Software and pink collars

Yesterday, I said this:

And I want to come back and address it in a bit more depth, because someone called it “a bold statement”, and it is, but not unfounded.

Premises

Before I start, I’m just going to say up front that here are my premises, and if you disagree, feel free to go do your own research.

  1. When women become a majority in a job category, the pay and prestige of the category declines.
  2. Coders are paid more than non-coders of the same experience level at the same company.
  3. Money is a useful proxy for what a company values.

Economics

Code schools and bootcamps are frequently aimed at career-changers and non-traditional students. There is also a healthy representation of young people. Almost all of them are not putting themselves through this for some idealized love of coding, but because they want a well-compensated job.

If user experience, quality assurance, technical support, project management, or technical writing were compensated at the same rate as coding, market pressures would encourage people to offer programs that would provide the same level of education in these other fields.

All those positions are an important part of the product – they affect how people feel about using the product, how much they can accomplish, how frequent releases are. However, this is where we follow the money trail further.

The people who buy software are often not the people who use the software. The purchasers are trying to solve organizational problems while balancing budgets, ROI, security, data conversion, all that stuff. They are not the people at the pointy end of the software stick. They don’t spend hours every day entering tickets in it, or trying to port it to the cloud, or designing marketing materials, or designing microchips.

This disconnection between the user and the purchaser leads to a lot of problems where it is the best interest of the software to address the wants and needs of the purchaser, rather than the user. This complicated relationship is made even more complicated by second-order purchasers, also known as investors. Investors want to be impressed, and also want to make purchasers impressed. It’s a lot of levels of abstraction from the woman in your doctor’s office trying to enter billing data. (I fly out of Minneapolis, which is the hub link for Madison. SO MANY Epicor people.)

Investors are often like pre-Moneyball baseball. They are using pattern-matching to try to figure out which resources and people will be valuable. Enormous and important companies are driven by coders – think Facebook and Google – so it must be that coders are the most important part of a company to invest in. That seems like a successful pattern to match. I think, or at least hope, that as the market matures, we’ll start looking at how often companies make it on base with good products, not just how much they look like other companies.

Products are more than code

Good companies hire experienced people to take care of all the parts of the product that aren’t code. Great companies compensate equivalent experience equally. There are not a lot of great companies in the world.

One of my Twitter interlocutors said that it was just hard to make a value argument for documentation or usability, that people don’t understand why it matters. As a consulting technical writer, I have this argument approximately a millionty times a year. Why wouldn’t usability, consistency, and reliability matter? Do you really, actually have a functional product if only elite nerds can figure out how to install and run it? Or do you have a bunch of aspirational code that may or may not run on most browsers?

I don’t know how to solve this problem. I am doing my bit, going to coding conferences and talking to developers about what it means to write, and what mistakes they commonly make that have to be fixed by other people. The problem is much much bigger than that, though. One pink-haired speaker is not enough to change how an industry regards itself.

I blame the patriarchy

Well, really, I blame the kyriarchy, but that’s a different essay. When I say that technical writing, especially at the end-user level, is a pink-collar job, I mean that it is dominated by women. I don’t have good stats on other product jobs, such as QA, PM, and UX, but the gender ratio for them is certainly closer to even than it is in coding. I think it’s not an accident that the jobs which require more emotional labor are filled with people who have been trained to do it for more years (that’s women and under-indexed people). Pink-collar is a corallary to white- and blue-collar jobs, and conveys class as well as payment expectations.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, she’s a real jerk to work with, but she’s such a great writer that we just can’t get rid of her?” I haven’t. And yet I go to interviews frequently where someone asks me, “How do you work with developers who don’t like talking to writers?”.

Until we level out our status structures, we’ll keep having this problem. and well-meaning people perpetuate it. Girls Who Code. Girl Develop IT. Google Summer of Code. All the technology mentorships and programs funnel people into development, not the allied skills, because the allied skills are…lower status? Less aspirational? Most of our problem is that “the pipeline is leaky and full of acid”, but perhaps some small part of it is that we are trying to fit everyone into the square, high-status hole labeled “developer”, and some people are pegs better shaped for writer or QA.

What can you do?

  • Compensate everyone based on experience and value, not role
  • Advocate for more mentors and assistance for non-coding roles
  • Spend money on continuing education for everyone
  • Promote cross-training
  • Be aware when you are treating coders as more valuable than other team members
  • Respect everyone on their team for their contribution