Articles: Popular

I've been doing this work for a while now, and I get asked rather frequently,

At what point do you think you'll have succeeded? What does success with diversity advocacy look like?

It's a great question. People wanna know when we'll have "won" the battle for diversity. Is it when we hit a certain percentage of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized people in the industry? When we see VCs funding those same groups at similar rates as they do white men? Or when they're becoming C-level execs at unprecedented numbers? When the attrition rates for marginalized people has dropped dramatically? When everyone is paid equally and has the same career mobility?

The Realities of Time

While I'd definitely love to see all of those things happen, I'm acutely aware of the glacial-like pace of cultural change. I don't know that any of that will happen during my career or even lifetime, as much as I'd like to be here to see it.


And if it does, it will be because a dramatic cultural shift has occurred; after all, it requires we hold ourselves and each other accountable for the roles we play in allowing this kind of behavior to continue. It means all of us recognizing the biases that contribute to things like systemic sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, and xenophobia, but also actively working to counteract those biases.

Right now I see a lot of well-meaning people that respond to studies about bias or articles about discrimination with assertions that those things are terrible!, all the while distancing themselves from them as something that other people do. I hear often that we'd "win more people over" if we'd "stop insinuating that the people to 'blame'" were the ones sitting in the room when we discuss the dearth of diversity. After all, they must be good allies if they're present and listening. 

Unfortunately, it's a lot more complicated than that. It's not enough to just be in the room. The greatest challenge we have to overcome is our own lack of self-examination. We believe that the people who do these terrible! things must be terrible people to have done them; that they must be knowingly biased and discriminating against others. This provides an easy out for us: we're not terrible people, the logic goes, and therefore can't be guilty of doing these terrible things

That's absolutely untrue.

We've all been steeped in a culture that drills into us ideas about gender roles, racial stereotypes, and disdain for things to which we can't relate. Whether you want to or not, these things color the way we make decisions, interact, and even the adjectives we use when referring to other people. 

And what's worse, belonging to a marginalized group doesn't mean you won't share negative beliefs about the people in the same group. For instance, women hold misogynistic and sexist ideas in their heads, too, because they were raised in the same society. I've thought sexist things, I've said racist things, I've realized that I've judged people on things they have no control over, I've been ignorant to extra obstacles that need overcoming by people whose situation isn't similar to my own. No one is exempt from this.

Not So Small Victories

We need to stop looking at these terrible! things at an arm's length and begin figuring out why they continue to happen on our watch. We need to educate ourselves and the people around us because it's unlikely they'll educate themselves on their own. There are so many resources - wikis, articles, research papers, books, discussion groups - that you have access to. Read them, pass them around, talk to people about them.

It needs to be more important that we've taken things we've read or heard to heart over how laudable our "equality pedigree" is. Too often I see male allies stepping over women to explain why they are bad feminists or white people confronting people of color about anti-racism work, all the while ignoring the context of the situation.

I can't stress enough how much we need to resist the urge to silo ourselves away with people similar to ourselves. It should be a priority that we're meeting people who have different experiences, backgrounds, and lifestyles. In actually listening to people, we can find an easier path to empathy and recognizing where stereotypes have wormed their ways into our lives without our realizing it. We can stop advocating for what we think people need and instead give them the attention to tell us what we should be doing to help fix the problem.

Think about the things that come out of your mouth. I can't tell you how frequently I say something and realize a heartbeat later that it was wrong. Stopping, apologizing, and correcting yourself is not only a great way to ingrain that difference in your mind, but also a positive example for the people around you. You're going to fuck up - everyone does - at least let it be a learning experience. Accept that this is a part of the whole process. Don't be afraid of it, just be quick to apologize and do your best to be better in the future.

Realize that even if you've spent hundreds of hours reading and learning and discussing these things, there's always going to be more to learn. When people correct you, don't get defensive, thank them for helping make you a better person.

Every time a discriminatory decision is made, every time bias is in play, I want to see someone step up. If someone asserts something based on stereotypes and fake science, I want them to hear why that's wrong with at least equal the passion we defend our choice of code editors. Gone should be the days of people believing everyone thinks these discriminatory things or that this is an acceptable practice just because no one has ever told them otherwise. Too often we let people assume that our silence is assent. How often has shitty behavior continued because everyone thinks they're the only one that feels whatever happened was wrong? Don't leave it up to a marginalized person to risk their professional, financial, or personal safety - say something. When you do, tell them why it made you uncomfortable or why it's unacceptable to you.

A snappy conclusion paragraph subtitle, just for you

So what does success look like to me? Taking responsibility for our role in creating the problem, understanding systemic inequality isn't caused by just a villainous group of people, and making it known that we aren't silently agreeing to discrimination.

Further Reading

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. 

Additional Reading

This piece was originally written for Model View Culture's STATE issue in January 2014.

I’ve been a programmer for 13 years. For the most part, I love my work. It’s interesting and different enough every day to keep me from getting bored. I have the freedom to be inventive, push the boundaries of what I know, and make mistakes. Few other fields would have allowed me to not only get by without a degree, but to be successful enough to start my own business at 23.

The parts that I don’t like, though? It’s much more emotionally draining to make that list.

Over the past year I have worked to increase the visibility of the issues marginalized people face in tech. I talk about the negative experiences people have with businesses, conferences, and the community. I educate people about what they may be doing - intentionally or otherwise - to contribute to these problems. Because of that, my email inbox has becomes a safe space for people to reach out for help; it’s an unordered list of harassment, discrimination, and bias. I get between 75 and 150 emails a day from people all over the world. A woman new in her career who was sexually harassed, but her company has no HR department and the harasser is a close friend of the founder, so she still has to work beside him every day. An Indian man who dealt with months of racial slurs and stereotyping before he left his office over lunch one day and didn’t come back. A trans woman who suffered through a day-long interview where the interviewers intentionally misgendered and humiliated her. A woman who reported a sexual assault at a conference and was told to prove it or they wouldn’t remove the assaulter from the venue. A woman who found out she was being paid thousands less than her less qualified male colleagues and feels too afraid to confront her boss about it, because she can’t afford to lose her job. A man whose company quietly stopped providing same-sex partner benefits once the founder figured out it was in their policy. And then there’s the emails from people who were fired in the 3 months following their report of sexual harassment at work.

The Current Landscape

I’ve done this for so long that I don’t know what I’ll do with myself when I decide to leave. That’s the killer part: with so many of us leaving in droves - 56% of women within 10 years, twice the rate of men - it’s not an “if”, but a “when”. After suffering through particularly nasty incidents of harassment, abuse, and indifference to the treatment many of us receive, I’ve thought to myself “is this the thing that will finally make me leave?” I’ve talked to so many marginalized people from different parts of the industry that tell me they lie awake at night thinking about the same thing.

Those decidedly deemed “outsiders” - women, people of color, LGBTQs, the people who don’t speak English as a first language, people who can’t look back on their childhood computer use with nostalgia - end up in a constant battle to continue occupying a space that’s so aggressive toward them that it becomes a job in and of itself. The lack of diversity is so stark, the homogeneity so common -women and African Americans make up less than half of what we'd expect them to in tech, Hispanics less than ⅓. Discussion of any of these problems invariably brings out crowds of people who are either shocked this kind of thing happens regardless of how vocal we are or who deny our experiences so strongly that the battle to be believed amplifies the hostility.

After every public report of sexual assault in the tech community, the responses alone are enough to scare a lot of people away from reporting themselves. The situation has gotten so dire that the sheer act of speaking up is enough to create a tidal wave of hate mail, death and rape threats, petitions to get targets fired or otherwise ruin their public image - and these are the people who’ve already been once victimized by others in our communities.

Why tech?

I’m often asked why tech is where I focus so much of my energy. Why this above other industries or areas of society?

Tech is where I am - my job, my friends, my view of the world are all affected by being in tech.

Focusing here means I’m forced to confront not only how I benefit from the mistreatment (intentional or otherwise) of others, but also how I contribute to it. Not recognizing the roles that each of us plays in this problem means allowing it to perpetuate. We naively believe that because sexism, racism, and homophobia are bad, the people who do them are bad people. This gives us an easy out mentally: we don’t see ourselves as bad people, so how can we do sexist, racist, or homophobic things? We don’t have to intend harm for our actions to be harmful. We don’t have to have to use slurs or physically hurt people to be complicit. I’ve found this to be the hardest thing for people to understand. Having good intentions doesn’t make every act you perform righteous.

On top of that, in the most clichéd of ways, tech is the future. We’re changing the way the world does business, provides education, understands space, and improves medicine every day. We play an important role in what will be the re-shaping of future economic class structures and we have to take that far more seriously than we are now. Tech has helped us reimagine the way society should function. Few other industries can say they have that much power. Software is eating the world, which means we are going to see a huge influx of people from many other industries over the next 20 years. Fixing this problem before too many people are negatively affected is extremely important to making tech the egalitarian industry we all hope it can be.

People in tech are knowledgeable and well-connected to disparate industries in ways that others aren’t necessarily. Because many of the people who run companies, conferences, and organizations tend to be younger and more forward-thinking, I have a high hope that they’re more easily able to make positive, progressive changes that can affect far more people. As we’re always looking for a better way to do things, too, talking about why we’ve made changes and what it’s done for us means others are likely to follow suit.

We need someone to be honest with us

I haven’t always seen these issues or understood the gravity of them. I still make really horrendous, hurtful mistakes more often than I’d like to admit, but I’m getting better with accepting criticism and being called out. I may have never realized the things that were happening to me were so widespread until I saw other people’s stories and read tech culture critique.

Many see the critiques of tech culture and get defensive, not realizing this is a compassionate act. We’re given the opportunity to assess the roles we play in oppressive structures in an effort to learn and encourage change. After all, one of the most difficult things about being treated so poorly in this industry isn’t the acts themselves, but the denial that they happen or that we contribute to them.

Those that deconstruct our actions, analyze our relationships with power structures, and attempt to provide more context around why we do the things we do are working to create a dialogue that encourages critical thinking about how we could be and do better.

Culture isn’t dissimilar from software. We improve our code by reverse engineering how someone else’s works. We read books and articles about best practices. We read through issues that teach us more than we could have contributed to solving, but that’s okay. We know that this is how software is made - through making mistakes, learning, correcting, and providing that environment for people who aren’t yet to the same level we are. Culture is the same way - it’s an accumulation of effort, education, adjusting, and showing others how to be better by being better ourselves. The role of critique is essential in this process, providing needed feedback and pushing us harder than we’d push ourselves.