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Gendernization in Technical Writing

Just recently I attended a two days technical writing conference in Sofia (Bulgaria). Over 120 technical writers came to the conference from all over Europe to share experiences and talk about current trends in technical documentation.

The two days were packed with sessions and workshops and I could pick and choose any to attend. Some of them were just too technical for me and I felt they were not that important, given the content area I cover. However, there was one session that caught my attention, at least the name did. The session was called ‘Gendernization in Technical Writing’, so I decided to attend barely knowing what to expect. It was just one and a half hours long so I thought it was worth the shot. And, I must admit I had to google the term of ‘gendernization’ before I signed up.

The objective of the session was to find out more about the differences between men’s and women’s working styles, and how each gender can enrich documentation in their own specific way, so I sat there with a group of 20 or so women and listened. Once the session took off and some of the facts started to emerge I took down the notes, because it was getting very interesting.

Little did I know that technical writing started off as a predominantly male-dominated profession with male engineers acting as technical writers. Over time, the number of male engineers decreased and female technical writers entered the field. However, it gets even more interesting.

Today, about 40 percent of technical writers are females and that number is increasing. If the current trend continues, in 2040, which is not that far away, the technical documentation will be dominated by females. That’s right my fellow male colleagues, we are dinosaurs. But why is this the case?

First, this line of job gives you a great deal of flexibility and women need that, because generally household chores and child care duties are still mostly considered a woman’s responsibility. Content writing, since it is deadline driven, gives you a bit of room to maneuver when it comes to meeting those duties. This is not a nine to five job and never was. It is up to you to organize yourself to meet the assigned deadlines, even though you must sometimes work odd hours and weekends.

Second, technical documentation in general was initially too complex with little emphasis on how the information is interpreted by the end user audience. Since women entered the field of technical writing, the end content became more user friendly and less technical. Think about it metaphorically. In a room full of cats, a zebra stands out. As long as the cats are thinking that a zebra is in the room they are not listening to what the zebra is saying. The minute there are three or four or ten zebras in the room, their input become more important than their biology and that is what happened to the technical content output over the years.

It is commonly assumed that women are more capable of empathizing with customers and expressing customers’ interests and are thus better prepared to explain the benefits of a product. Men, on the other hand, tend to care more about how things work, and once they find out, they care more about the technical aspect of functionalities rather than how end users would understand it. Has your child ever needed to choose whether it is mum or dad that is going to explain the math homework? Well, mine did and not once was I chosen, and the choice was obvious. It is not to say that one it better than the other, it is just each part brings a different skill set to the table. You could blame it on nature if you like.

Just one example to mention to back up this theory. Not that long time ago, I was asked to complement one of the courses we offer with images to make the course more appealing. So, I searched hard to select the images that were nice and eyes pleasing, or at least that is what I thought. After I completed the task I sent it for peer review to my female manager, and genuinely thought it looked just great! The review did not go well with a comment ‘Rene, it is a bit too colorful and the images are not unified in their design’. On the second look I admit that the course became a bit of ‘United Colors of Benneton’ and the images were eventually changed. The point being made here is that no matter how much I tried the taste I applied was just a bit too raw. Like when a newly-wed couple redecorates a house. What kind of input comes from a man?  Does the alarm function, does the water have the correct pressure, has the electricity been installed properly, does the house have new tech features when it comes to lights, sensors, and so on? These are the questions that goes through the man’s mind? When it comes to the choice of colors, carpets and general look, the woman’s input is generally taken. I am not saying that in all cases, but majority for sure. However, putting the two minds together, the house looks great and it includes all the necessities.  I guess it is the same with content in that each side adds a lot of valuable thoughts to it.

For now, at least, it is half and half when it comes to zebras and cats. My personal thought, however, is that it should not tilt one way or the other. Everything in life needs balance, and so does content development.

Once thing is for sure and it does not matter what gender you are. If you cannot explain a subject simplistically, you don’t know it well. This is not a quote that I came up with, but Albert Einstein did!

Rene Lissnik