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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