#iamdoingprogramming made me feel more alienated from the tech community
The #iamdoingprogramming trend on Twitter was started in response to the blatant misogyny displayed in an article that purported that women with computer science degrees failed to stick with or do well in programming jobs. At first, I thought it was funny. I even joined in on the shenanigans. But as I looked at more pictures and tweets, I started to feel out of place. I didn’t get half of the puns & jokes and the other half made me groan more often than chuckle. I couldn’t see myself in this. A hash tag that was started to combat sexism ended up making me feel alienated because once again, I couldn’t relate to my peers in the industry, men or women.
In the same article, there were also a few derogatory comments about outsourcing and Indian programmers. Since the sexist comments made up the majority of the comments and was the focus of the blog post, one could argue that those other comments got lost in the mix. On the other hand, I was able to see the comments pretty easily, even just skimming through it.
As far as I know, there was no outrage over people attacking the intelligence of Indian programmers. The attention around women in tech is generally a lot louder than ethnic diversity in tech so this felt like another example of biased support. Here’s one of the “gems”:
The outsourcing trend of the 90's is actually reversing. It turns out that inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent have an average IQ of 85, their degree-granting universities are a clown circus, and their conformist culture hurts innovation. In short, they’re bad programmers, and they’re not worth the 1/10th white person salary that they’re paid. — source
There were times over the years when I thought about leaving the industry and doing something else. Especially when I met other people of color or women in the field that seemed to blend in so seamlessly. I thought that maybe it was just me and I wasn’t suited for this. But I couldn’t think of anything else to do because I really enjoyed being a developer.
For many people, work is just a way to pay the bills. I basically resigned to the fact that this was just the way it was and as long I enjoyed doing the work, I was one of the lucky ones.
I grew up in a mostly White community so I’m not new to feeling “othered” for not being White or being what people expected Asian to be. I was often accused of acting “too White.” When I started gravitating towards rap music and hip-hop culture, then I was accused of acting “too Black.” Either way, I was never what anybody expected me to be.
Over the years, I realized I couldn’t make myself fit into a neat little box for someone else. But I became a master at code-switching anyway. I just wanted to get by, undetected. Sometimes it’s easier to try to blend in rather than constantly explaining why you’re not what people expect you to be.
Moving to Toronto in 2001 to attend university was a big change for me because being in such a diverse city, it was much easier to find people I could truly relate to. I had come to expect being the odd one out so it was really nice to feel like I finally belonged somewhere.
I completed a degree in Psychology & Communications and about a year after, I received a certificate in Web Design in a 14 week college program. Because I didn’t pursue a Computer Science degree and my small class was fairly mixed, I wasn’t exposed to the alienation many people from underrepresented groups have felt in a more traditional technical path. In fact, I never even thought about what the culture of tech would be like before I started working. I just knew that I really liked making websites!
When I started working as a web developer, I began to notice that the industry was different from what I had become so accustomed to in Toronto. The diversity was often missing from my work environment and from the tech community in general, more or less. It was a culture shock for me, even though I was still in the same city! It was weird to walk around and see all kinds of different people and then go into a tech space and suddenly everyone felt the same. I slowly reverted back to just trying to blend in again. To avoid those conversations. To avoid being seen as different. And honestly, some days I felt like I was on permanent code-switch and it was tiring, to feel like I had to leave parts of myself at home.
And this isn’t just in Toronto. Looking at conference speaker lineups and tech news, there is an overwhelming number of White faces. And when there is “diversity” its usually by including White woman and maybe one or two Asians.
In addition to not being White or male, I also don’t see myself in the nerd/hipster/brogrammer/ninja/rock star developer culture either. This is one of the reasons why I don’t participate in a lot of extra curricular activities like conferences and meet-ups. The nerd humor isn’t funny to me; the conversations are alienating. Why spend my off-work hours feeling out of place too?
I eventually got into teaching and really enjoyed being able to help people get excited about coding. I found that it helped me find a place in the tech world because I could show my passion and engage with others in a way that felt natural to me. Also, it felt good to show students a different representation of the industry, at the beginning of their experience.
Though teaching helped me feel more like I was a “real” developer and had something to offer, it didn’t really make me feel any more connected to the existing tech culture or the work environments that I was currently in.
When the hip-hop podcast, The Combat Jack Show, decided to go outside of their usual guest line-up and interview tech entrepreneur, Anil Dash, it was interesting how different the conversation was when discussed in a context outside of the usual tech spaces. I’d never heard anyone in tech talking so candidly about privilege and race relations in the field and in Silicon Valley. It was especially nice to hear about it from someone who is well-known and influential in the industry. Here was someone I could finally relate to. It helped me feel like I maybe I did belong here. And I could do it, my way.
It was refreshing.
As I was connecting with more people through teaching, I started to talk more openly to students and colleagues about the times I felt out of place. The culture itself did not feel suited for me. Others started telling me they too felt similar.
Through these interactions, I was encouraged to start talking about this subject more publicly so that other people could see that there was a place for them too and to speak for people who are newer to this industry and not yet comfortable in speaking out.
Diversity isn’t just about numbers
Google recently released their diversity stats which showed that while there were 30% women & 30% Asians in the organization overall, in tech-related roles, it dropped down to 17% for women and went up to 34% for Asians. In leadership roles, those numbers were 21% women and 23% Asians. All other non-white groups only made up 4% or less in all areas (tech, non-tech and leadership).
These numbers feel fairly representative of my own personal working experiences as well. Being an Asian female, these numbers actually skew in my favor, in comparison to other underrepresented groups. So, in theory, I shouldn’t feel too out of place. But often, I still do because the numbers are only one part of the equation for creating a work environment that includes different types of people.
There’s still a culture at large that dominates the industry that not every one (like myself) can or even wants to fit into.
Different marginalized groups experience different levels of discrimination
I’m not shocked that of all the different underrepresented groups, women and Asians are represented in much higher numbers than any other group. Asians have historically been seen as the “model minority” and White women still hold more privilege than a Black men in many tech spaces. It’s not a competition of who has it worse but allowing members from a few select minority groups does not make for true diversity. Especially if there is a bias toward which few are allowed in because they are perceived as being a better “cultural fit” and using that as a guise for including those that already fit into the existing culture or are least likely to disrupt the status quo.
In the eight years that I’ve been in the tech industry, I’ve worked with one Black person that was in a tech role and a handful in non-tech roles (project managers) and that’s a damn shame. Especially in a city that prides itself for being multicultural, a city where approximately half of the population identifies as non-white.
Though getting along with your co-workers is important, being able to work with people is not the same as being friends. Cultural fit doesn’t mean that you have to look or act the same or have the same non-work related interests to be able to work together well.
It’s hard to speak up and it’s hard to talk about race
Though I’ve experienced some “mansplaining” and other types of gender discrimination, I’ve been personally affected by the nuances of subtle racist behaviours, micro-aggressions, coded language and ignorant comments much more often. Though these types of behaviours aren’t exclusive to tech spaces, this industry is dominated by one group. The things I’ve heard being uttered in the workplace would probably not be said if there wasn’t such a skewed representation.
I find it hard to speak up. When it feels like I’m the only one in the group that’s offended, I don’t want to be further marginalized by going against the grain. It’s especially hard if the offending person is in a leadership or management position.
Talking about race is hard too. Especially if the offending person is another person of color or someone who considers themselves non-racist. I’ve heard the “n-word” and “chink” uttered at work. These comments and interactions make me feel invisible. Like my presence doesn’t even warrant the courtesy of erring on the side of caution of assuming I (or others) wouldn’t want to hear those words or think it’s okay to say these things.
I’ve also come to expect that people will treat me different after meeting my husband. Co-workers have reacted in a range of ways from asking what it’s like to “date a Black guy,” to saying things like “I knew it!” and to sharing their experiences of dating or being friends with Black people. As if there’s an exclusive “I know Black people” club.
When these types of incidents happen in the workplace, I’m usually at a loss as to how to respond. I don’t want to pop off because I have to continue to work there and at the moment, I’m usually surprised, upset or uncomfortable so I can’t formulate a diplomatic response. I usually just try to find a way to end or leave the conversation. Not exactly the best way to deal with it but I’m working on it.
I’d vent to friends and they would share their own stories. We’d have a good laugh and be thankful that we at least had each other as support systems outside of work. Again, I figured this was just the way the world was and it wasn’t my responsibility to turn my personal life into some kind of a teachable moment.
But then I realized that as long as it continued to bother me, and as long as I wanted to be in this community, complaining about it to my husband and friends who were outside of this bubble was not going to make a difference. I should at least try to do or say something about it. These types of interactions will continue to happen if we don’t say anything and if there is no one there that is visible enough for the offending person to be reminded that there are other people in the room that do not share this same way of thinking.
We are all, at some point, going to think things, feel things and say things that may be ignorant or offensive. It’s going to happen. But it’s more important to be conscious of it and correct yourself than to deny that it happens, try to explain it away or tell the person that it’s all just in their head.
We need to share this responsibility. Speak up when you’re offended and if you are the offender, be conscious of your actions, be open to hearing what others have to say and check yourself.
Diversity doesn’t mean pushing those that are already there out of the group. Or making shallow efforts that don’t actually change anything. It simply means making space for different kinds of people, different opinions and opening up the culture instead of spotlighting and finding the same kind of person over and over again. It’s about showing people that there are different ways to be successful in this industry.
Solving the issue of diversity in tech is no easy task and will probably never be truly solved but we need to acknowledge that it does exist and it’s a problem for everyone. We also need to recognize how our own behaviors can contribute to the prevailing culture and be honest with ourselves and consciously make the effort to make space for not only new members to this community but for the ones that are already here.
At the end of the day, we’re all here for the same reason.
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