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Diversity In Tech: It’s Your Responsibility

There were a couple of articles posted on Hacker News recently about “women in tech” – each taking a different stance on various aspects of what is a rather complex matter. I’m not going to debate the merits of those posts; I think they both have some valuable aspects and some weak spots. Instead, I want to augment the discussion surrounding them with a few thoughts of my own.

All too often, it seems like the discussion about diversity in the tech space (especially when it comes to gender) boils down to a few common themes:

  1. People arguing that it’s not a problem (anymore?)
  2. People arguing that it might be a problem but it’s not going to change
  3. People arguing that the responsibility for fixing the problem lies elsewhere
  4. Personal attacks and other completely non-productive discussion

For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on #3. If you’re one of the people arguing #1 or #2, you can stop reading this post now; you probably won’t get much out of it and the goal of this post is not to debate those points. If you’re one of the people engaging in #4, I have no reason to engage with you at all.

So this post is about responsibility. Responsibility for making tech not only a place that all kinds of people want to work in, but also a place that all kinds of people are working in. Now, given what I mentioned above, I’m assuming that you agree with me that having a more diverse environment in tech is a good thing. Furthermore, I’m assuming that you think that change is possible. So given those assumptions, here’s my question to you: what are you doing to make tech more diverse?

There’s a reasonably good chance your reaction to that last sentence was “wait, why me?” and perhaps some feelings of defensiveness. It’s okay. I’m not trying to place blame on anyone.

Issues like the gender imbalance in tech are systemic. They involve many aspects that often go unnoticed (or are dismissed as insignificant) on their own, but their net effect can have huge implications. Therein lies the complexity of the matter. There’s no obvious “fix it” buttons to press; no one particular change is going to make a large chunk of the problem go away. So instead, we have to play a more complex game, attacking the problem on many fronts simultaneously. Each personal contribution might seem small, but just as “the problem” is in fact the effect of many smaller problems, so too can “the solution” be the sum of many smaller efforts.

Okay, that’s all well and good. We’ll have lots of people help out on solving the problem, and everything will work out great. Um, wait though. Those “lots of people” – who are “they” going to be? There’s a real temptation to just assume that other people are going to fix the problem. Even if you’re a very strong proponent of someone fixing the problem, it’s still easy to subconsciously wind up leaving things by the wayside, especially when it’s convenient to do so.

Because of this, I think it’s important to recognize that not only is it everyone’s responsibility to help fix the problem… it’s also your responsibility to help fix the problem. You are part of everyone.

Furthermore, it’s important to not try to base your own level of effort on others’. Doing so simply puts us into a giant version of the prisoner’s dilemma and often winds up with no progress being made. While it might seem like your own contributions are insignificant, remember that the same reasoning is what causes the issue in the first place: small, “insignificant” problems that add up to form a major problem. In the end, it all counts.

No matter whether you’re a conference organizer or attendee; a male software engineer or a female one; an industry veteran or a novice programmer – we’re all in this together, and we all have ways we can help. What will your part be?

Catch-22: Tech Blogging As a Woman

One of the Hacker News comments on Anna Billstrom’s article regarding female users on StackOverflow caught my eye:

We have had article after article claiming it is obvious women are being oppressed in the tech industry. Every week there is one of these. Many make bigoted claims about male engineers, enforcing stereotypes of male geeks I have never actually seen in industry.

Where are the technical articles written by women? There are plenty of contributions complaining about oppression, while attacking men and claiming absurd stereotypes. Where are the technical contributions?

While there are multiple potential issues that could be raised with regards to this comment, I’m going to focus on the second half – the part asking “where are the technical articles written by women?” Well, let’s use an example that’s close at hand – the blog post I wrote about Git submodules. That blog post wound up on Hacker News and also on Reddit.

For now, let’s set aside whatever opinions you have on the content of the post itself – assuming you can at least agree with me that it’s an example of a technical article. In exchange, I’ll refrain from commenting on the merits of the comments I’m quoting here.

If you look through the comment threads on both sites, you’ll notice something: any instances of gendered language that the commenters use assume the author is male. They refer to “him” and talk about what they think “he” should do or their opinion of “his” thoughts on the matter. Some examples:

Hacker News:

It appears that one of the solutions he recommends, git-subtree, is going to be merged into git soon:

Reddit:

He complains about having to branch in both the parent and the sub project, but I have found that not to be a problem at all, and kind of nice in some situations. He’s blowing it way out of proportion.

Reddit:

On the other hand, the author prefaced all his “this is where submodules break” descriptions with “I forgot to run submodule update”, so I have trouble sympathizing.

Sure, I generally don’t go out of my way to make it obvious that I’m a woman on my blog – you’d have to first click over to the About page, and then click through to either my Google+ profile or my Twitter account. Then again, I don’t know many male developers who go out of their way to make it obvious that they’re male, either. After all, supposedly gender is irrelevant on the internet (Hacker News):

Not to mention that we’re on the fucking internet. There is no gender, race, colour or creed here. Everybody pick a neutral username and, hey, presto! Problem solved.

Sure, I could go out of my way to make it obvious that I’m a woman. I could put my name at the top of my blog or on my About page, or I could mention it in passing in my writing. That’s not something a male author has to do, though. Furthermore, doing so results in harassment and having my writing dismissed/trivialized/tokenized because of my gender. Hence why I don’t (or at least, hadn’t until this post).

The catch-22 here is that if I choose to blend in, then people like the commenters above assume that everything they see was written by men, and use that as an excuse to dismiss the concerns of women in the tech industry – because apparently, we don’t contribute and thus don’t matter. If I choose to not blend in, I’m dismissed as bringing up gender when it’s irrelevant (or worse, harassed by people who’ve decided gender is relevant).

It’s no surprise that when the default assumption is “male author” it winds up seeming like male authors write almost everything. So to the original commenter I quoted, here’s your answer: they’re where all the technical articles you read are: on Hacker News, on Reddit, on whatever other blogs and aggregators you frequent. Just because you don’t see them (or perhaps, don’t realize you see them) doesn’t mean they don’t exist.