The feminisation of the IT department

How can you improve the quality of relationships between individuals working in IT and colleagues in business?

There’s not, at first, an obvious connection between feminist literature and information technology.

But reading the writer Jean Baker Miller from the Stone Center, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, offers some important lessons based on her insights into the nature of human relationships.

Miller broadly worked in the context of connections between female therapists and their clients. You may be wondering why a therapy writer could possibly have any relevance to the world of computing? But there are some valid parallels between her world and that of IT.

The interpersonal dynamics Miller described are paralleled in many workplace scenarios typical for an IT department - leader and team member, client and vendor, IT and “the business”.

The question that seemed most relevant was that old chestnut, “How can IT improve its relationship with the business?”

A poor relationship with business colleagues can lead to a variety of ills for IT leaders - finding it difficult to retain the budget for projects; producing less relevant solutions; and, in the worst case, the business bypassing IT to deal directly with external providers.

Some IT leaders tackle this issue by looking at structure and processes, perhaps the use of business relationship managers, or aligning certain teams to specific business areas.

Much of this helps, but alone this is not enough to really make a difference. On reflection, in part through reading Miller, it becomes apparent that these were largely logical solutions to a fundamentally emotional issue - the quality of relationships between individuals working in IT and those in the business.

Healthy relationships

So what does create a healthy relationship? Jean Baker Miller has a good definition in the book The Complexity of Connection. For her it's a focus on mutual empathy and mutual empowerment

Miller sees mutual empathy as an essential component of authenticity and of a high quality relationship. Mutual empathy is about me seeing that my actions have an emotional impact on others and feeling the impact of others on myself.

How often have you just jumped into some technical task without stopping to think about how you might be able to empower your client or user as part of the process?

It’s a natural instinct for many people to dive into a diagram, a user story, or a PowerPoint deck rather than really try to feel the impact of their words on the person they are dealing with, or indeed others’ words or actions back on them.

Mutual empowerment is about enabling others’ achievement and contribution. Norwegian social anthropologist Cato Wadel talked about mutual empowerment as focusing on “embedded outcomes”.

These outcomes might be increased competence, increased self-confidence or increased knowledge that might occur as by-products of another activity. In IT terms, it’s about focusing on the other’s deeper needs as well just what needs to get done for the project.

Joyce Fletcher, part of Miller’s clan, cites empathic teaching as a way of achieving an embedded outcome. She alludes to a female engineer explaining why she talks through the whole process while fixing a computer file: “Look, the whole point is so they can do it without you next time, right?”

How often have you just jumped into some technical task without stopping to think about how you might be able to empower your client or user as part of the process?

To educe

Miller’s support for empathy and empowerment echoes the philosophy of Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, who talks about the need for people to educe rather than lead in organisations. To educe is defined as, “To bring out or develop something latent or potential”.

Again, in the context of the IT project team and the business, this means less poring over percentage complete or burn-down charts, and fewer debates about exactly what was asked for and when. Instead, it becomes more about posing open, empathic questions designed to help educe rather than lead.

These are examples of the types of questions to use more in future when talking to clients, team members, or “the business”:

  • How do you feel about our working relationship?
  • How do you feel this software is going to affect you?
  • As well as the aims of the project, what else would you like to get from this project personally?
  • What makes you excited to work on this project?
  • How does this project make you feel?

According to Miller, a healthy relationship results in “the five good things” – that is, increased levels of zest, empowerment, self-awareness, self-worth and connection.

Team members involved in these five ways will be happier and produce higher quality, more relevant software more efficiently - a boon for both the IT team and the business.

Just as Apple has succeeded so brilliantly with its feminisation of consumer hardware, companies may achieve stunning results with technology in general if they focus on feminising, or at least re-balancing, their often overtly masculine approach to IT delivery.

Richard Atherton (pictured) is an associate at Sovento Consulting.

Read more on IT management skills