Dr. Emily January Petersen on How Women Technical Communications Get Undervalued in the Workplace

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and I apologize I’ve had a bit of a delay between episodes. This semester got away from me as it often does, but we’re back today with a great interview. I’ve got Dr. Emily January Peterson, from Weber State University, talking about an article that she published in Technical Communications last year, called “Anticipating Value Amid Persistent Misconceptions,” about technical and professional communication in the workplace. And I first encountered this article when I taught it to my students last year and I was really struck how well this article captured a problem that I’ve heard from former students of mine and for members of our local society for technical communication, which is that technical communicators, especially women, are often undervalued and underappreciated in the workplace. Dr. Peterson’s research features interviews with several with several women who work as technical communicators, in which they talk about their experiences of being undervalued and underappreciated and having their work misunderstood and often ignored, and she also talked with them about the ways that they try to bring more recognition and understanding about what they do and what they contribute to their organizations. So, I hope you enjoy the interview, I thought it was really interesting.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Emily. We really appreciate you joining us today and your article interviewed several female technical communicators to find out kind of the issues that they experience on the job and some of the misconceptions they face about the profession. To get started, can you tell us just a little bit about the interviews that you conducted?

[Emily January Peterson] Sure, so I interviewed thirty-nine women who were technical writers and what I was really curious about was gender issues in the workplace, and I was surprised that I found so much that was crossing gender lines and speaking to maybe the experiences of all technical communicators and writers. But this project was born from my own experiences as a technical writer. When I first graduated with an English degree as an undergrad, I went into the, you know workforce thinking that I would have these skills that would be valued and that people would appreciate them, and I had a really hard time finding a full-time job. And eventually did work my way up to an associate editor position at this company, where I started as a secretary and faced a little bit of sexual harassment, some devaluation, some problems, and so really my dissertation, these interviews, came from the idea of just wanting to know how are things going now, you know fifteen years later? Are women still facing some of these issues and how does it play out for technical writers specifically? You know women face issues in the workplace across disciplines, through many fields, but for technical writers I wanted to kind of see what was going on for them specifically and I think what happened is this article. As a result, that there are misconceptions for both men and women, and it has to do with the nature of writing work and the way that it’s valued or not valued in workplaces. So, I interviewed thirty-nine women, they were all across the United States, different states, different areas of the country, spent about an hour, an hour and a half speaking with each one, and they have lots of great stories to tell, lots of experiences. Go to know many of them well enough that we’re networked now on social media and they still are you know talking to me about what’s going on and what are the results of the study? And so, it’s been great and actually many of them said as well in the interviews, “I have colleagues in India, why are you not talking to these women?” So, I ended up going to India in July of 2016 and speaking with almost fifty women who worked as technical communicators there, and so the results of that research are forthcoming, but it’s really led to an interesting network of women around the world who are interested in solving these problems for technical communication.

[Weber] So according to the interviews you identified several misconceptions that technical communicators experience in the workplace. What kinds of things did you find?

[Peterson] So one of the main findings is that technical writing is considered to be cosmetic, and this came through when the women were describing what they’re colleagues were asking them to make things pretty, or to just check the grammar, or to just make it look nice. And this was a huge problem because these women had studied you know in technical writing programs, they had skills and expertise, and yet were being told that all they did was make something look nice or pretty and they felt like that was a big myth in terms of technical communication and they wanted to prove that they could do so much more. Along those lines in other findings, that technical writing is secretarial in nature, or that it’s similar to what an administrative assistant does, and this is something that really resonated with me because of my own experience. And many women said that they’d had that same experience or that if they entered as a technical writer and they were treated as secretaries and so they were told to run copies or enter data. Some even went as far as describe things like serving party cakes and you know running errands for people and they felt really demeaned because of that and I think technical writers of all genders are experiencing some of that because they are in a support role. We do support other industries and so some of these people take that for granted and maybe misuse the skills a little bit. Another thing that came across is that it’s unarticulated. A lot of people don’t know what technical writing is or what it does. They don’t understand the value that we bring to workplaces and organizations. I think we can do a better job as a field and as academics but also as practitioners in terms of articulating that value and shouting from the rooftops the important work that we do and letting people know that it is integral to the workplace. And another thing was that it’s unnecessary or invisible. So, one woman described hearing her colleagues in the sales department laughing with each other, that they didn’t know what she was doing there because they didn’t-because she didn’t do anything. And then she’d hear them you know an hour later talking to customers saying-using documentation to answer a customer’s question. So, that right there was a huge opportunity for her to make her work visible. Another woman said that she heard colleagues express surprise that somebody wrote the documentations for their company. They thought it was computer generated. The other problem is that people who write aren’t often quantifiable, that was the other thing that emerged. That you know we can’t account for the amount of money that we bring into a corporation. So, maybe thinking about the profit motives of a lot of organizations is one way that that technical writer can articulate their value. They can maybe attempt to quantify what they’ve done. Show the impact that it’s had through numbers. Only one woman I interviewed was able to do this and that’s because she was a grant writer and you know grant writers make money and so she was able to say, ‘Tm the only person in this organization that’s brought in ten million dollars in the last five years. Of course I’m valuable.” And that did speak to the people in charge. So, overall there’s really a lot of devaluation and misconceptions because we just aren’t visible to people.

[Weber] It’s interesting that even the language that they used is gender, you know, “Make this document pretty.” Do you get the sense that this experience is worse for women than it is for men as far as technical writing goes?

[Peterson] Yeah, I think for a few of the categories, it definitely is. I think the secretarial completion is definitely a problem. One woman said that her husband was also in technical communication and he was never asked to answer the phones, or take notes, or write meeting minutes. So, I do think that there is a gender aspect to some of this. And like you said, this idea of making it pretty, that’s a you know, a more feminine approach to documentation. And some practitioners I talk to they were reinforcing this. They were acting as their scribes or doing very instrumental work as just correcting grammar or just making it look nice and therefore giving off the wrong impression as well. One woman told me she thinks it’s connected to this, you know the secretarial work in the old days where women were typists; they did the writing. And so because what we do is closely connected to writing and communicating, it can often be conflated with that, that historical connection that it has to women as secretaries.

[Weber] You mentioned a few things, but what other strategies are women using to combat these misconceptions in the workplace.

[Peterson] Sure, so a lot of them are just speaking up. I mean it’s-it’s a funny thing to say, “Just speak up.” It can be scary but our voices often can be our most powerful weapon when it comes to this. So, correcting those misconceptions when we write. If someone asks you to, “make this look nice,” you know point out the hard work that went in doing the research and interviewing people. One woman talked about an incremental approach to documentation. So, she said that her documentation never comes out perfect the first time. She does the very basic thing that she can for the product that they’re developing and then overtime as the product changes or you know glitches are updated, she updates their documentation and that really shows how integral she is to the process. It reminds those computer engineers that she’s part of it. Another woman mentioned really laying out what you know from your bag of knowledge. Over the years, technical communicators become experts at lots of different things, lots of different disciplines, so they can use that to talk the talk and make connections. I think networking is super important with subject matter experts, making sure they know that you’re there to support them but that that support comes with a lot of expertise. Another thing is just sharing that work formally in some way. So, one woman created a PowerPoint presentation where she called together all the mangers of the other teams. She happened to be the manager of the documentation team, and she called them all into a meeting and gave them a big presentation about what her team does, why it’s important, how it’s integral to the success of the company. She said that really helped and is continually sending reminders of that through email or the successes that her team had. And then I think claiming authority over your work. Showing that what you do is important, that it’s visible. The woman that overheard the people in sales saying that she didn’t do anything, she could have walked in there and said, “Hey, I’m the one who wrote that.” So yeah there’s a lot that can be done and nit’s mostly just by speaking up. I also think that academic programs can do more to prepare practitioners for facing this problem. It’s something I’ve tried to do with my own undergraduate students. Some of my ideas are to have them work with subject matter experts students. So if we had cross-disciplinary classes where technical writing majors are working with engineering or computer scientists on a specific project, they would both kind of see the necessary skills they needed for the future but also you know the value that each one of them brings and the work that they can do together.

[Weber] Great, well this is really important work. It’s unfortunately that technical writers are experiencing these kinds of issues, but it’s important to document them, especially in a formal way and so thank you for sharing this research with us. I look forward to the follow-up article that’s going to come out about international experiences as well.

[Peterson] Yes, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I do think this is important to talk about and keep considering.

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Episode 41