Does care work matter in the tech industry?(No, but it should.)

Notes on care ethics, designing, building, and maintaining technologies

I have had some moments, over the past few weeks, when my mind has been blown by seeing folks who write about and work in technology talking about the politics of care and support labor. By this, I mean the impact of Talia Jane and Jaymee Atlas writing about their experiences working in support roles at Yelp, and most recently Amélie Lamont’s, brave account of what seems, to phrase it politely, fairly untenable working conditions on the “customer care” team at Squarespace.

Holy shit, I say under my breath, the tech industry is starting to talk about care ethics.

In Jane, Atlas and Lamont’s accounts, care, and the work of caring for others in the service of a technology product, is a major underlying thread. Another as is the extent to which care work is devalued, both within and outside of technology companies. The most obvious illustration of this is the low salaries described, but other factors figure heavily: the emotional labor of care, and the irony of “innovative” tech companies holding their care and service workers in low regard.

Many of these accounts speak of taking jobs in customer support roles as a perceived stepping stone to other types of work: technical or creative roles, but receiving little or no support for such goals. I have heard this sentiment echoed amongst the women I know in support roles: lack of support or opportunities for advancement within tech companies. As Stephanie Dunx writes about her own time at Squarespace:

They make you feel like you’re advancing your career just by being there, but at the end of the day they’d rather hire a happy-go-lucky, ping-pong loving outsider than advance someone who’s willing and eager to work for change within the company

In these cases, the start-up rhetoric of scaling and massive growth for the business entity is juxtaposed with boundary enforcement and discouragement pointed towards workers wishing to achieve their own goals. That, by performing care work (or as I like to call it, holding products and services together with duct tape) workers are considered less desirable for advancement or lateral moves within their companies.

Siloing Care Work

These firsthand accounts also convey what the org chart of any consumer or enterprise technology company can also attest: that “support” is a different labor category than “product”, siloed from the technical and leadership workers in a company. That those who put out users’ fires, answer help requests, and provide human points of contact for the users of the product, are often far removed from day-to-day collaboration or interaction with the engineers, designers or business managers working on the product.

For larger tech companies, this plays out more dramatically than for smaller ones: support teams will work in separate buildings, or even other states. Many large companies have headquartered support and care teams to cities outside the Bay area: Apple and Facebook to Austin, AirBnB, Squarespace and Stripe to Portland (where I live and work). One assumes that this is a cost-saving measure, and it is certainly one with the potential for real impact. What does it mean to remove your company’s support operations from the day to day life of building products? What does it mean to obscure care and support workers from their colleagues on product teams? When I heard the news about salaries and opportunities for women technology workers in Portland ranking poorly, I could only think of the small groups of young women I often see on the streets in Old Town in company sweatshirts.

I have no data on this, but in my own observation, care and support teams in tech companies skew young, white, and female, with a slight but noticeable more ethnic and racial diversity than technical teams. As Dunx writes “there is not a single black employee currently at the Squarespace office in Portland. Out of over 150.”

One could stage an effort similar to the “Too Many Guys, One Girl” project with support team photos (because it has become a bit of a privacy-invading trend to feature images of support workers on product support pages, for reasons I cannot articulate), called, “A bunch of able-bodied and conventionally attractive and no doubt polite women, mostly white and under the age of 35, definitely being paid too little for the service they are providing to keep late capitalism running”, or something like that.

Devaluing care doesn’t make your technology better

And while I find this all disheartening from a political standpoint, there’s a practical matter that I’m perhaps more professionally concerned with. This chasm in tech companies between products and those who support them, a growing one, presents a lot of obstacles for effectively improving a product.

In my work as a UX consultant, I often have the same conversation with clients, usually engineers or product managers. They’ll come to looking to improve a product, I’ll ask if they have looked at support issues. They’ll usually mutter something to the extent of “not really”. I’ll smile politely (because, as I’m arguing, care work is part of many jobs.) How are we supposed to gather data to understand user issues when the folks who are dealing with these issues, often making up for the shortcomings of the product, are kept out of the conversation?

There is also an assumption, a very widespread one, that support and care work is “non-technical” in nature. I’d argue the contrary, that support and care workers are expected to gain a depth and breadth of technical knowledge about and in relation to technology products in a short onboarding period as a job requirement. Moreover, learning the ways in which to navigate workplace channels in order to solve customers’ problems is a very specialized form of knowledge production.

Toward an ethic of care

But what does this all have to do with issues of care at a societal level, you ask? Well, it is my theory (and my experience) that when care work is held in low esteem within the workplace, it’s held in even lower esteem outside of it. If an organization doesn’t value care work in the workplace, how likely is it that those same workers will receive support and consideration for outside caregiving responsibilities? When your workforce is primarily female and underpaid, this creates myriad problematic issues. Atlas details how her salary at Yelp did not cover childcare costs for her three year-old, and she describes being fired for being with her partner in the ICU.

Further, Lamont offers a chilling anecdote of how a supervisor chastised a co-worker for not finishing her shift by shouting:

“I have fucking children and there was once a fucking snowstorm and I lost Internet. You know what I did?! I fucking packed my children into the car and drove to a Starbucks to answer email tickets! You have no excuse.

I often wonder what drives someone to do something like what that supervisor did, and to shout about it after the fact. What conditions are these for any worker, much less one with caregiving responsibilities outside of the workplace? Moreover, by creating a work place wherein care labor is underpaid and subject to boundless demands, what conditions does that create for delivering the conscientious and knowledgable customer support, or in retaining and developing experienced workers?

While discussions of the ethical considerations of surveillance, privacy, and security are commonplace amongst tech workers, perhaps the next crucial discussion the tech community needs to have is around what Carol Gilligan termed an “ethic of care”, defined as:

an ethic grounded in voice and relationships, in the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully (in their own right and on their own terms) and heard with respect. An ethics of care directs our attention to the need for responsiveness in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and to the costs of losing connection with oneself or with others.

Specifically, these recent accounts make a case for considering outcomes for all involved with building and maintaining technologies and by more thoughtfully considering who is responding and attending to customers and users’ needs throughout the product lifecycle, what roles they hold in organizations, and how they rewarded and constrained in doing so.

In conclusion, there are lots of unanswerable questions. Can we trace the supply chain of consumer and enterprise technologies with an ethic of care? Can we track the hidden costs of treating care workers poorly? Can we build a discourse of sustainability around care work in technology companies?