The Engineer and the Empath

I think we can all agree it's a missed opportunity that business writing doesn't use enough Star Trek:TNG references. Steve Jobs needs a day off anyway.

Picard was brilliant, not because he knew immediately what the best plan of attack was, but because he surrounded himself with brilliant advisors from each critical ship function. He looked to Data for his unfailingly analytical assessment of a situation. He looked to Geordi to know if the shields would hold. He found advice on alien and human physiology from Beverly. He sought out Deanna's empathic read of an enemy. When Picard weighed out a decision, there were two women at the table. I like this version of the future.

What does every good company have in common? They have all their bases covered. They have a balanced team with senior advisors in every area. Too often we have our Geordi, Worf and Data, but no Deanna. Companies must have empathy with customers and stakeholders. They have to know if they're solving a real problem that connects with a real person.

As Lauren Bacon says 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.)

The thread that connects the list of predominantly female roles is the quality of empathy. They are the front lines. A primary job qualification in all of them is the ability to interface well with humans. You might describe them as customer and stakeholder intelligence.

Where are we now?

In the most literal economic terms, predominantly male roles are more valued. Tech company power structures currently place engineering talent in the power roles. Instead of being viewed as critical contributors to a company’s success, predominantly female roles are too often seen as unfortunate cost centers to be minimized as much as possible.

C-level chairs are overwhelmingly sat in by a male butt. Despite every major publication (Forbes, Credit Suisse, Bloomberg, Harvard Business Review) writing that having women in leadership leads to higher profits and more innovation, still only 10 percent of those seats are held by women and a stunning 36 percent of Fortune 500 companies do not have even a single woman on their board of directors.

Making good products demands making better companies.

Empathy with your customer is a strategic priority. Most companies fail because they don't find a product/market fit. They fail because they’re not making a product that solves a real problem for an actual human who exists in this world. Guess who knows whether your product is meeting customers’ needs? It's the people that are closest to them. Women are far overrepresented in roles which require emotional labor. Instead of trying to move this generation out of these roles, let’s make the most of their abilities.

Don’t mistake this an an absolution of responsibility for getting more women in technical roles. We absolutely need to get more women in technical roles. We also have to reshape our concept of what “women’s work” is and why it’s critical.

And, while we're at it, let’s pay these roles more! Not because you're a good person and not because it feels nice. If you invest cold, hard cash into this strategic priority, you'll respect their time differently and you'll listen differently when they speak. You'll write their job descriptions differently. You'll hire people with more ability and more capacity to grow into influential roles.

If you’re looking for merely an office admin, you'll hire a mere office admin. If you reshape your concept into someone who can bring together stakeholders to synthesize their interests and who can direct those scattered ideas into a cohesive vision with which to guide the company (a typical thing office admins do, but rarely get recognition for), you'll give them the autonomy and responsibility they need to accomplish that.

If you’re merely looking for someone to make pretty screens and watch people in usability tests to tell you what’s broken, you’ll hire merely a designer/researcher. If you reshape your concept into advocate for the customer, you will find someone who will recenter your product around solving real user problems instead of building yet another impressive but useless feature.

If you’re looking for merely someone to respond to all those annoying emails from customers, you’ll hire merely a customer service rep. If you reshape your concept into making it everyone’s job to help users, you will fundamentally change the way your company builds products.

But what about the shit work? Don't we need to hire someone to do the shit work?

The best companies take the opposite stance. 37Signals made it everyone’s job to do the shit work. They distributed it out among everyone. You can’t have one person whose whole job is to do the shit work. What kind of person would be content to stay in such a role? Look at the legendary culture of service Zappos has built by requiring everyone to spend their first weeks as a warehouse worker.

(To dive even deeper: Let’s also examine what tasks you are perceiving as “shit work” and see in what ways there are cultural devaluations of work which women stereotypically do. Emotional and domestic work such as childcare, food prep, family negotiator often translate as "office mom" into event planning, ensuring team cohesion and making sure everyone eats a square meal.)

I'm not saying we should get rid of these supporting administrative roles. I'm saying the opposite, that we should treat the support function as an absolutely critical contribution to the company's success. Tie performance in these areas to raises and reviews. How does your company deal with it when a lead customer service rep says the CTO is not pulling his weight in answering customer emails? For a company to give more than lip service to these customer-first values, you will have to tie promotions and raises to those who embody them.

Make sure every role has a career path that leads to the metaphorical big table.

No one should do a job which has no potential for growth. This feels like a radical statement, but how can you expect people to work in a role with such limited potential? Though marketing and HR do typically have a C-level seat (even that seat disproportionately held by a man), a glance at a few org charts reveals that not all career paths go to the top. The most senior designer/researcher at my former employer, Mozilla, is a step below a VP. There is no representation for design at the C-level. Community managers are in the same boat. Office admin? Well, I don’t know what she does next. Go to a bigger company to work for a more senior (man) person? Look at how much institutional knowledge is lost when that happens. What could you do to keep her talent at your company?

As Cindy Gallop says, women are not the niche market, women are the norm. Women make 85% of purchasing decisions. Women are the majority buyer in every single product category including electronics and cars. Whatever you’re selling, you’re probably selling it mostly to women. Isn't it a tremendous advantage, then, to have women in the positions that shape the course of your product?

Women think about things differently. Women prioritize things men don’t see as important. Women notice things men would never notice. Having women in positions of influence will by their very existence shake things up. Women will overturn the status quo, because we are never it.

The dismal percentage of women in the influential roles will continue until we reshape company culture. Yes, we should get more women in engineering, the field which is historically most likely to produce CEOs, but that’s not even half of the story. There’s a much bigger potential in giving the predominantly female roles -- the roles that are making customers happy and making you money -- a path to the top. Their correspondingly larger voice will make your business more in tune with its customer needs. Empathetic companies will be ones that win.


Discover more in the archive!