduating from intern to full time employee:

    Him: So, what are your professional goals for the next 6 to 12 months?

    Me: I really want to focus on becoming a better programmer.

    Him: Well, you know $male_coworker has been doing this for over 10 years… I’m not sure if you’ll ever be on his level. Have you thought about project management?

    Nuff said.

  36. Jen

    Loved this post (found via women 2.0). I think in many ways the technical vs non-technical elitism conflates with gender – unfortunately it’s just math – so a non technical woman among technical men is treated as inferior and the emotional balance goes unrecognized. Interestingly, I am a technical woman (in product management after previously being an engineer) at a large tech co; my husband is a non technical guy at a very small startup and gets a lot more crap and under-appreciation than I do. I openly acknowledge my emotional and cultural contributions in my performance reviews since I believe it’s a big part of the PM role the way I do it. I even got a surprise peer bonus from my tech lead after arranging some furniture improvements in the office. So there is hope 🙂

  37. Anne

    “Help! I have just been assigned to head a new product design team at my company. The division manager has high expectation for the team and me, but I have been a technical designer for four years since graduating from college. I have never ‘managed’ anyone, let alone led a team. The manager keeps talking about her confidence that I will be very good at creating lots of teamwork. Does anyone out there have any tips to help me to accept this challenge? Help!”

  38. Brendan

    I find this article interesting from a variety of perspectives. The first is that the gender issue should still be raising it’s head in an industry that is relatively young by most standards. It is easier to understand that there would be gender discrimination in law or banking or construction, industries that have existed for millennia. Affirmative action has been in existence for almost as long as the tech industry and yet you show that discrimination has worked its way in here also.
    “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”. Did you intentionally set out with affirmative plans in mind to hire women only, or was the search simply for diversity? Would you have taken a less qualified female candidate if they were still able to do the job? Would you have considered this a way to help create the skilled females in the marketplace that you seem to be lamenting? A strong affirmative action recruitment policy can often result in a loss of efficiency, or profitability when the lessor candidate is selected based simply on sex or race. Did you take this into account with your search for diversity, or did you always seek to serve the shareholder by taking a weak affirmative policy, by only choosing diversity when it was between two equal candidates? If the walls and ceilings are truly to be broken down then it would appear to me that the strong affirmative action would need to be taken in all cases, until even the previously disadvantaged throw their hands up and say “Enough!”. The last forty years of women’s liberation, women’s equality are still not producing sufficient results for us to be able to say that equality has been achieved with regard to women.
    Naomi Wolf wrote in her book ‘Fire with Fire’ that if the old boys network, or glass ceiling were in the way then the women who had got themselves into those higher positions then needed to work to create the ‘old girls network’ which would help to break that glass ceiling. You seem to be talking more about glass walls that are keeping women in the ‘softer’ side of the tech industry, but I suppose that the principles still hold true. Women who are in these positions of authority have the position and the ability to help reverse discrimination and to support women’s equality and yet seem reticent to do so. Affirmative action may not be needed in all industry or all roles, but clearly there is a need for stronger affirmative action policy to be implemented to effect change that is ongoing and lasting. One serious issue that arises with this in New Zealand is the Human Rights Act (1993), which in Section 22 (2) seems to prohibit any form of affirmative action in employment. The section states “It shall be unlawful for any person….procuring employees for any employer to treat any person seeking employment differently from other persons in the same or substantially similar circumstances by reason of any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination.” So the government has legislated to achieve equality but in doing so has legislated against strong affirmative action that could be used to promote and achieve a greater level of equality. This represents a problem for the employer that wishes to provide an affirmative action. They must take a weak affirmative action policy to hire the ‘disadvantaged’ person in a group of equally qualified individuals, so as not to raise the ire of an overlooked candidate.

    What is intriguing to me is that even with higher numbers of women progressing in business or politics, ie Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Marisa Mayer at Yahoo, and even Hilary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State, they are still seen as extraordinary. If equality was truly in existence then these women would be seen as part of the normality and not as some oddity, or as something to be celebrated. True equality will only exist when a woman (or a man) appointed to a role will not be celebrated, but simply noted.

    As the father of three daughters, I look forward to that day.



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  7. The Broad Experience #13: When women ask for a raise | Skillcrush - [...] Valley, which got Lauren Bacon thinking. Losse’s book isThe Boy Kings. And here’s Lauren’s blog post, ‘Women in Tech and…
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  9. The SEO Girl {A Story of Personal Optimisation} | Karin Pinter - [...] there are more SEO girls, tech aces and social media chicks. It’s inevitable – we’re social, we like to…
  10. The REWM: The Friday social - […] Women in Tech and Empathy Work [Lauren Bacon] This post kind of punched me in the gut. Also, I think…
  11. Notes from THATCamp Feminisms West #tcfw | Open Objects - […] the role of disciplinary gatekeepers, assumptions about gendered work, emotional labour and the pressure to be ‘nice’ as well as…

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