Women in Agile: Compassion at Work

In the workplace women are often given the following advice in order to not sound like women:

  • Don’t say “I think” or “I feel” because that’s considered weak language.
  • Stop apologizing.
  • Don’t use emojis or exclamation points; it’s not professional.
  • Don’t use rising intonation at the end of a sentence; it portrays a lack of confidence.

Basically, the message women are given is this:
“Stop being yourself. Be more like a stereotypical man.”

April Wensel, the founder of Compassionate Coding, spoke to a sold-out room gathered to hear her keynote speech at the Women in Agile event at the Agile2018 conference in San Diego. Wensel, a self-identified former “jerk programmer,” once took to heart the advice she and countless women have been given since entering the workplace. She tried to embody all the masculine personality traits women are expected to exhibit in order to become successful: dominating, aggressive, ambitious, the need to win at all costs. She didn’t care about people’s feelings and justified herself by saying: “What? I’m just being honest. I’m just being direct.” She would sometimes make her coworkers cry, especially many of the women, and isolated herself by not allowing herself to be vulnerable to others.

But deep down, she wasn’t happy. She didn’t like who she’d become in order to fit the industry.

That malcontent was what inspired Wensel to found Compassionate Coding, an organization that combines the effective practices of Agile software development with a focus on empathy and the latest in positive organizational psychology. She teaches people who work in tech to not only be more compassionate to each other, but to build products that are improving people’s lives rather than making them worse.

“Sometimes that involves teaching emotional intelligence. Sometimes it involves teaching about ethics because a lot of engineers and other techies don’t think about ethics at all. Or they only think about ethics in very logical terms where it’s okay if people suffer because they just view them as variables, not as actual human beings.”

What is (and isn’t) Compassion?

Wensel believes that every single person can make a difference just through the choices we make on a daily basis. The first step is knowing what compassion is and what it isn’t in order to actively practice it.

“Compassion is not pity. It’s not feeling sorry for people; pity doesn’t always include respect for the person. It’s also not the same as niceness, because sometimes to be compassionate, you have to ruffle some feathers. Similarly, compassion is not politeness, sometimes you have to go against a lot of social norms in order to say what needs to be said.”

Scientists from UC Berkley define compassion as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and you feel motivated to relieve that suffering. In other words, compassion is empathy plus action. The empathy piece is understanding and noticing the suffering that’s going on in others, but compassion adds an active component where you actually want to do something to alleviate that suffering.

Compassion is empathy plus action.

“Some people are suffering because of injustices in the world, and there are people in power who want to preserve that injustice because it’s serving them. And so to speak up against the status quo and challenge that requires a lot of courage and it requires ambition and it requires fierceness. So compassion is not a weak thing. It’s not a soft thing. It’s a very fierce thing and I think that’s the best way to be compassionate.”

Expanding Your Circle of Compassion for Greater Impact

Wensel divided compassion into four circles: self, collaborators, users, and humanity.


She started with the circle closest to us, the self, because it’s very difficult to have compassion for anyone else if you don’t even have compassion for yourself. She encouraged us to stop the negative self-talk and berating after we make a mistake. Self-deprecation starts to become reality and it affects how we look at ourselves.

Self-compassion is talking to yourself how you’d talk to your friend. If your friend messes up, you wouldn’t call them an idiot. According to research by Olivia Fox Cabane, self-compassion can affect your emotional state, relationships, life satisfaction, ability to handle life events, and your immune system functioning. Wensel also encouraged us to remind ourselves of our past accomplishments. She keeps a file of little notes that make her smile, such as thank you letters, compliments on her work, even post-it notes from retrospectives. By reminding ourselves of the good work we’ve done in the past, we are more likely to move past our mistakes and learn from them instead of letting them define us.


The next layer of the circle is that of collaborators, anyone your work with. One of the ways people suffer in this realm is positive criticism. It’s a result of pressure we put on our peers and they on us, and creates a contempt culture. In tech especially, we’re always trying to prove that we’re the smartest in the room and start insulting others.

According to the 2017 Tech Leavers Study by the Kapor Center, 78 percent of employees report experiencing some form of unfair behavior or treatment, and women from all backgrounds experience significantly more unfairness than men. Additionally, unfairness was more pronounced in tech companies than non-tech companies.

Wensel advised us to use empathy at work to alleviate suffering within this circle. Practice active listening, don’t interrupt, and to avoid right/wrong thinking. The truth is not black and white, there are usually shades of gray. She also encouraged us to stop using the non-technical/technical dichotomy and ignoring people’s opinion just because they’re “not technical”. Everyone is technical, everyone has skills they were hired for. Finally, she called for no more RTFM (which roughly translates into “read the manual”).

So before giving feedback to others, consider:
– Is it true?
– Is it necessary?
– Is it kind?

Google did a study on their most high-performing teams and found that instead of technical expertise, which their employees certainly score high on, the number one factor that made their teams effective was psychological safety. So having compassionate teams not only makes employees happier, it makes companies more productive.


Anyone using our products can encounter suffering if we don’t have empathy for them. The focus on users is why Wensel finds Agile so appealing. Sometimes our products are just confusing, and instead of calling users stupid, it’s a better policy to have empathy.

Lack of accessibility can also cause suffering for our users; if people with disabilities can’t use our product, they suffer because of it. Also consider whether our product is making the world a better, or a much worse, place. Are you building an app that enables and encourages bullying, or one that helps people with their mental health?

Wensel also called on us not to exploit users’ psychological vulnerability. An example she gave was “form shaming” where your two options are to sign up for a list or agree to something terrible that makes you feel bad about yourself. For example: “No thanks, I don’t want to look my best.”


Finally, Wensel reminded us to have compassion for all human beings. The technology we build can have far-reaching consequences for our societies. For example, self-driving trucks might be more efficient, but what is the impact of those truck drivers being unemployed. What is going to happen to them and their families; the motels and truck stops that support them; and the industries surrounding them. She did not say we should keep the jobs around just for the sake of keeping the drivers employed, but to include that consideration in our product discussions.

Also consider how the technology you’re building could be abused, and how your work impacts animals and the environment.

“If your work is not improving people’s lives, then why not? Because you only have one life here so why would you spend it working on something that either doesn’t matter or that’s really hurting people?”

Practice Compassion

Compassion is easier with practice, and we have our personal lives to practice compassion every day. So when you’re in traffic, when you’re waiting in line and you’re frustrated, try to think about the other people. They might have cut you off in traffic because their child is sick. Or maybe they had a really hard day at work and are honking at you to get their aggression out. It doesn’t necessarily excuse the behavior, but perhaps it will make you feel less bad about what they’re doing.

“In the modern business landscape, caring deeply for others is not a weakness, but rather a source of incredible strength. Only by connecting to our core values and focusing on the human beings we’re serving through our work—our customers, collaborators, and the community at large—can we unlock the motivation and resilience required to speak up, take risks, and create positive change in our industry and beyond.”

Wensel sat down for an Agile Amped podcast episode with us to continue the conversation. Her episode is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and any other podcast app you use. Listen now: