The Danger of the “Chick Job”

You’ve met and probably worked with at least one: the “Marketing Chick” or the “HR Chick” or the “Admin Chick.”

Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these noble professions. But for a woman working at tech companies, these roles can be dangerous. Or at least for this woman they can, because it easy to get stuck with a label.

As an aside, I fully acknowledge that there are men doing all of the above at tech companies, but they are still much more likely to be filled by women, to the point that they are almost stereotypes.

Once upon a time doctors were men and nurses were women. For years after that we said “male nurse,” but now we seem to have adjusted to the idea that a nurse is a nurse is a nurse. I’ve still never met a female dentist, though I know they exist. I have had a few cleanings by male hygienists in recent years. The male receptionist is practically hip nowadays.

I think it’s great that men have started taking on what have traditionally been “assistant” roles. Not that men have to be downwardly mobile for women to succeed, but everyone should do work that they are good at and like to do. The best admins I know love their jobs. But when I was in that role fifteen years ago it made my skin crawl. I was bored. I felt put upon. Unfortunately, I was also cheerful and competent, so I was good at it.

I’ve also worn the dubious hats of bookkeeper, assistant producer, and marketing chick. And I was good in these roles, too. But I wasn’t satisfied. You might say I’m ambitious, but really I just like intellectual challenges and creativity, and I dislike paperwork and popularity contests.

My experience at tech companies has been that engineers see marketing as a necessary evil. They tolerate it, and reluctantly acquiesce to it. But they neither understand nor appreciate it. I have spent the past two years doing quite a bit of marketing work, all the while repeating to anyone who would listen: “I am not a marketing professional.”

I’m not a marketing professional. From where I sit, marketing is simply a natural part of product design. You build something for people, you clearly want people to know about it, and you find a way to tell them. The skill set of a good marketing person includes the ability to reach the right people in the right way. There’s no simple formula for that. I have a great deal of respect for marketing professionals in the tech industry. But I’m not one.

Why am I so concerned about this label? I’m not an engineer, and I am a woman. That means I fall into the “other” category of women in tech. If I say “I’m in marketing” I may get stuck doing… marketing. A wise person once said, “Don’t get good at things you don’t like to do.” As an introvert, the outgoing nature of marketing just isn’t fun. People who do a good job of marketing tech products want to be everyone’s friend… because these days we are mostly influenced by our friends (online friends in particular).

Amanda Palmer is a brilliant marketer, but she’s not a marketing professional (though she’d make a much better one than I). She has intimate friendships with her fans. She sleeps on their couches. Each one of her one million followers feels like they have a personal relationship with her. She is able to live the creative life that she wants to live because she’s great at marketing. This is how it works now — you don’t grow a customer base, you grow a fan base.

My point is that people should do what they are good at and like to do. Not one or the other, but both.  For non-technical women in tech, this means you might have to get a bit inventive with the hats you put on if you don’t happen to want one of the “chick” roles. For me, it means the challenge of figuring out what’s next is slightly more complex than it might be for a woman with a more widely acknowledged professional identity.