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:
- People arguing that it’s not a problem (anymore?)
- People arguing that it might be a problem but it’s not going to change
- People arguing that the responsibility for fixing the problem lies elsewhere
- 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?