Feigned Shock and Faux Enlightenment

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On July 02, 2014
  3. Tagged diversity

I'm often asked if I believe that things in tech are getting better. Are the efforts to raise awareness, educate, and counteract the effects of rampant sexism, racism, cissexism, homophobia, and ableism, among others, making an impact?

Changes happen at a level hard for us to perceive, something I discussed in a recent talk I gave at Monitorama. That being said, I've been watching a few areas in which to gauge progress.

Feigned Shock

The diversity in tech movement is stronger, larger, and louder than I believe it's ever been. Articles in industry publications as well as global magazines and newspapers, blog posts, conference talks, podcasts, and large-scale twitter discussions continually highlight the rampant abuse, harassment, and bias that marginalized people in tech face.

And yet each time these incidents surface, the industry and surrounding publications feign shock. How could this happen at a company a large portion of the industry looks up to? Can you believe a highly respected speaker and author would do that to someone at a conference? How can people be treated unfairly in a meritocracy?

Reactions to these incidents are so unvaried that we can easily map the timeline:

  1. Incident goes public.
  2. Feigned shock from the offending group, meanwhile marginalized group are upset that this is happening yet again and nothing has changed.
  3. Offending group calls incident reporter derogatory names and a liar. Depending on how visible and beloved the offender(s) were, the reporter may also receive sustained harassment, abuse, and threats from the offending group.
  4. Approximately 1 week elapses.
  5. Go to 1.

To be shocked by these incidents is to actively avoid reading, hearing, or seeing anything documenting these incidents. As they even show up on Reddit and Hacker News, places famously hostile to marginalized people, I just don't see how it's possible to avoid it.

But here's the thing: the longer they pretend to be shocked and appalled that these things happen, the longer they can keep from evaluating their own actions and those of their colleagues. They can distance themselves from the incident, remarking that they'd never do something like that. There is no critical discussion about what leads to these incidents - what parts of our culture allow these things to go unchecked for so long, how pervasive they are, and how so much of this is rewarded directly or indirectly. All of this means spending a day or two upset and demanding that someone do something!, while waiting for the next thing to come along and distract us from actually contributing to solutions.

It's important to notice what is happening here: by declaring that the people doing these things are others, it removes the need to examine our own actions. The logic assumed that only bad people do these things and we aren't bad people, so we couldn't do something like this. Othering effectively absolves ourselves of any blame.

Faux Enlightenment

Along with greater discussions of diversity unfortunately comes faux enlightenment.

This takes a lot of forms and is scary in that it's very difficult to tell who really believes in diversity. I've known a number of very visible, public figures who say one thing in public, but support some heinous things behind closed doors. When these people are conference organizers, programming heroes, and well-known speakers, the risk they pose to harming a lot of people is hard to ignore.

This is also manifested in people and organizations that are largely paying lip service to diversity without understanding what continues to contribute to the lack of diversity and why a lack of diversity hurts us all. 

Without having invested time or energy into educating themselves about these issues, they're left to mimick what they believe people want to see or hear. For instance, we've seen a number of programming conferences recently announce they've put a code of conduct in place, only to find out it not only doesn't protect victims of harassment, but it puts the onus on the victims themselves to resolve the situation with the person harassing them. Or consider the number of companies declaring that diversity is important because "it'd be nice to have women to look at in the office" (note that in the majority of the discussions they have, diversity is always and only code for women, and often white women).

When the inevitable backlash occurs, it can often be worse than if they'd done nothing at all, and for good reason. By feigning enlightenment, they're intentionally deceiving people who are worried about their safety. The industry is dangerous enough without being tricked into walking down a dark alley. From there, they get defensive ("we tried to do something good!", "nothing is ever good enough for these people!") before having to backpedal and patch things up with the community. They issue a non-apology apology and reaffirm their commitment to diversity by making a donation to a non-profit.

The assumption being that if they make a sizable donation, it offsets the harm they caused. What it's become is a sort of fine levied upon individuals and businesses that do wrong - a simple speeding ticket to be paid. More often than not, this is a transparent PR tactic to mitigate some of the damage to their reputation. They make no promise to educate themselves or the other people in the organization to understand why what they did was wrong to prevent them from doing it again. Without recognizing the context in which things are problematic and giving them the base level of skills to apply the rules to a variety of situations, they're bound to make the same or similar mistakes in the future, leaving progress locked in time. 

Don't get me wrong - I fully believe they should still have to pay the fine, but when you consider the amount of professional, personal, and financial harm they've done to their immediate victim(s), on top of contributing to an already ignorant or actively aggressive anti-diversity community, you can start to see how any amount of money they'd willingly part with as a PR tactic is unlikely to even begin to offset their actions.

And even when they donate money to a diversity in tech non-profit, it's often to one that is furthest from the problem they contributed to. This is especially true of pipeline non-profits, which help two major demographics: children/young adults under 18 (who tech companies cannot hire), or intro classes and developer schools (in an industry that shies away from hiring junior developers at all).

Pipeline organizations play an important role in increasing diversity in tech, but they don't address the problems that currently exist in the industry that contribute to the epidemic of attrition. We need to be forced to examine the problems we create and perpetuate - to tackle the body of the problem, which is the lack of opportunity, advancement, equality, and poor treatment that marginalized people face when trying to succeed in the industry. We need a solution to keep coworkers from making homophobic jokes, to encourage bosses to examine the biases that prevent them from noticing the accomplishments of people of color, to educate conference organizers about taking reports of harassment seriously and act to protect their attendees. We need to change our workplace culture to be inclusive and welcoming. For the people who go through these pipeline organizations and developer schools, they end up struggling to find jobs, be paid fairly, treated decently, and offered advancement.

So how does donating to a pipeline organization help if we want to give new people an actual place in the industry?

Donating to organizations as far from the source of the problem as possible allow us to redirect the blame, with false but regularly accepted statements like we don't have any executives of color because children of color aren't interested in computer science at a young age. We don't have any women speaking at our conference because they're too afraid to speak in front of an audience. Not only does this ignore the number of highly capable marginalized people that are already in the industry, but it puts the blame back on them for not being present. We dismiss our involvement in the problem; how we discourage them from participating through our marketing, our actions and those of our colleagues, and failing to consider how homogeneity-enforcing we've allowed our culture to become.

So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle.’ But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics—that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world—that is a different matter! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.

Helen Keller, letter to Senator Robert La Follette, 1924

By only supporting programs that are as far a reach from the industry as possible, we're passing the responsibility on to the next generation of business owners, conference organizers, and community members. In abandoning the marginalized people that currently work in the industry, we prolong the myriad problems we see today even longer.

What Does This Mean?

So what does all of this mean for diversity in tech? Like everything, it's complicated.  

On one hand, attempts are being made on a large scale - concious and otherwise - that artificially limit the speed of change. We see individuals pretending that at every incident of publicized abuse, this is the first they've heard of this behavior happening at companies and conferences. They profess their "committment to diversity" only after they've been caught doing the absolute minimum or worse, creating actively hostile environments. They aim to avoid detection, effectively deceiving people into believing they have invested effort in positive solutions and are deserving of praise.

On the other hand, these conversations are happening. Diversity is becoming a demand in tech. Whether or not companies, conferences, communities, or individuals understand the need for it, they know they can't ignore it anymore. For instance, a tech conference cancelled last month and publicly stated the reason was because they were unable to get any women and/or people of color to speak. That being said, they and other people in the community blamed marginalized people for the lack of diversity in the lineup, but at least the conference knew they couldn't have a homogenous lineup without consequences.

If we're going to see any kind of progress, it's going to mean moving ahead before some people are ready and it's going to be painful.

It also means that people need to stop just nodding their approval at this work and actually get involved. Our roles in this problem don't end at mere agreement. It isn't super helpful that you emphatically agree with those who speak about the lack of diversity in tech on twitter. What is helpful is educating yourself, owning up to your mistakes, and being present in your community working to fix these problems. We can start by not expecting a pat on the back for doing a single good deed - change is made of millions of good deeds done over and over again. A single action isn't nearly as helpful as changing your outlook on these issues and contributing to change every day.

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