Illustration by Tom Morgan-Jones of the Sympathy/Empathy/Apathy dynamic (from Alasdair Cant & Associates)

#AlterConf

Working Together Towards a More Inclusive Future

Jo Carter
Jo Carter
Apr 27, 2017 · 13 min read

This month I attended the London iteration of #AlterConf. I have to say that it was an incredible experience; and I wish all conferences were like this. It was diversity and inclusion “person”ified.

If you (or a company you work for/ know of) are serious about diversity and inclusion, then do consider sponsoring or donating to AlterConf — otherwise it may not be able to continue :(

The conference itself was accessible in so many ways! Including speech-to-text, sign language, gender-neutral bathrooms, a quiet room, mobility considerations, notices about microagressions, an enforced code of conduct; and so many more little things that made people feel comfortable. It felt really inclusive. It was like a big sign saying “Everyone welcome”, and you seeing that indeed everyone is welcome, because there was such a diversity of peoples.

Thanks to Ashe Dryden, Roisi Proven, all the speakers, and everyone else who was involved in making it an amazing day.

You can see a Storify of my tweets, photos and retweets from the day. You should be able to see the talks on the AlterConf YouTube channel soon-ish.


“Empathy has to be earned, it can’t be learned” — Qa'id

Empathy was one of the key themes of the day. As minorities in the tech sphere, empathy is our superpower. We are sort of forced into it in order to fit in. We have an unfortunate advantage, from often being the ‘only one’ in a team.

We find ourselves having a kind of double consciousness (code switching), saying things or acting in a way we think other people want us to act (based on preconceptions and stereotypes), rather than being true to ourselves. We expend a lot of energy trying to fit in or belong. This isn’t always healthy or positive, but it’s born out of a cultural and societal imbalance. All of this extra cognitive effort is a waste, and a distraction. We shouldn’t have to justify our existence!

Empathy is based on a sense of action. It is more than just understanding or being understood. It’s the capacity to act on that understanding. To respond in an appropriate manner. The need of code switching can help towards our empathy advantage.

The tech industry has an empathy gap. It is connected to diversity in tech. It all starts at ‘home’ — foster an inclusive environment where all the members of your team/company feel included and valued, then you have the groundwork to bring in more diversity. Make sure you have diversity in senior positions. Stop blaming the pipeline. Prove you are inclusive first. Don’t put all the burden on those that are currently underrepresented.

We are valuable. We are superheroes.

Diversity brings together so many more lived experiences. They are assets. We can celebrate the attributes that give us an advantage. We need to stop asking for permission to be ourselves, and just say “Look, we have something you can’t get in any other way. So it’s valuable” — Qa'id.


“The way we speak is today’s children’s default” — Egga Hartung

Words have power. We shape language. We have the responsibility to change it so that inclusion is inbuilt. Just think, in one generation, we could eliminate most of the problems we see in language today. Set a good example.

Children are like sponges. They soak up ideas and words from around them and use that to shape their environment. They are not born with the concept of hatred and prejudice, they learn it from the people around them.

Think about being more inclusive to people by using they/them (this is grammatically correct) when writing documentation or referring to a hypothetical hire. Male is not the default. Also remember that gender is not a binary. If you are referring to a specific person, consider asking them what their preferred pronouns are, or use the gender-neutral ‘they’ instead of assuming their gender.

“Ensure gender identity is included in your HR discrimination policies. Make it explicit and clear.” — Lia Nemeth

Additionally, with mental health being a big issue in the tech sphere, rethink using ableist words such as “crazy”, “mad”, “insane” to describe something. It belittles the struggle that people face every day and implies that what they are experiencing is something wrong. This goes double for ableist language that targets people with disabilities, terms like “dumb”, “lame”, “retarded”. We’ve hopefully grown out of calling everything “gay”, and using racist slurs. Let’s expand that and make sure we are treating everyone with the respect they deserve.

There are plenty of alternative words, find ones you like and use them! (If you want a fuller explanation, I recommend this article on ableist language, which may answer some of your questions).

I get it. It’s hard. No-one is perfect, and I slip up all the time, but I’m learning. I think the important thing is to be conscious of it. Recognise the impact of your words. Own your mistakes. Do better.

“Language is hard. So we can use computers to help us.” — Charlotte Spencer

People don’t generally like being called out when they are using non-inclusive, sexist, racist, ableist, etc language. They tend to get defensive. We can use computers to help us in some instances, for example, using a Slack Bot or auto responses to reply when someone posts ‘hey guys’ or ‘that’s crazy’ to coach them to use more inclusive language.

I don’t know about you but, as a woman in tech, one of the words guaranteed to make me feel like I still don’t belong (even after over ten years in the industry) is the word ‘guys’. Before the ‘well actually’ people emerge, I do know that the dictionary defines it as being gender neutral. However in a world where male is the default, believe you me, I don’t feel like it applies to me. I also own two of these t-shirts created by Alice Goldfuss, but sadly some people still don’t get the point.

I think Meri Williams summed it up quite well.

Another overused word is ‘girl’ when used to describe a grown woman. And ‘female’ which makes you sound like a Ferengi. What’s wrong with just using the word ‘woman’? That’s what we are! We’ve earned the right to be recognised as such.

And we’ve all heard the “well I’ve spoken to my female friends and they’re okay with being called girls/ guys/ etc” — that’s wonderful for them, but not everyone is the same, and if someone tells you they’re not comfortable with what you’ve said — please listen!

Mayim Bialik — “Girls” vs. “Women”: Why Language Matters — March 2017

“It’s just words? Why are you being so sensitive? You need to have a tougher skin. Don’t make such of a big deal out of it.” Sound familiar? Spoken by someone with privilege, trying to make it seem like you’re overreacting. It’s called gaslighting. The words are known as microagressions. It’s something minorities have to deal with on a regular basis, even from other minorities (I learnt about a new concept here: hypodescent). Words do actually hurt; and continuous exposure to them causes lasting harm, especially to mental health.

I once heard a good analogy that I think explains this a little: Chinese water torture is so effective because it’s just one little drop. And another. And another. And another. Until it builds up to the point that someone breaks. You may have only used the word once, but I guarantee the person hearing it has heard it many times before. (I can’t remember where I heard this analogy, but this article by Benjamin Grelle is on point).

“When you’re accustomed to Privilege, Equality feels like Oppression” — Unknown

It’s important to also consider these things from a software point of view. It is too easy to create bigotry from innocent content; so just think of what could happen with the vile things that some people post on the internet. The failed Microsoft experiment is a brilliant example of what not to do. Bots should punch up, not down.

“Software reproduces oppression unless explicitly designed not to do so.” — Aanand Prasad

So please design it not to do so.


Games are a huge part of my life. I use them as an escape. As therapy. As an excuse to socialise with friends without having to leave the house. We need more games that aren’t afraid of vulnerability; that are about self-care. It’s also important to make games about things that are positive.

Developers and players benefit from these types of games. They translate feelings and emotions into interactions and mechanics. Engaging in play helps us regulate our emotions, reduce stress, increase our self-esteem, and socialise.

Games are about figuring stuff out. You get feedback from doing an action and seeing an effect. So game developers need to think how to use the feedback loop to invoke an emotional response from a player.

Mental health is complicated, and everyone has a different experience. With personal games you need to focus on core simple mechanism, avoid clutter. By focusing on a specific aspect of a problem, you can use the way it adds up to create complexity. Abstract games can be a form of self-care to help someone to focus and move on; or they may give them a toolkit with which they can learn to manage or deal with situations and experiences.

“We all have small & interesting stories that are worth sharing.” — Vaida

The benefit of games as a medium is that you have to figure things out for yourself. You get to see things from another person’s perspective (bringing it back to empathy). Games can serve as communication about something that is hard for some people to understand; like Spoon Theory (play the game); [shout out to fellow spoonies] and allows the players to benefit from the messages that resonate through the game.

Also for the game creator, you get to learn something new about yourself, just purely through the way you’ve implemented things. Placement of objects, choice of mechanics, can all be deliberate choices which combine to create a specific feeling. Players may interpret things differently to what you intended. You could use it to identify aspects of cognitive behaviour. The mechanics of developing a personal game gives you the means to deconstruct your thinking on the subject; helping you to reflect (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is for Hackers).


“Trying to have a normal mental health appearance is tiring. Pretending to be neurotypical is hard!” — Chad

Mental Health, it’s hard to talk about. It’s very personal to me, and honestly, this section is the reason this article wasn’t published weeks ago.

Depending on what sources you look at, 1 in 4 people are affected by some form of poor mental health, and I believe that it affects a larger number of people in the tech industry (but I can’t find the relevant statistics at the moment). Even so, it’s very prevalent, and we need more awareness about it.

Society does seems to be taking a step in the right direction. Recently Prince Harry opened up about his struggles, and Heads Together was set up to raise awareness and reduce stigma. Also, in the tech industry specifically, Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI) is a non-profit set up to raise awareness and provide support.

I myself have been dealing (struggling) with depression and various forms of anxiety for as long as I can remember. I only began to recognise my depression as depression 6 or 7 years ago; and I only started to seek a resolution or some kind of treatment for it 8 or 9 months ago (sadly there’s a long waiting list for these things). I didn’t even realise I had anxiety until that point either.

Up until then I believed that I could deal with it myself, and whilst this was true for a while, it got to the point where I couldn’t manage. Where it was affecting my life, my work, my friendships, my family (and probably had been doing that for a while). Since I started on medication (the first step of many) I realised that I’d been living under a cotton wool cloud of fog. Now I have clarity and am beginning to feel more like myself — well, a self I’d almost forgotten about because it had been so long since I felt this way.

If you’re lucky then you will have a boss that understands and can accommodate regular time working from home because the noise at work has become unbearable, or if you need to take a mental health day because you are so fatigued you can’t function. But often mental illness is treated so differently from physical illness.

© Robot Hugs 2013 — (un)Helpful Advice

Of course, it’s still hard. Working in an open office. Social events. Pubs. We get perceived as being cold and antisocial. We aren’t :( Honestly, most days we’re just trying to get through the day in as close to one piece as possible. To borrow a concept from earlier, we don’t have enough spoons.

Some things that a company can do to help their employees:

  • Mental health days
  • Meeting-free days
  • Quiet spaces (that aren’t just meeting rooms)
  • Workspace evaluation (consider noise, temperature and lighting (and sensitivities to those); positioning of people who need to concentrate, who need to make lots of calls, open spaces for meetings, kitchens, noisy “play equipment” like ping pong/ pool/ foosball tables)
  • Flexible working
  • Working from home on a regular basis (depending on position and equipment, but basically not seen as something to discipline someone for)
  • Varied social events
  • On-site help

As an employee (either manager, co-worker, any role really):

  • Talk
  • Listen and believe (you don’t have to understand it, just accept it)
  • Act. Make a change

If, like me, you suffer from mental illness and recognise signs in your co-workers or become aware of tensions or undercurrents in the office then speak up if you can. Try and talk to the person. Try and let someone know (your mileage may vary as to whom you feel like you can talk to about it). Even if it’s a kind word or a smile, something small can make the world of difference, and let people know that they’re not alone.


Surviving as a woman or femme in tech; it’s hard. Behaviour and appearance tends to skew towards the male when trying to fit in and be gender neutral (“one of the guys”).

“I believed I could be either smart or pretty, so I chose smart” — Franzi

We get told (in various ways) to suppress our femininity in order to be taken seriously. We get interrupted, constantly. We get our ideas only listened to when repeated by a man, who will often be given credit. We get misidentified as non-techy, the “girlfriend”, or junior. People react to finding out that you’re a developer by saying things like “A female developer, burn the witch!” — I kid you not, that actually happened to me! #ILookLikeAnEngineer.

I have to admit, I tried to be “one of the guys”, through university and my first few jobs in tech (with varying levels of success). Then I realised that being the only woman on the tech team wasn’t a good thing. That I was never actually going to be “one of the guys”. That there was a wider issue. In short, I found feminism (and later on was introduced to the concepts of diversity and inclusion). Of course, in trying to raise awareness, trying to fight back, I was suddenly being difficult. Seen as a troublemaker or taking things too seriously.

I swear I could live a happy life never being told “It was just a joke” again.

Spacekatgal (Brianna Wu) — “9 Ways to Stop Hurting and Start Helping Women in Tech” (Talks at Google) — Sept 2015

It can be exhausting trying to enact change, to be a role model. Part of my depression and anxiety stems from this. You have to learn when to pick your battles. Be kind to yourself.

The important thing is to support and elevate each other. Normalise and celebrate your differences. So called “soft skills” are real skills, and empathy is most definitely an asset.


“The tech world likes stereotypes, particularly the geek stereotype, which is generally cis and male” — Lia Nemeth

What makes a good developer? We don’t really have a standard. So when hiring there is a tendency to pattern match, and you end up with homogeneity. You can list out programming languages, technologies or concepts; but it needs to be much more than that.

There is a disturbing downturn of women in tech (and this doesn’t just affect women, this can be applied to any minority). Think about how your team appears to the rest of the industry. No-one wants to be the only [anything] on a team. No-one wants to be stuck in a position where there’s no clear opportunity for promotion or seniority (based on the current make up of the senior management team). No-one wants to not have any role models to look to. Representation matters. Fostering an environment of inclusion matters.

“I live with the fact of not having a visual language to communicate my profession as a software dev” — Jo Liss

When you see a group of white male programmers, think about how the system that produced this group produces mediocrity. Access to a wider talent pool is needed. The analogy used here (and I paraphrase) was that this is why the German football team is just better, they have access to a wider talent pool because football is important to the country and they can pick the best of the best. Contrasting with the English team who just take anyone that shows up ;)

Don’t pick a team by superficial criteria. Assemble it via a systematic process. Help create a truly competitive industry. Advocate for this. When giving interviews be sure that you are measuring who is actually good at [the thing], rather than stopping at the fact that they are passionate about it.

Don’t listen to your gut. Not when hiring. Not when promoting. Have a clear list of requirements that people have to meet, and stick by it. Gut feelings, feeling “uncomfortable” with promoting people, that’s an indication of unconscious bias. This is bad. It’s important to recognise this. It tends to lead to going with the familiar and comfortable. The old adage of “culture fit”.

Think about what you need your team to do as a whole, make a list of criteria, and then when hiring pick people that meet a selection of these (no-one is ever going to meet all of them). The aim is to create a team of differences. That complement each other, that have different skill sets. That bring a range of lived experiences. Seriously, throw the idea of “culture fit” out of the window.

“What will a diverse tech industry look like?” — Jo Liss

Well I hope it looks more like the attendees of AlterConf :)


I do recognise that I benefit from privilege myself and honestly, the conference just emphasised how much I still have to learn. Even this write-up is coloured by my own experiences.

Just hearing about other people’s experiences (like Lia Nemeth, Qa'id and Ariane) has opened my mind and spun off another thousand or so threads to think about. It was also heartening to know that I’m not the only one struggling, which helps in another way.

There are so many different perspectives out there. Go find some, and learn something new. Get out of your comfort zone.

One final thing. Remember, when someone is telling you about their experiences, one of the most important things you can do is believe them (and obviously listen)!

Jo Carter

Written by

Jo Carter

Developer, Feminist, Gamer, Geek. She/her. Opinions expressed are my own.