Learning the Rules: Empathy and Enforcement

On project teams and in workplace culture, enforcer roles fall to women regardless of their job titles.

by Amelia Abreu on November 18th, 2014

“You’ve gotta recognize patterns”, my friend Janet, a veteran UX researcher, likes to say. Whether it’s a design pattern or an organizational one, noting divisions, categories and structures is a key part of our work. It’s crucial to recognize categories, because they mark power and politics, orders of things that reflect systems of values.

When I hang out with other UX people, we often bond over what I call “the shuffle”. A feeling of constant movement: between job titles: designer, researcher, information architect; between freelance and staff jobs; between boring enterprise work that pays the bills and gives you insurance and cooler projects that don’t; between working for agencies and working on product teams; between the boundaries of technical and non-technical work. Most people have a background in “something else”, like engineering, design, libraries or academia.

Many of my professional colleagues conclude that trying to reconcile operational categories is useless in the work that we do, that shuffling between categories gives you teeny bit of cushion between them, a way to literally slip through the cracks.

Edge of a ruler.

Photo CC-BY Scott Akerman, filtered. 

Shuffling through organizations as an observer and also as an employee gives one a weird intimacy with their operations. I’ve been trained, first as a social scientist, and then as a user researcher, to observe rules and divisions. I have spent a lot of time in the past few years watching the so called “supporting” roles at work: human resources, recruiting, marketing, accounts, administrative and middle-management. I’ve done so as a researcher and designer, but also as a worker, moving through jobs and organizations. Contractor, freelancer, employee, “the least technical person on the technical team”. Titles and status are one of the hardest categories to shake in an organization.

Supporting roles emphasize process, and their processes, like mine, are in the interest of carefully collecting data and “adding value” to organizational efforts. Organizational process, I’d argue, is an attempt to provide control; “supporting” roles do the work of asserting it. Depending on the setting and environment, my process might be deemed more as “contributing” to a project than “supporting” it, but like most HR folks, UX folks are familiar with having their findings and recommendations brushed off.

Of course, my comfort and perceived kinship with folks in supporting roles comes down to one big factor- these are roles more often held by women, and by women of color, than others in the settings where I work. When I’m working on a project team, if there is another woman on it, chances are she’s a project manager, a recruiter, a producer, an accounts or marketing director. Most often these women are the most emotionally savvy people in the office: they keep friendly distance, they remember details, they’re available yet not subservient. They’re also among the more culturally literate, coming from more diverse backgrounds and having, at a premium, a skillset for understanding and communicating with people different from them. In my experiences, if anyone in the office is going to relate to me as a woman of color, most likely it’ll be a woman whose work is demarcated from mine by operational power categories, the same operational power categories for whom she is, by design, the enforcer.

I get a double-pronged feeling of imposter syndrome around colleagues in support roles. I’m intimidated by the finesse a great account director has in reaching consensus with her client, or the nonchalant ways in which customer support workers can point to product failures. While UX work emphasizes empathy and understanding, these are the people who actually have it, I think to myself. Around engineers I feel like I have to prove myself technically, but around the supporters and enforcers, I’m almost certain that they have my number: they can see past any talk about “design thinking” or “heuristics.”

Empathy and advocacy are hardly buzzwords for support roles: they’re explicit responsibilities. Corporate human resources discourse, for example, downplays the individual and emotional responsibilities of its functions, emphasizing metrics of retention, productivity, diversity and employee satisfaction as a means of justifying a return on investment. Yet in User Experience discourse, words like “empathy”, “compassion”, “touch” and “assistance” are used frequently, not as ways to describe labor, but to describe system design and the thought behind it. It’s a detached way of circuiting human process through impersonal channels. I’m often uncomfortable with this affective trading-off, but there’s a lot of sincerity in professional talk about the User Experience, usually by very confident white men.

If I’ve noticed a pattern in all this, talking generally about empathy and compassion, or “service”, is a privilege reserved for those who get to chose when to use these tools.

The expectation of enforcement

I grew up in a part of the American lower middle class where one was surrounded by enforcers: people who worked to ensure others follow rules, rules they didn’t have a say in creating but nevertheless enforced for their livelihood.

My parents were teachers, my grandmother was a social worker for the Catholic diocese. My father’s family were immigrants, and so were a lot of my friends’ parents – postal workers, nurses, firefighters, correctional guards, truck drivers and office managers, people who carried out orders and whose jobs were contingent on not openly criticizing those rules and orders. The Catholic church where I grew up was full of rules and structure, and so were the public schools I went to, with mostly women, and many women of color, assembled into hierarchies, instructing us on learning rules and how to follow them properly.

Of course, being a kid from an immigrant family, I was aware early on of the ways in which rules were enforced. How strangers reacted to my grandfather with the heavy accent. How my immigrant relatives dressed up for everything, their formality as a shield. The thrill of tweaking your parents’ rule set or finding another one to adhere to was one I kept chasing: vegetarianism, punk rock, yoga, academic culture — each offered a new set of rules to crack and assimilate.

I set out to have an enforcement career of my own, going to library school after college and working as a librarian at a state university- not a flagship, but the kind of diverse commuter school where my family members had all gotten their educations. My parents were proud. After a few years, I dared myself to apply to PhD programs, because I was bored as a 25-year-old working in a stuffy academic library. More of that rigorous rule-following that feels like rebellion.

Curved, full bookshelves in a library.

Photo CC-BY Samantha Marx, filtered.

Something different happened then: the rigor of rule-following ceased to feel as rewarding as it once did. My PhD program was the ultimate challenge for assimilation, and I finally cracked. The official rules of academia: research methods, processes of writing and publication, accreditation, degree conferral, tenure and promotion all seemed so clear and, at the surface, universally applied. But the unwritten ones: how to act, who does what work and why, all seemed so opaque. In my department, women, especially women of color, were still the enforcers, the support staff and faculty in administrative positions. Men, white men especially, the department chairs and prolific researchers, were the ones who got to set the rules and break them at will.

I once asked a friend how she was able to work with her advisor, notorious on campus for being sexually inappropriate with female grad students. She was confused why I’d even ask : “He’s a really respected researcher.”

I went on leave in 2011 after my fourth year. I was pregnant with my daughter, and I’d been told there was no more funding available for me. I realized I needed to find another line of work.

Changing career direction in my 30s has been brutal at times. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve felt established enough to be at all confident in my work, still plagued with worries of being too old, too female, having too many responsibilities in my personal life. Worries of standing out and not knowing the rules.

Enforcement and Invisibility

The work of enforcement isn’t easy, and it’s expected to be invisible. Enforcers handle the day-to-day execution of operational categories: they shape the work one does and how one can do it. Decision-making is done at the middle ranks of enforcement, as is much of the data gathering that informs personnel decisions: hiring and firing, work assignments and benefits administration.

A cross-section of a decorative chronograph.

Photo CC-BY sailn1, filtered.

It’s usually a middle manager, and almost always a woman, who decides where I’ll sit in office: with the technical team, or on some island elsewhere. It’s an account planner who writes a brief that I’ll work from, and a project manager that determines how I’ll fit into the project. When I have been recruited for jobs, it’s almost always a woman who’s doing the recruiting work, setting up calls and answering initial questions.

Once you’re hired, who else in the office knows that you’ve added your partner and their child to your health insurance, that you took a few days off last month to help out an elderly relative, and that you’re not happy with last year’s bonus? This is information too sensitive to put in a central database, so instead it’s the responsibility of one of the women in the middle of the office.

On project teams and in workplace culture generally, I’ve noticed enforcer roles fall to women regardless of their job titles. The most senior woman engineer in one place I worked organized the golf league. In another job, I got harsh personal criticism from a project manager, an older Filipina who told me straight out I was going to have to get used to taking abuse from the men on the team, especially the ones in leadership. “You’re supposed to understand our customers” she said. “They’re our customers”.

Yet even as I’ve come to terms with the work of enforcement, as it stands, being doled out to women and people of color structurally, I’m as guilty as anyone of observing and participating in workplace culture that devalues emotional labor and puts structures in place to enforce it.  A dismissive, “Oh, she’s in marketing”, “She’s in HR”, or “She’s from Accounts” declares allegiance to the hegemonic divisions of work at play, writing off the work in that other operational category.

“The only woman VP here is in HR”, I complained to a favorite coworker, immediately registering how that sounded. It’s a slippery slope, as employing operational categories to dismiss the work of other women is a classic move in the fucked-up playbook of advancement.

It’s also ineffective to say “I’m not that woman who does that job” when clearly, I am: every time I’ve pushed back or refused administrative tasks in a job, like making travel arrangements, taking notes in meetings, ordering lunch, or other “not-in-my-job description” work, I’ve been criticized harshly or judged as “difficult”. I realize I have two choices: assume the extra emotional labor assigned and reconcile it, or risk being punished for a bad attitude or insubordination.

In situations where I’ve worked under women in positions of power, I’ve heard intense scrutiny of their personalities, lifestyle choices and modes of operation. Any dream I may have had about my own work being recognized on its merits alone was crushed after hearing the same kind of searing criticisms of the nearest woman in power: there seemed to be a set of unwritten talking-points on the failures of every female full professor or vice-president. These ranged from her lifestyle: where she lived, who her partner was, where her children went to school; to her appearance, to the minor details about her work and smug nitpicking of the programs she oversaw.

It was only after years of observing, and at times, participating in this practice – ruling out role models and dismissing women whose careers I’d previously admired – that I realized how toxic and endemic it was.

The enforcement ladders

A pile of open notebooks with writing in it.

Photo CC-BY Leif and Evonne.

Because support and operational roles get dismissed so easily (see this classic misogynist text, “Why we hate HR”), I’d like to pause and reframe them. Part of what drew me to librarianship was its feminized status: I wanted to be around smart, interesting women. There is nothing wrong with choosing a job that seems, well, welcoming to you. There’s a trajectory, a ladder, for women in supporting and enforcement roles, one that’s often missing from technical or creative ones.

My friend Sheila, an artist and single mom, has moved through HR and marketing roles at a Los Angeles startup, getting promoted from a customer service position to a current title as VP of Sales. “I guess I have people skills… It’s been an opportunity for me, for sure”, she said. “But it comes down to (no matter the job title) having to do the things my bosses don’t want to do… Being the enforcer is my least favorite part of my job. That and reminding them of decisions they’ve already made.”

Maybe the answer isn’t in distinguishing the work one does from support work, but in learning from it and advocating for it. There’s a high degree of privilege in assuming an advocacy role: in order to be regarded as an advocate, one must first have a position with some degree of power. For my UX colleagues who boast about the role empathy plays in their design work, their privilege is unspoken: they can advocate and assume they’ll be listened to. I wish there was a healthier awareness of this privilege, the biases and conscious choices wielded in employing emotional labor so selectively.

At this point in my life, I reluctantly accept that enforcement is a part of any job I’ll have, at work or at home. I put my after-business-hours commitments on my partner’s calendar, reminding him that I can’t cover childcare those nights, and I bark at him to put his business trips on mine. I’ll take notes at any meeting I go to, and follow up with an email cc’ing everyone else in attendance. I’ll spend so many hours, like Sheila said, reminding people of decisions they’d already made. In my freelance work, I think of this as “client services”, a version of emotional labor to that fits neatly into business terms.

All I wanted, at so many points in my life, was to be thought of as brilliant and left alone. To do good work and be free to wear whatever I wanted, have a messy desk, be late and do things my own way. I got away with it more when I was younger and less committed, when I could be brushed off by my lack of status or allowed near power because I caused no threat. I’m slowly letting go of that dream: at this point I’ve been around enough men who did live like entitled children, so secure in their own genius and so thoughtless towards others: female partners caring for children, administrative staffers doing extra jobs. The role of enforcer is most necessary where egos – and the business expectations riding on them – run high.

I still think, on good days, that my UX work, in classic emotional labor terms, helps people. Even simple efforts can make interactions with technology more meaningful or simply less of a hassle. But I know I’m only allowed access to the discussions, and the terms of them, by degrees of privilege: whiteness, age, education, gender performance. I dream about this not all being so contingent on so many compromises, not having to do this shuffle between a worldview held by a dominant minority and the realities, far more nuanced and complicated, of everyone else actually doing the work of empathizing, caring, and enforcing.