Agile software development, gender, and empathy

I’m reading Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine.

Fine challenges the popular belief that women’s brains are hardwired to perform differently than men. Beliefs as old as gender roles but popularized in recent books like The Female Brain.

It is her discussion of empathy that interests me at the moment.

She acknowledges that studies frequently demonstrate women are more empathetic than men.

However, she argues those differences are most observable when gender stereotypes are foremost in people’s minds.

Simply asking people in advance to check a box indicating whether they are male or female increases differences in performance during evaluation while priming people with a social identification that cuts across gender reduces them.

Differences become less significant when studies control for the value subjects place in their own empathy. For example, they disappear when men and women are given the same social or material incentives to read and effectively address feelings in others.

Yes, it was possible with small changes to degrade women’s performance to the level of men. It was also just as possible to raise men’s performance up to the level of women.

The performance leveling applies to both aspects of empathy: the awareness of feelings in others and the ability to understand and identify with those feelings.

And this is why it is relevant to our male-dominated Agile software community.

In Agile/Lean, work is collaborative. Our essential identification is with the team. We move away from a focus on self and an abstract relationship with our employer and toward a visceral and immediate social connection with our co-workers. We work collaboratively and frequently with our customers and we define our work in terms of what benefit it offers our end users.

In that context, we are incentivized in ways that potentially make us more perceptive of and more caring towards others.

I realize empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to conscientious acts. But it is reasonable to assert that where my actions and decisions affect someone, my having empathy towards them gives me some advantage in acting and deciding in a way that provides them more benefit and less harm than I might otherwise.

In other words, I believe more empathy leads to more thoughtful developers and a chance at more effective, more beneficial software. Further, I believe empathy is a factor in creating a more socially aware, ethical software development community.

I already see a limit to this premise. The social context of a team may be too narrow particularly if it is composed on one class, one race and one gender. If we all think the same, have the same narrow set of experiences, problems and advantages will we become a self-directed team who still doesn’t give a rat’s ass about other people?

Based on the admittedly light summary provided in Delusions of Gender, when a social frame or incentives improved results, they did so across the board. When men were primed to value empathy, their ability to empathize improved in general.

Still, if this is a flaw then the answer is to build diverse teams. There are so many other reasons we should all be striving for that and a collaborative environment may in itself help us achieve that goal.

I find hope in this. Hope that Agile principles are not just a path to value narrowly defined but a way towards empathy, conscience and contribution.