I’ve been reading a lot of articles on “unpaid work” and other kinds of emotional labor that women do but don’t get credit for, both in and out of the workplace.

I read Hacker News* regularly, and I was fascinated to see an article about a woman who performs this kind of emotional labor and seems to receive recognition for its importance.

Jessica Livingston is one of the founding members of YCombinator, a startup incubator. She wrote a book I’ve heard good things about, “Founders At Work”. In his essay, Paul Graham writes about her role as an essential component of why YCombinator is so successful, and much of it seems to be this emotional labor.

Advertisement

He speaks about how she was trusted as the “Social Radar” during interviews for potential startup leaders, how she had an unerring instinct for picking out good candidates and successful people. He also discusses how she was an integral part of forming the culture at YCombinator and credits this as another reason for the company’s success.

It’s really great to see her get kudos for doing this kind of work. It’s great to see an influential voice in tech talk about how essential emotional intelligence and the ability to judge a person’s character is. This is the exact kind of work that tends to get devalued and unpaid, so I’m glad that it’s a quality that is being called out as one that can lead you to co-found an influential company like YCombinator.

And yet.

Some of the passages still rankled when I read them, like this one speaking approvingly of her acceptance at being thought of as a secretary rather than a key decision-maker:

A lot of the applicants probably read her as some kind of secretary, especially early on, because she was the one who’d go out and get each new group and she didn’t ask many questions. She was ok with that.

She also say (well, Paul says), that she most likely suffers from a societal push for women to be too modest.

Another reason attention worries her is that she hates bragging. In anything she does that’s publicly visible, her biggest fear (after the obvious fear that it will be bad) is that it will seem ostentatious. She says being too modest is a common problem for women.

I was a bit annoyed that we never hear from her in this story, that it’s all Paul saying “Oh yeah, she’s great, but she’s just really shy”. I went looking, and I did find a great write-up from Jessica herself about her role as the “mom” at YCombinator.

Advertisement

Maybe she really is shy, maybe she really does hate having a public persona. Maybe that’s okay.

I’m left with a lingering few questions that I think about during most discussions on gender roles. I work in the software industry, and I’m always focused on getting people to expand their ideas of what women can do. Not only to get them to understand that women can be top coders as well, but also to get them to stop expecting women to take on these emotional, people-oriented tasks.

But should we be focusing our energy on valuing female roles more, rather than changing them to include technical work? Instead of saying “women can be coders and shouldn’t have to do emotional labor”, should we be saying “Emotional labor is often performed by women, but it’s valuable labor”?

Can’t decide. I worry a lot that by refusing to do secretary-type work, I’m saying that I think that it’s beneath me, and that by extension the mostly female workforce who performs that labor is somehow less than I am.

http://paulgraham.com/jessica.html

*Hacker News is a user-submitted news forum run by YCombinator. It’s mostly tech news, but full of other interesting articles too.