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Are Women in Technology Receiving Bad Advice?

IEEE ProComm 2018

Recently, I attended the IEEE ProComm 2018 conference in Toronto. I had the opportunity to hear about research and ideas involving professional communication. This was exciting for me because it was the first time I have attended a conference that wasn’t focused on SQL Server, application development, or some other specific aspect of software/technology. It was a new experience with a different crowd of people. I wasn’t sure what to expect or if it would be a success. How do you measure conference attendance success, anyway? I’ve often heard at PASS and other technology conferences that if you take home one piece of valuable information, then the conference has been a success. My first day at ProComm, I attended a session presented by Joanna Wolfe and I felt that excitement over hearing something valuable that I wanted to share.

The Problem

The session I attended was “Challenging the common wisdom of “I-messages” in conflict management: Lessons from Female Engineers” by Dr. Joanna Wolfe from Carnegie Mellon University. In her talk, Dr. Wolfe started off by explaining I-messages, which were popularized in family psychiatry settings in the 1960s. They’ve made their way into professional self-help and business books, including Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, but there has been little research done to prove their effectiveness. Are you familiar with I-messages? They’re supposed to be a gentler way of confronting someone about an issue.

For example, instead of saying to your coworker, “You never save any cookies for me when happy customers send us cookies,” you would say, “I feel sad and hungry because you never save cookies for me, which leads me to believe that my hunger and cookie cravings are not important to you.” (That’s a ridiculous example, but hopefully you get the idea.)

These I-messages make the issue about the speaker’s feelings and needs rather than confronting the problem or providing a resolution. Is it helpful for women to be associated with more emotions and feelings in the office? In Dr. Wolfe’s research of female engineers, she found that I-messages backfired for women. The survey showed that people hearing the I-messages found the women to appear angrier. This is problematic when women are often perceived as angrier and more emotional in general.

An Alternative

So what does Dr. Wolfe suggest? She’s been working on a 2-3 part message people can use instead of an I-message. I say 2-3 parts because the first part may not be necessary. In the three-part message, the speaker begins with a positive statement. This in itself stirred some controversy in the audience, as well as in previous discussions from what Dr. Wolfe presented. The verdict seemed to be that the positive statement could be helpful, but did not hurt in any of her surveys. It can help build empathy and affinity in a conflict. The second and third parts of the message identify the common goal/shared criteria and seek a resolution in the future.

For example, “I love how passionate you are about scarfing down cookies! However, I think we could have more efficient meetings if you allowed everyone in the room to take a cookie and evenly share the sugar rush before you finished all of them. Going forward, do you think you can make sure everyone has been offered a cookie before wolfing down the rest of them?

Interestingly enough, I’ve seen someone during a PASS presentation use a similar message structure to shut down a disruptive attendee, one of those members of the audience who doesn’t so much have questions but rather a need to be identified as the smartest person in the room. By the way, the person doing this has never appeared to be the smartest person in the room, but I digress… The speaker said something like this:

I appreciate how passionate and knowledgeable you are about this topic! (Praise.) We only have a limited amount of time and need to get through the general presentation that everyone came to see. (Identifying the goal/shared criteria.) Can you save up your questions until the end so that we have time to get through the presentation materials? (Suggesting a solution.)

And it worked!

In Dr. Wolfe’s research, the direct multi-part message approach made the speaker appear less angry (particularly for women) and overall more competent (regardless of gender) based on survey results.

Joanna Wolfe on Gender Dynamics in Engineering Teams

I found this video interview with Dr. Wolfe from ProComm 2017, where she discusses some issues that disproportionately affect women on engineering teams. She also discusses the framework of the messaging example from above.

Women in Engineering Panel

While we’re on the WIT topic, I also attended a Women in Engineering (WIE) panel at ProComm, “IEEE Women in Engineering Special Panel: Engineering Gateways: Communication for Success as Women in Engineering,” which featured the following panelists:

  • Namir Anani, President and CEO of the Information and Communications Technology Council
  • Christine Laperriere, Executive Director, Advancement Centre, Women of Influence, Canada
  • Jennifer van Amerom, Founder and CEO, Refine Recruitment
  • Teresa Sing, VP of Business Development, Refine Recruitment

An interesting takeaway from this panel stemmed from something I’ve heard often lately, “Women Are Over-Mentored (But Under-Sponsored).” In all of that mentoring, women are given advice (like they should read a book called Lean In). Women are told to ask their bosses questions like, “What are my weaknesses, what can I do to improve, what do I need to do to get from here to there?” As someone on the panel (I think it was Jennifer) said, people should solicit insight from their managers and peers more along the lines of, “What am I doing that’s amazing? What do I excel at?” and focus more on their strengths and building those rather than the constant focus on weaknesses and “fixing” oneself.

Sitting in the audience, this topic brought me back to Dr. Wolfe’s presentation, and I wondered how many women are receiving bad advice from good-intentioned mentors about how they can improve themselves at work. How many people have read business/leadership books with I-message type advice and have passed it on to others because it sounded like good advice? If you’ve read these books to help your career, have you done more harm to it and received other recommendations that might backfire?

What Should We Do?

I don’t have the answers and I don’t want to offer poor advice to anyone. I’m going to be more careful about the advice I accept on these topics going forward. If you’ve read all the books and done everything they recommended and you don’t feel like anything has changed, maybe you should question the advice you’ve received and try a new tactic.

When things get difficult and frustrating, I am going to listen to this pink trash panda I saw painted on a building in Toronto and just Keep Pushin!

Keep Pushin' Raccoon Toronto

Melissa Connors
Melissa is the Product Education Manager at SentryOne. Melissa has over a decade of experience with SQL Server through software performance and scalability testing, analysis…
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