Is Empathy “Women’s Work”?

In late 2010, I studied the number of women at high-profile startups, and found that if a startup employed women at all, it was far more often in a “selling” role than in a “making” one. That’s quite a disadvantage for companies whose customer base is primarily women.

Despite Etsy’s news last month that they’d grown their number of female engineers by 500% in a single year, it seems the trend hasn’t changed much more broadly. A quick check of those same team pages I’d analyzed two years ago still shows a predominance of male faces in Product and Engineering (that is, for the startups that still exist).

In a recent piece for the Huffington Post titled, Women in Tech and Empathy Work, leadership coach Lauren Bacon makes the same discovery — but takes her conclusions one step further.

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 labor-heavy departments, even in the tiniest companies.

As a user experience consultant, I coach my clients on how to build empathy within their organizations for customers and colleagues. Outsourcing empathy to one department or team — whether it be user experience, design, product, marketing, or even engineering — hurts the company tremendously, resulting in an even less effective product design and greater discord amongst teammates. Empathy must be a part of the organizational ethos, established at the top and implemented equally at all levels.

However, I agree with Bacon in her assessment that “empathy work” is often delegated to women. Women are thought to be the kinder, gentler, more patient, more understanding gender. On the surface, this would seem to be a wildly degrading generalization that hurts both men and women. But it also may be true.

Several studies have shown women to have a greater capacity for empathy. A longitudinal study of empathy in adolescence conducted at the Universidad de Valencia (Spain) “confirm[s] a greater empathic response in females than in males of the same age, differences growing with age.”

Based on the findings, we can conclude that there are statistically significant differences between same age, male and female adolescents as far as their ability to feel or experience the emotions of others are concerned (emotional empathy) and in their cognitive capacity to understand the others’ emotions (cognitive empathy).

A 2012 study Empathic concern and perspective taking: Linear and quadratic effects of age across the adult lifespan analyzes analyzed “empathic concern” (emotional empathy) and “perspective taking” (cognitive empathy) across American adults age 18-90. Results found that middle-aged adults reported higher empathy than both young adults and older adults, and that consistently across age groups, women reported more empathy than men.

But greater self-reporting of empathy doesn’t necessarily correlate with a greater capacity for empathy, does it?

Gender differences in brain networks supporting empathy, a study conducted by psychologists and neurologists in Germany in 2008, shows that female brains actually respond differently than male brains in empathy-eliciting situations.

The data suggest that females recruit areas containing mirror neurons to a higher degree than males during both SELF- and OTHER-related processing in empathic face-to-face interactions. This may underlie facilitated emotional “contagion” in females. Together with the observation that males differentially rely on the left temporoparietal junction (an area mediating the distinction between the SELF and OTHERS) the data suggest that females and males rely on different strategies when assessing their own emotions in response to other people.

All three studies conclude that women do, as a group, have a greater capacity for empathy, but the gender gap is far more pronounced with regards to emotional empathy (feeling another’s emotions) than it is with regards to cognitive empathy (understanding another’s emotions). That means men may not experience others’ emotions as women do, but they very well can still understand them.

As with all research studies, generalizations are made from studying a sample of the target population. It’s worth stating clearly and emphatically that while research has demonstrated women as a whole have a greater capacity for empathy, that it no way precludes an individual male from having a greater capacity for empathy than an individual female.

I’m afraid it is these generalizations that may cause women to be hired to perform “empathy work” at a greater rate than their male counterparts. It might be easier for employers to find female candidates who more overtly and willingly demonstrate emotional and/or cognitive empathy abilities. And perhaps when trying to establish greater empathy within an organization, employers are predisposed to look to females to fill these roles — to do so would be blatant employment discrimination, but it may also be that women are self-selecting into positions that allow for work of this nature.

But let’s be clear: a greater capacity for empathy does not imply a reduced capacity for logic. Even if it may not be biologically possible to do both at the same time.

There’s so much more to explore here and every day I undercover more research that helps to explain these very complex dynamics in the workplace. I hope you’ll share anything you find with me, and we all keep an open heart and mind in trying to make sense of it all.

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  1. Samantha Bailey says

    I’m veering slightly OT–I find this post very interesting, although your initial comment about finding more women in “selling” roles than “making” roles really surprised me as this would seem to run counter to another datapoint that we have around women shying away from doing salary negotiation and/or selling themselves short (I’m thinking here of Clay Shirky’s “Rant about Women” among other things). I personally haven’t encountered very many women in selling roles in my career (acknowledging that is a very limited dataset.) Would be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this aspect of what you’ve observed about selling vs making roles.

  2. Mia Kos says

    Interesting post, thanks Whitney. Love the “But let’s be clear: a greater capacity for empathy does not imply a reduced capacity for logic.” part.

  3. says

    Sorry, no research to offer here, only anecdotes, but I wonder if women are socialised to be more attuned to empathy in organisations. In the three places I’ve worked, it’s always been the women who have done a lot of the team building stuff (making sure people get stuff on their birthdays etc)—which I became particularly aware of when the other two women in a team I was in left!
    I think there is something about socalising and expecting to play fair: some of the papers relating to personality types note that the logical women tend to get socalised to be more social than their male counterparts.

  4. says

    It seems an additional piece to the puzzle is _why_ women seem to have greater capacities for empathy. The studies you point to look at adolescents and adults. I’m curious whether studies exist looking at boys and girls in early childhood and preadolescence. Does the empathy gap begin at birth? Is it learned? Does it start widening at a certain age, and if so, when? I should look into this further.

    Nature-vs-nurture arguments are always challenging, since humans have so much gray area, but I suspect that at least a good hunk of this empathy divide could be accounted for in the way gender tends to be modeled for both boys and girls, which obviously starts long before they hit adolescence.

    I also have this sneaking suspicion that being empathetic requires a level of vulnerability—that is, being open to others’ feelings. Women certainly don’t have a lock on vulnerability, but I think we all know which gender is more likely to cringe at being seen as “weak.”

    And then there’s the problem of what and how we value work. While I see the “men are logical; women are emotional” gender divide limiting and damaging to everyone, I see it as equally troubling that we simply don’t value the nurturing, empathetic skills (teachers, nurses, etc.) as we do the logical, decision-making skills.

    This is a subject of genuine complexity and few easy answers. I’m glad you’re taking it on so thoughtfully. Thank you.

  5. says

    Great post! I think a lot of this has to do with how socially acceptable it is for each gender to display empathy.

    I’ve been following your work online for a while now and have been wanting to invite you to drop in for a few minutes (virtually) in my intro HCI class at Purdue. I would like my students to have a female role model. Would you consider this invitation? :)

  6. says

    I just took on an assignment where the company almost went out of business because all of the men who ran it never knew how to address consumer complaints after a huge Groupon deal. They only had one smart idea, hire women. Two women joined the company two months ago and are swifty converting haters into loyalists. I am the third. My job is to keep the loyalists happy.

    Great post.


  1. […] I read these two articles by Lauren Bacon and Whitney Hess. (I used the word “empathy.” You knew my Whitney Hess fangirlism was going to show.) […]

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