The Responsibility of "Diversity"

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On February 25, 2014
  3. Tagged diversity inclusion

Last week I spoke with the students at Ada Developers Academy, a programming school for women. As much of my regular audience consists of people in positions of power and influence in tech - generally men - I was at a loss for what to speak about when I was asked. I found myself nervous about speaking to them, which surprised me. After all, I've been in their position before; I should be able to relate more to them than the people I usually teach.

We decided that we'd make it a more casual conversation - I would speak a bit about the work I do and then I'd spend the majority of the time answering questions. 10 minutes into the conversation, I was asked the question that always breaks my heart to answer:

"What do we have to worry about when we get out into the industry?"

A million things run through my mind - do I tell them about the harassment and too frequent assaults? The discrimination they'll face when they apply to conferences and jobs? How people will unfairly dismiss their skills, opinions, ideas, and that they'll eventually internalize that, believing they aren't "good enough"? That people will assume that they wandered into the wrong room before they assume they're a programmer? Do I tell them that speaking up against these things will cause them to lose friends, jobs, opportunities, and potentially make them targets for even worse treatment? Do I tell them that even when things are really good, when someone notices their brilliance, that it, too, will be tinged by the nagging feeling that they may have been noticed because they fill a need for visual diversity? 

Raising awareness doesn't scare people, accepted rampant harassment and discrimination do.

And then I'm reminded of all of the people who get upset that we speak up about these things at all. The people that say "telling them these things is what scares them away! We can't ever make things better if people never get here!"  That people see merit in this deception when it's not only unethical but downright dangerous amazes me. How is it a good idea to trick people into an industry where they may have to invest tens of thousands of dollars, uproot their lives, and move across the country or world only to find that more than half of them will be forced to leave the industry within 10 years due to harassment, discrimination, and bias? Why does the belief exist that sacrificing marginalized people to the hungry maw of tech will solve this problem?

Quoting @emilyst

So I answered them truthfully. I talked about microaggressions and how choosing your battles feels like a bit of you dying with each concession. I told them how it upset me to have to be telling them this because we haven't fixed this problem; that they're yet another generation of programmers that will have to fight this battle.

The other question they asked was "what can each of us do to change things?". These students who haven't stepped fully into the industry already know that the responsibility of positive change is going to be thrust heavily onto their shoulders.

Whose job is "diversity"? 

Often the burden of fostering diversity and inclusion falls to marginalized people. It's worth noting that this in and of itself is a form of oppression: being coerced into attempting to solve a problem created by the people both furthering and benefitting from the oppression. Thanks in part to the history of animosity directed at them when they mention the marginalizing group is engaging in what amounts to White Savior-like behavior, they feel they need first hand participation in the efforts, a sort of nothing about us without usThis is akin to your roommate doing a shit job washing dishes because they know you'll give in and do them yourself.

It's not infrequent that a company will seek praise for their own efforts to promote diversity meanwhile noting that the only people who are contributing to the effort are women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and the few other marginalized people who they may employ. Conferences will tell you they're getting more women to speak by tweeting "Hey underrepresented friends, submit to our CFP!", but putting forth no other real effort

All of this is often done without compensation. People internal to the organization are tasked with these things and expected to do them in addition to the work they're already performing (which, ironically, adds to the already multiplied workload required to be viewed as doing as much as their less marginalized coworkers). People outside the organization are expected to volunteer to do these things without compensation "for the greater good" - aiding in improving the profile of the organization that while still allowing them to take credit for the effort.

So not only are marginalized people having to personally fight this battle for themselves, they're now guilted and pressured into doing it for others while not being compensated equally for things that are actually in their job description, let alone things outside of it.

Whose fault is it when attempts at diversity fail?

I believe that the biggest issue the movement for increasing diversity in tech faces today is this: no matter the cause, the blame of failed attempts are always put back on marginalized people.

Asking why they think there are so few women and people of color in tech? "Their parents and teachers aren't encouraging them to go into tech; it's out of our hands if they never get here."

Asking about the heinous attrition rate? "They choose to have children." "The ones that leave are making it harder for all the ones that come after them."

Asking a company why they have a homogenous engineering team? "We would love to have other people, but they don't apply." "They don't have the skill levels we need, they're all too junior."

Why is a conference's speaker lineup devoid of diversity? "We asked these two women that speak at every conference, but they turned us down." "Well, we tried, but they cancelled."

Underlying this is a pervasive feeling of “we have a toxic, abusive culture, but expect marginalized people will put up with it in the name of diversity.”

All of these things contribute to the guilt so many marginalized people feel. The guilt that we're not doing enough, that we're trying to have it all or that we don't believe strongly enough that we can have it all. It becomes a moral failing on our part. When we fail it's because we aren't trying hard enough, not because we're frantically trying to run up a down escalator

There's a profoundly un-empathetic line of thought that goes: "Diversity is good. This woman is adding to diversity in STEM. Her leaving decreases diversity. Therefore, she is bad to leave." No one said this to me in as many words, but when you've been sitting with your own guilt for weeks, it comes through clear as day. - I didn't want to lean out, Frances Hocutt

This piece by Frances Hocutt perfectly illustrates all of these problems.

I don't know anyone who's been in this position who hasn't thought about leaving tech or about what they'll pursue when they finally do. The overwhelming thing that I hear about why they haven't yet is they worry they'll be letting the people who fought before them and the people who will come after down. They are sacrificing their physical safety and mental health because they feel they owe it to someone else to put up with the abuse and discrimination - that we just need a couple generations of people willing to tough it out long enough to prove that we deserve to be here and suddenly people will start taking us seriously and treating us as peers.

I've seen people deal with the idea of confronting the systemic injustices by doubling down. I've seen others attempt to mime the genuine efforts taken by others. I've heard conference organizers resentfully say "I'm just doing this so the internet hate mob doesn't get my event cancelled for having no women". These things worry me. If you don't understand why you're doing this and don't genuinely care about the outcome, you're just painting a condemned house: it's not any safer, but hey, it looks nicer.

Where we need to be

As an industry and as a community, we've made some strides to correcting this behavior. I've seen more people of privilege take up these causes and fight for them follow the direction and needs of the people they're fighting for. On top of that, more marginalized people are finding the platform to do this kind of work and to be compensated for it.

What can you do to help their efforts?

Stop blaming marginalized people. They know the forces they have to combat just to stay in the industry. The guilt we put on them is neither individually helpful nor a solution to the larger issue. Instead figure out what you could be doing to remove some of their burden.

Educate yourself. A ton of time and effort has been put into creating educational resources so you can learn more without tiring out the people most affected by these problems. I highly recommend the Geek Feminism Blog + Wiki as a starting point. Twitter is also a great source for things; there are a ton of great people talking about the importance of this stuff that you can follow to learn from. Consider reading some books to learn more about issues and philosophies that frame the movement.

Stop devaluing the efforts to increase diversity by funding it. Don't ask marginalized people doing diversity advocacy to work for free or discounted rates. Don't ask your marginalized employees to do this on top of all of their other work. If they don't personally accept payment or donations, ask them which organization you can donate to in their name.

Stop appropriating the work done to increase diversity. Credit the people who are, among other things, doing this in their free time and risking professional opportunities by doing so. 

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