Women and Content Strategy

How to Stop Doing Yoga on Hot Coals: Women and Content Strategy

In my last post, I talked about my qualms with the term “content strategy” and my fear that it limits us to a specific purview: one of “content” as a self-contained variable, when we know that content is actually everything a business communicates.

Here’s what I didn’t say: I think part of our difficulty in overcoming this limitation and owning our real value is that the majority of us are women, too.*

It’s not a stretch to suggest that I’ve devoted most of my energy on some projects to simply convincing others—clients and colleagues alike—that anyone in my role deserved to be there. Being a legit content strategist requires nerves of steel and enough tenacity “to put down a horse,” as they’d say in the Texas Panhandle.

If you’re not pretty sure everyone hates you at some point in the process—not because of your personal demeanor, but because of the critical thinking and attention to detail you demand—you may not be doing it right. I’ll be honest: it can be pretty effin’ exhausting.

But I don’t say this to imply that women aren’t capable of handling it—I, myself, am completely capable. I just know firsthand that women face a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to doing so.

I’m personally all too familiar with what I like to call “Little Pleaser Syndrome”. Even the smartest, most empowered woman among us struggles with that incredibly strong urge to make everyone happy, to make sure everyone likes us, to be praised for our flexibility and diplomacy and kindness. Though it’s not exclusively female by any means, I think it’s fair to say that it’s most insidious among women, and that we feel its sting most sharply.

If we give into it, we’re perceived as “sweet” and “nice”, and future boundary setting is met with a kind of parental disappointment, as if we’ve fallen short of some easygoing ideal we tacitly agreed to by being nice. And if we don’t give into it in the first place, we’re perceived as bossy, pushy bitches—not least of all to other women.

Combine that quandary with the knowledge that our gender is already paid less, promoted less, and generally outnumbered in the workplace.

It takes the challenge of proving our discipline’s value and ratchets it up to the equivalent of doing yoga barefoot, over hot coals, while remaining poised and fresh-looking.

As Sara Wachter-Boettcher said so eloquently on A List Apart last week, we have work to do in the web industry when it comes to respecting and representing both genders equally. I propose that it starts with us, the women of content (pun intended): female writers, editors, and content strategists.

I propose that we come together to drive a more equal, more modern industry dynamic, by pledging a common purpose:

1. Stop making enemies of each other.

This certainly isn’t exclusive to or even particular to content strategy, but I believe it’s the single most counterproductive dynamic among professional women.

A culture of gender imbalance breeds this nasty fear that there’s not enough success to go around—that one woman’s achievement somehow lessens the opportunity or significance of our own. So we fall into the competition trap.

We size up other women as threats to our potential success. We say mean, petty things about each other behind closed doors. We throw each other under the proverbial bus. And even when we’re the ones in positions of power, we criticize, belittle, or even actively block the success of other smart women.

We had to fight to get here, we think, and every other woman should have to fight just as hard as we did.

Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth (which you should read), has some really interesting things to say about this, among them a comment from the October 2010 Harper’s Bazaar article “Girl Vs. Girl”:

“Do we risk losing the victories of feminism in every previous generation because we can’t for the life of us seem to be able to sustain a common cause without inevitably taking out the long knives?”

We all know, deep down, that this female rivalry doesn’t do us any favors. Right? In fact, it actively maintains the status quo of our male-centric culture. It makes us misogynists.

Just imagine what could happen if we diverted the energy we expend on competing with each other to fueling a greater cause and lifting each other up. As content strategists, writers, and editors, there’s no telling how far we could push our craft forward.

Let’s trust that by doing this, we’re creating more success and positive momentum, not depleting a limited supply.

Let’s treat it like a cooperative effort in which every female achievement benefits all of us—because it does.

2. Stop selling ourselves short.

Is it a coincidence that most copywriters and content professionals, often the lowest-paid members of a creative team, are women? I think not. Even today, we struggle with the deep-seated belief that it’s not polite to ask for (or even talk about) money: we’re “being difficult” if we push back on salary offers or freelance negotiations, and we’re “demanding” if we put our foot down for more money.

We are absolute experts in manufacturing all sorts of reasons that people are “taking a chance on us” or that we can’t or shouldn’t expect to be paid really well.

If you’re a freelancer, you’ve probably heard people advise that if a client doesn’t push back on your rate, it’s probably too low. Here’s an additional rule of thumb to add to that: if you feel totally comfortable asking for an amount—whether it’s an hourly rate, a salary, or a project fee—it’s probably too low.

That’s not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t be comfortable asking for an amount we deserve—quite the contrary, actually—just that most of the time, we aren’t. So let’s use that.

When you find yourself saying, “Well, that’s already x% more than I’m currently making,” or “Well, they said it’s already more than they’re paying the person currently in this role,” shut it down. Think about how much harder it’s going to be to raise your rates or negotiate a salary increase later (spoiler alert: it’s going to be a lot harder). Even better, think about the value you’re providing the people you work with and for.

Do you want clients and employers to perceive your skills and expertise as worth more or less? Because you get to decide that.

If nothing else, think about all the other copywriters and content strategists and editors out there for whom you’re paving the way. By accepting less than you’re worth, you’re limiting growth potential for those who come after you. You’re also hurting your professional peers who charge premium rates for which they’re worth every penny, but find themselves passed over for people who will do the work for less. Because clients have been conditioned to believe that your skill is a commodity, not an investment.

So raise your rates. Ask for a raise. Don’t accept the job offer until it involves a salary that you never thought you’d make. Feel uneasy? Feel the excuses coming on? Good. That means you’re in the right ballpark. Now go do it.

3. Stop apologizing.

This one’s a classic. But in a discipline like ours, which involves insisting on addressing issues that no one wants to deal with, asking hard questions and not accepting half-assed answers, it’s a big, big challenge. We apologize far too often, literally and figuratively.

Remember “Little Pleaser Syndrome”? This is its calling card. We feel compelled to relate to our colleagues’ and clients’ emotions, to make sure they know that we know that what we’re asking is a big pain in the ass. And that’s actually a really good thing—that empathy is a huge strength. But when it comes couched in an apology for asking more of our colleagues, for not letting a tricky issue slide with our clients, for insisting on getting to the root of the real issue, that empathy loses its oomph. We lose our oomph.

The same thing happens when we decide to let big things slide, because we’re trying to be diplomatic and “choose our battles.” I think we’re all smart enough to know when something is truly okay to let go—like using title case instead of sentence case, for example—and when it’s worth pursuing, even if it’s uncomfortable.

On one project for a major consumer website, I found an issue in which site sections with more than a certain number of subpages—of which there were hundreds of use cases across the site content—would completely break the dropdown navigation as it had been designed (of course, had a content strategist been consulted before the navigation had been designed…). Bottom line? This issue would more or less land customers on a broken page in the middle of their purchase path, translating to lost sales and a potentially huge impact on revenue.

I couldn’t believe no one else had noticed this—or that no one else was worried about it if they had. And when I first called the project leadership’s attention to it, they waved it off, claiming there wasn’t enough time to fix it. It took several more emails, meetings, and a formal presentation to get their attention—and create consensus around the urgency of a solution for it.

And throughout the process, I apologized a lot. For continuing to “bother” everyone about it, for “beating a dead horse”, for insisting on talking about this issue over other, more interesting tasks. By the end of it, even though the issue was finally addressed, I felt beaten down and disenfranchised—by myself.

And the thing is, all of those apologies didn’t help my cause. They didn’t make leadership pay more attention, or become more receptive, or appreciate the end result more. They just wore me down and created the sense that my perspective was an interruption to the real work.

Respect the apology. It isn’t to be used lightly, or often, or as a mechanism for deflecting the hard stuff.

When you find those issues that no one else seems to have noticed, assume they’re important. You are serving your purpose by doing so. And it’s absurd to apologize for that.

4. Start stripping.

I just couldn’t resist.

What I mean is, we have to strip our efforts down to the core purpose we’re all here to serve: to help businesses communicate more clearly and effectively, with their customers and with each other. To create cultures of content that make employees’ jobs easier, business’ efforts more rewarding, and people’s lives a little less wrought with angst and misunderstanding.

We have to strip away the clutter—all the dysfunctional dynamics and outmoded attitudes and layers of challenge that distract us from the real work: the practice of content strategy and good writing. Everything else is just a drain on our energy. Because in the end, it’s not about us. But it does start with us.

Who’s with me?


*It’s not a perfect reference, but the United States Census Bureau’s Equal Employment Opportunity Tabulation data from 2006-2010 counts women as 57% of Writers and Authors and 55% of Editors: http://www.census.gov/people/eeotabulation/data/eeotables20062010.html

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