When it comes to diversity, what does success look like?

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

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