Aleen Mean

7 Ways to Enrich the Tech Industry

On June 10, I gave a talk at AltConf in San Francisco. Video has been posted online, but here is the text of the speech! Note that a few things may have changed when I actually gave my talk, but all of the basics are here.

On Monday Apple posted this photo of the keynote line. Does anyone notice anything? Just shout it out! One women, what else? Short haircuts. There’s not a whole lot of diversity here.

In light of that, would anyone be shocked to hear that the tech industry is not the most diverse place? Did you know that The LA Times recently stated that only 15% of people working in technical roles are women? Additionally, 56% of those women will leave the industry due to harassment, fewer advancement opportunities, and lack of female mentorship.

Things are even worse for ethnic minorities: a mere 2% of tech workers in Silicon valley are Black, and only 3% are Latino. If there are statistics for how many LGBTQAIP community members or people with disabilities work in tech, I couldn’t find them.

Why is it important to have better representation of all sorts of people in our industry?

This lack of representation is not just a problem from a moral perspective, it’s simply bad business. Studies have shown that businesses with diverse workforces outperform those with a more homogenous mix. People from diverse backgrounds offer a variety of unique life experiences and perspectives that prove invaluable.

About me

I’m Aleen Simms. I’m a writer for a software development company; I’m also the creator and host of a podcast called Less Than Or Equal, where I talk to geeky people about the things they love. The not-so-secret catch is that almost all of my guests have been members of groups that aren’t really represented well in geeky spaces.

I started Less Than Or Equal for a couple of reasons: I’d experienced some workplace harassment because of my gender that left me feeling off guard and helpless. I wanted to do something to combat both the incident and my feelings of helplessness. It didn’t take me long to realize that women aren’t the only people who are “othered”, so instead of making my show just about women in tech, I made it about anyone who’s marginalized in STEM fields, in gaming, in literature…. Over the course of the last 40+ episodes, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’m here to tell you about some of them: simple ways you can help enrich the tech industry by fostering diversity.

Here they are, up front1

  1. Recognize that it’s not about you. I know that sounds harsh, but stick with me here.
  2. Believe what underrepresented people tell you.
  3. Expand your network to include people who aren’t like you.
  4. Amplify the voices of these new acquaintances.
  5. If you’re handed an opportunity, pass it on to an underrepresented person.
  6. Pay attention to the way you phrase things and talk about people.
  7. Be our ambassador. Talk to people who do look like you.
  8. Learn how to become phenomenal at apologies, and don’t be afraid to do it.

Recognize that it’s not about you

I need to pause and tell you a bit more about myself. I was raised by my single mother, an early childhood specialist, in a poor farming community. I was the third person in my family to graduate from college. My mom was the first and she remains the only one of us to attain more than a Bachelor’s degree. At least 90% of the 700-person town I grew up in was white. In fact, at some point when I was in junior high or high school a Black woman moved to town, bringing our Black population up to one. I remember that people made a point of telling one another how nice she was, as though it was remarkable. Most of the non-white residents were Native American, Hispanic, or Latino, but when you’re talking about a town so tiny, you’re really only talking about a few people.

In school, we learned about the history of the United States. About slavery. About Jim Crow laws, segregation (“separate but equal” drinking fountains and public spaces), and integration. The plight of the Black population was over in the United States, I was taught. And I believed it. I’ve moved from one predominantly white community to another throughout my life, and it never even occurred to me that my assumption was wrong. In fact, it never even occurred to me that I had even made that assumption.

After the events in Ferguson, Missouri last summer, I realized how ignorant I’d been. The friends I’ve made since I started Less Than Or Equal have told me some of their life experiences and how they often live their lives in fear.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in the middle of step zero: Recognize that it’s not about you. It took some major upheaval for me to really understand that other people have vastly different experiences from mine. We have different approaches to problems and to life. We have different perspectives.

Just because you have never felt unsafe at work, have never been catcalled on the street, haven’t worried about what will happen if you’re stopped by a police officer….it doesn’t meant that everyone has had that luxury. These experiences shape people.

Marginalized people are exposed to numerous infractions and lapses, big and small, every day, just by living their lives. It’s a big part of why they’re marginalized, and the constant barrage can be exhausting and frustrating.

It’s not about you. When you’re criticized, check your ego. If you feel defensive, stop and think about why you’re having that reaction. If it’s because you don’t like the way the message was delivered, try to catch the meaning of what you were told instead of focusing on the other person’s tone of voice or exact word choice.

Listen to and believe us

Okay, so you’re on board. You realize that other people have different perspectives and experiences, and that they might vary wildly from yours. What’s step one, then? Listen to and believe us. At the XOXO Festival last September, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian said, “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.”

You can easily replace “women” with other groups of people. Indian, transgender, hearing impaired, gay… You’d be surprised at how often we’re ridiculed and disbelieved when we talk about things that have happened to us. Remember that it’s hard to speak up in the best of circumstances, let alone when we know we’ll be facing an uphill battle or are unlikely to be believed. Too often marginalized people face severe costs for speaking up: we lose friends and jobs. We are frequently harassed when we do. Take us at face value when we talk about our experiences.

Believe people when they tell you who they are

In recent weeks, I’ve been seeing more and more commentary about people who are transgender. Gender is complicated, but society has taught us that certain physical characteristics are either masculine or feminine. Deep voices belong to men, higher voices to women. Men have adams apples, women don’t. Women have breasts, men don’t. But here’s the thing: what is “masculine” and what is “feminine” is completely made up by our society. In fact, there are some societies today where there are five recognized genders.

But Western society, my society, currently recognizes two genders. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t make assumptions about another person’s gender based on their physicality, but we don’t live in an ideal world. You might find yourself in a situation where you’ve misidentified someone’s gender, and they tell you about your mistake.

So what’s an appropriate response to someone telling you that their gender isn’t what you assumed? I like, “Okay, thanks for letting me know! I’ll be sure to refer to you appropriately in the future. I’m sorry if I messed it up before.” Don’t argue or ridicule them; they know themselves better than you ever will.

Another thing to keep in mind when others tell you about their experiences or about themselves is to never be reductive. If a woman tells you about how she’s endured a harrowing afternoon full of catcalls, don’t tell her to get used to it because that’s how society is. If a disabled person laments their inability to go to a job interview because the building it was in is old and lacks accessibility, don’t tell them there will be other jobs. Doing so is rude and misses the point of their stories.

Expand your network

In the age of Twitter, it’s so easy to learn about smart, talented, insightful people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to meet. I encourage you to expand your network: seek out people from different backgrounds and follow them. Read their tweets and consider what they have to say. Don’t argue, don’t respond defensively. Just listen and learn.

Don’t know where to begin? Kronda Adair has a Social Justice list on Twitter that’s a good starting point: https://twitter.com/kronda/lists/social-justice. You can also look at who the Less Than Or Equal Twitter account is following—all are past guests who are concerned with making the world a more accepting place.

So far, I’ve talked a lot about listening. Who’s wondering when I’ll get to the doing steps? We’re almost there. Never underestimate the power of listening, though. It’s an important skill many people lack.

Amplify our voices

So you’re on board with expanding your network. Now it’s time to amplify the voices of the new people you follow. Retweet us. Link to our blog posts. Mention us in podcasts. If something a marginalized person said has inspired a line of thought, give credit to the person who spurred your thinking.

Don’t speak for us. We have voices and thoughts and talents and are perfectly capable of speaking for ourselves. Seems simple, right?

At Denver Comic Con last month, the “Women in Comics” panel about the history of female superheroes featured zero female panelists. Zero, as though there are no women who know about comics book history. (As an aside, there was more than one female comic book historian in attendance at DCC, but they were not approached to speak on the panel.) It would have been pretty simple to include at least one woman to talk about women in comic book history.

Things like this happen all the time, which is why it’s so important for people in the majority to…

Pass opportunities on to us

Pass opportunities on to people who are underrepresented. If you’re invited to speak about something at a conference and know someone who belongs to a marginalized group who is also knowledgable about the topic, recommend them to speak instead of you, or even with you.

I know this sounds unfair. You’ve worked hard to become knowledgable. You know your stuff because you’ve committed untold hours toward learning to excel at your craft. But the fact of the matter is it costs you little to help members of underrepresented groups out when the playing field is rougher and has more obstacles than yours.

Additionally, if you’re asked to comment about how people in a group you don’t belong to can excel in tech, politely decline. Use those handy connections you’ve made through social media (and maybe even in meatspace!) to recommend people who can comment.

If, for whatever reason, you decide to comment instead of passing the opportunity on to someone who has experience with the subject, remember points zero and one: It’s not about you. Listen to us. Because believe me, you will likely be ridiculed by vocal people when you choose to speak on topics of which you have no first-hand experience. Becoming defensive and believing you’re a victim in those situations won’t do you any good, but listening will be a valuable learning experience.

This doesn’t just apply to speaking gigs. What about recommending marginalized people to work on projects at work instead of you? If you’re a freelancer, build your network so that you can pass opportunities on. A minimal amount of effort on your part can mean big things for other people.

Pay attention to your language

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Did anyone else grow up saying that? Or “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!”

I’m here to tell you that’s a load of crap, as if you didn’t know already. Words matter. Words have started wars and driven people to self harm. Words, in short, are very powerful.

I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about ablest language because it’s not something we think about very often. ableist words, as Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg wrote in an article on Everyday Feminism, “perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their ways into all of the things that most people feel are more important.”

When we use ableist words to talk about things negatively, we’re helping to create a negative stereotype. So what are some ableist words and some alternatives to them?

Lame: unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot. “That movie was so lame.” try instead: “That movie didn’t make sense.” “That movie’s pacing was too slow.”

Crazy: mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way. “It was crazy to think I’d sleep on my flight.” try instead: “It was unrealistic to think I’d sleep on my flight.” “It was irrational to think I’d sleep on my flight.”

To turn a blind eye or deaf ear: willfully ignoring information “They turned a deaf ear to the security concerns the new policy presented.” try instead: “They were being willfully ignorant.” “They disregarded the security concerns.”

There are more ableist words we use all the time: retarded, stupid, dumb, idiot, moron.

Who’s feeling overwhelmed? Yeah, me too. To be entirely honest with you, I struggle the most with both identifying and not using ableist words. I’ve decided to approach it a word at a time, so I’ve stopped saying “crazy”. I still catch myself from time to time, but I’m getting the hang of it.

The way we phrase things also matters. “He didn’t get the job because he’s hispanic” puts the blame on the victim, while “He didn’t get the job because the interviewer is racist” puts the blame where it belongs.

Be our ambassadors

I know that I said not to speak for us, but there’s an exception to that rule: Be our ambassadors. There are people who will listen to you, but who will not listen to people who they think of as different. Please talk to them about things that you see or stories you’re told. Convince them that there are people out there who need help. Correct them when you hear them ridiculing people from marginalized groups. For example, “Jokes about people with disabilities aren’t funny.” “Jane was talking, please let her finish.”

You can also introduce us to new people and help us all expand our social circles. More positive interactions with diverse people means more empathy, which is good for everyone. Bridge gaps and facilitate connections when you can.

Join our battles—don’t just stand by when we’re being torn apart in a fight. I’ve been embroiled in Internet arguments without support, only to have male friends later tell me how wrong the situation was, but their silent support didn’t do anything to help me when I was being called names. Add your voice to ours.

Don’t hesitate to apologize

Last but not least: Learn how to be an apology rockstar, and don’t hesitate to show off those skills. Saying “I’m sorry” and meaning it is a rare, but it can get you pretty far in life. There are some dos and don’ts to apologizing, though:

Do not say, “I’m sorry you were offended” or “I’m sorry you misunderstood me” or “you must have misheard.” Those are classic non-apologies and they mean absolutely nothing because they place all of the blame on the victim. A real, sincere apology includes taking responsibility for your actions.

My approach to apologizing is to actually say the word “sorry”, take responsibility for my actions, explain what I’ve learned, and then follow through.

Here’s a completely made up example: “I’m so sorry I forgot to empty the dishwasher! I got distracted by Twitter and it completely slipped my mind. I’ll go empty it now and make sure not to check Twitter until I’m done with dishes next time.”

See? Learning to apologize can even save relationships! Of course, this apology means nothing if I don’t actually go empty the dishwasher after I’ve said I will, and if I continue to get distracted by Twitter in the future.

Conclusion

That’s it. Pretty easy, right?

Here are those, uh, seven steps you can take: 1. Realize that it’s not about you 2. Listen to and believe underrepresented people 3. Expand your network 4. Amplify our voices 5. Pass opportunities on to underrepresented people 6. Pay attention to your language 7. Be ambassadors 8. Don’t hesitate to apologize

Now, this is a starting point. You can start implementing these steps today, and it’ll start having an immediate impact. You. You will make tech better for everyone, and these little changes will help usher in big changes for the industry as a whole.

There are other things that need to happen—hiring practices need to be examined, the workplace needs to be more friendly to parents, the way we approach after-hours get-togethers needs to be examined…. But this is a place to start.

And I have a secret to tell you. All of these steps boil down to one main point: be kind.

  1. This list started at zero on my slides, but it’s difficult to zero-index an ordered list on the web.