Gender, Inclusivity & the Users’ Advocate

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“Good communicators establish a personal connection by focusing on how their message may impact the other person.” –Jayson DeMers, 7 Things Good Communicators Always Do

Judging by the furor in both the social and mass media, gender issues are currently a big deal.

To be clear, I am not making light of the situation. Gender issues have alwaysbeen a big deal, but the recent dam-busting torrent has me asking: Does gender play a role in technical communication?

Who Is This Guy?

It’s worth asking the question: Who am I to talk about gender?

I’m a cisgender heterosexual man living and working in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of tech-bro culture. You can’t miss it in the faces on the executive teams, in the faces on the boards of directors, and in the headlines and tweets.

I’ve experienced zero sexual harassment in my career. I know that I’m lucky that I don’t spend a typical day slogging uphill against gender bias.

I’m a documentarian who loves my job unabashedly and I’m passionate about user success.

These are all reasons why feel I must ask the question.

In Your Content

  • A user engages with your community-driven support system looking for someone like them, with the same goals and issues, someone who has asked their question and reached a happy resolution.
  • In a traditional manual, your user hopes that you’ve written a topic specifically for them, the new user who needs to install and run the unit from scratch or the experienced user who needs a reminder about configuring a seldom-used aspect of the system.

If your users are trying to identify themselves in your content, why would you make your content gendered? Whatever gender you pick, chances are better than 50/50 that you’re going to pick wrong for any single user. Winning user acceptance is difficult enough without potentially alienating a large portion of your audience with language that excludes them.

Something as simple as pronoun choice can affect your content’s inclusiveness. I’ve seen several threads in social media recently lamenting the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English. How is this still an issue? I’m no cutting-edge progressive paragon (obviously), but I’ve always instinctively avoided the masculine default and used they/their/them in my content for the past 20+ years.

Inclusive language is not just a feel-good goal. It’s a practical objective ensuring that everyone who uses your content can recognize themselves in your work and find their own success.

In Your Workplace

Information is our business and our craft. We gather it, synthesize it, and deliver it. The ultimate source of information is people. People are imperfect creatures. Sometimes those imperfections take the form of gender bias.

People express their gender bias in so many ways. These are a few I’ve witnessed over the years:

  • The senior colleague who mistakenly believes his patronizing manner towards female colleagues is politeness
  • The newly graduated engineer enthralled by the tech-bro culture and who is too inexperienced and ill-equipped to recognize that loutish sexism has no place in society, let alone in the workplace
  • The writer who habitually polls the junior male member of the development team to the exclusion of the female team lead

I don’t code for a living and I don’t have an engineering degree, so I’ve sat through more than a few patronizing explanations of elementary tech, gritting my teeth and waiting patiently to ask probing questions that demonstrate that I know the topic backwards and forwards. I can only imagine how much more infuriating and enervating it must be for other writers who have to deal with professional condescension amplified by gender bias.

Benign or malignant, inadvertent or deliberate, these biased interactions have a chilling effect on the relationship between the source and the writer.

Of course our mission extends beyond the narrow scope of the source/writer relationship to all aspects of working in any organization. Each of these activities present their own opportunities for gender bias to stifle and contaminate:

  • Participating in the day-to-day work culture (socializing in common areas where non-work-related topics can dominate conversation)
  • Attending off-site events for team building and celebrations (participating in activities and at venues that might be outside your comfort zone)
  • Justifying resources individually (negotiating your compensation, requesting time and subsidies for professional education and development, setting personal goals)
  • Justifying resources for a team (negotiating budget for staffing, tools, and training, setting team goals)
  • Establishing and maintaining your place in the product development process (attending process and planning meetings, negotiating doc requirements, integrating with development schedules)

Applied Intelligence

So what can you do? How can you remain an effective users’ advocate with so many potential pitfalls in your way?

I don’t have any prescriptive advice. That would be more than a little tone deaf. The issues are too personal and too important to resolve in a short column.

I do hope that you work in an organization whose culture, leadership, policy, and process are robust and enlightened enough to filter out gender bias when hiring, to proactively discourage gender bias in the workplace, and to actively recognize, acknowledge, and correct gender bias when it does happen.

But no organization is perfect… in fact most organizations are 180 degrees from perfect.

It’s inevitable that you’ll encounter gender bias just as you’ll encounter all the other points of interpersonal friction in the workplace like clashing personalities, inflated egos, and irrational expectations.

Only you can decide what is benign and what is endurable as you carefully choose a career path littered with everything from poison ivy to IEDs.

For those benign and endurable situations, we can apply the skills that we users’ advocates wield as professional communicators. Just as emotional intelligence gives good communicators the awareness to recognize and manage their own emotions, to direct emotional energy to analysis and problem solving, and to positively affect the emotions of their colleagues, so should  “gender intelligence” be recognized as an essential skill.

“Gender intelligence” is already a registered trademark of the Gender Intelligence Group. They represent it as a secret sauce or silver bullet that “finally cracks the code on gender equality” with a myopic, binary focus on leveraging the “natural” differences between men and women in a mundane quest to improve productivity.

I think their definition is inadequate. Gender intelligence enables you to recognize and manage gender bias (your own, your organization’s, and your colleagues’) and to employ your awareness of gender bias to improve your working relationships and your content. Gender intelligence should rank with emotional intelligence in importance. The coveted productivity improvements will come more naturally from the application of this intelligence than from some formulaic and fallacious appeal to nature in the synthetic construct of binary gender.

It’s Personal

I’ve been very fortunate in my career so far.

I’ve spent the majority of my time in Silicon Valley, that Mecca for the tech bro, in work cultures dominated not by toxic masculinity but by big-company political strife or by start-up-style flat-org meritocracy.

My first manager and mentor is one of the smartest and most disciplined people I know. Her greatest lesson for me was to demonstrate how persistent and practical application of intellect can solve just about any problem. Her greatest gift to me was the freedom to learn, to make mistakes and grow to develop a love for my work. At no point in our working relationship did I feel that gender was an issue.

I’ve worked with and managed exceptional teams of writers, writers whose common traits were a fanatical devotion to user success matched with exceptional analytical and communication skills. Junior or senior, local or remote, male, female, or otherwise, I trusted that my team members had my back. At no point did I feel that gender was an issue.

I owe a debt to other writers, like Dan Goldstein, who challenge gender and treat it not as an abstract idea or “natural” law, but as a significant axis of data. Like Dan, after completing his gender study and analysis of TECHWR-L postings, I don’t have definitive answers, but it’s important to keep asking questions so that we can map out the problems and derive solutions.

So does gender play a role in technical communications? Yes, it does. Maybe I’ve spent my career in a bubble, but I’m not deaf and blind to what’s going on. I’m confident that writers equipped with an awareness of and sensitivity to gender bias are the best hope for extending that bubble of inclusivity to advocate for and ensure the success of all users.

Additional Reading

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is Manager, Technical Writing at Integral Development Corp. in Palo Alto, California. He has worked for 20 years to bridge the gap between user intent and user success with technical communication. Phil has written about hardware and software, managed a team, and created a full range of content from user guides and help systems to API doc in multiple programming languages and messaging technologies. His ongoing passions are lean documentation and process automation. Phil lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and two kids.

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