Are you an ally in real life or just on paper? These 7 questions will help you find out 📝

Amy Dickens
May 21 · 6 min read

In this article we will look at ally-ship in the context of gender diversity in the technology industry & highlight some of the things that are problematic with “on paper” ally-ship.

So you’re a feminist. You believe all genders are equal. You support disbanding with the gender binary. You say all the right things on social media and occasionally call others out on their biases.

But are you really doing all you can to lift up underrepresented folks in tech?

BEFORE YOU READ ON: This post will be uncomfortable for some. It has been widely reviewed by a number of underrepresented folks in the tech industry and discusses real world happenings that continue to contribute to the “toxicity” of tech.

Being an ally for underrepresented groups in tech is important and it helps those groups to challenge the systematic oppression that they face when working in or interacting with this industry. But before you proclaim yourself to be an ally and accept those pats of gratitude on your back for being a “good” person amongst the toxicity, stop and think about the following points.

ONE: Are you aware of your space?

Underrepresented folks in the tech industry, spend a considerable part of their careers being reminded of the space they take up. Perhaps their existence is constantly being used to highlight diversity or they attract unwelcome attention because they are different from everyone else. Either way there are many negative impacts for people that experience this, from being tokenised and used, to receiving stares from all around the workplace or being ignored/overlooked/forgotten when it comes to team activities or opportunities. All of this results in a constant reminder to that person that they are a minority and the whole world knows it.

There is also the hard reality that often for people, who don’t fit the culture “norm” in their work place, there is an unfair and fully-loaded responsibility to be a representative. For those who fit the expectations, this doesn’t exist. If you’ve never had to think about whether your actions will be perceived as representative of all people like you, then please acknowledge you have a huge privilege. You cannot be a true ally without being aware that this difference in experience exists and being empathetic to it.

TWO: Are you overlooking people?

Are you a manager? Have you ever hired anyone? Have you ever had the opportunity to offer someone a promotion? How many people from underrepresented groups have you promoted, recognised for their contributions or given opportunities?

Being an ally is about acknowledging the fact that for some people it is twice as hard to be seen by others. If your track record in hiring and promoting is all one type of person then you might have your own biases that need addressing. Excuses like “well we tried but no [X type of person] applied / had the right experience / matched as well as these candidates” are just not good enough in 2019. For more on this topic in particular see this great article titled “Leave your gut out of hiring decisions”.

THREE: Or have you told someone that they (or their role/presence) are part of the solution?

Telling someone that they are helping you step towards a more diverse workforce, community or team might seem like a “positive” message, but in reality it just highlights that you do not see them as an equal. By all means you can acknowledge diversity issues if you have them — but attributing someone’s presence as part of solving that issue, can lead to that person feeling like this is the ONLY reason for their existence in that space.

Being linked to any kind of “diversity hire” situation can fuel self doubt and contribute to feelings of impostor syndrome. Additionally assuming that any person from an underrepresented background is willing to be a spokesperson, or assist in solving the diversity issues that you might have is a big NO NO. It is not the job of the underrepresented person to be the activist in spaces that are not inclusive. Put that responsibility on someone else, someone from the majority who doesn’t face the same biases that underrepresented folk do.

FOUR: Are you paying it forward or passing it on?

Do you get offered a lot of opportunities? Have you ever realised the amount of privilege that comes with this? Next time you are offered something consider passing it on by recommending a list of extraordinary people from diverse backgrounds that might otherwise not be considered. You should especially consider this if the event is one you’ve spoken at before, or is in a country where you’ve been before and the chosen speaker will have travel covered for them.

For folks from underrepresented backgrounds in tech, opportunities like this are a huge gift (not a daily occurrence) AND they can be career changing. Like with most tech spaces, “call for participation(CFP)” processes and invites can be biased towards a specific set of people. So be the person that breaks the wall to the inner circle and give up your place through passing it on to someone from an underrepresented background.

FIVE: Have you been given a lot of second chances?

Second chances for underrepresented folks are rare and they are often punished more harshly for their mistakes. Have you fudged something up royally in the past and gotten away with it? Were you surprised at how small the repercussions were?

This happens all the time within tech events, even where there are good codes of conduct in place. Maybe you misrepresented someone or you spoke over another panellist during a talk, but you were still invited back the next year. There are many double standards at play within the tech industry and this is just an example of one of them. So instead of thinking “I’ll do better next time”; consider whether in this exact situation, if the person who goofed up was a person from an underrepresented group, would they get an invite back? It’s almost guaranteed that the answer would be no. If you ever do this and get invited back then consider turning down the opportunity to give space for someone else or better yet take the advice of point four.

SIX: Have you ever used an underrepresented persons profile for your own gains?

So you want to encourage folks from a diverse background to apply to a thing / sign up to an event ? To do this did you tag the profile of someone from an underrepresented group as a means of inclusive lip service? Did you even ask their permission to do so? Or WORSE, could they have been an ideal candidate but instead you used them for their following?

Yikes — when people do this, it’s a real low blow. Do you know how many times these folks have been overlooked for a promotion, passed by for opportunities and how many years they’ve spent building their profile? It takes minutes to ask someone whether it is OK to use their profile before using them to promote something. This is especially important if the wording of a post will make the person appear to be endorsing something. In short — don’t expend other people’s social capital like it belongs to you!

SEVEN: Have you ever uttered these words?

There is NEVER an OK time to use “not all men” in response to complaints about gender diversity and bad actors — or in fact anything.

Responses like this provide no positive input to conversations about gender disparity. Actually quite the opposite, they derail the subject matter with a confrontational statement about something that was never claimed in the first place. Using this response even as a joke is just not funny at all. There is no context in which it is acceptable to respond with this phrase; unless you are answering the question “What is the most frustrating and ignorant response to gender diversity issues?”

This list does not capture all the problems, these points are just a few of the key gripes we see time and again. It’s especially disheartening to see someone who is an ally and promotes gender equality, but still doesn’t act where they can.

That’s all folks — thanks for reading!

If you have something to add feel free to throw it in the comments below or send me a DM on Twitter. Please note, I will only contribute to empathetic discussion about ally-ship and will not expend emotional energy on anything more (bad actors, trolls, hate speech, etc.).

👋 ✨

Illustration from undraw.co

Thanks to Andreea and Jo Franchetti.

Amy Dickens

Written by

Developer Advocate Intern - Samsung Internet, Researcher - Mixed Reality Lab ✨