Building Inclusive Communities

Challenging the status quo through allyship

⚠️ Trigger warning: this article includes mentions of harassment and depiction or discussion of discriminatory attitudes or actions. If at any point you feel uncomfortable with the content, please feel free to stop reading and take care of yourself ❤️

This is a transcript for a talk given at Nordic.js.

I remember the day my parents bought the first stationary PC machine quite profoundly. I can still recall the sounds, beeps and bops of a dial up modem connecting me to this magical, unlimited platform we call the Internet.

I found a place where I belong, amongst countless other individuals constantly expressing themselves, learning, creating and sharing. I was hooked on its wonders.

Today feels different.

The Internet is growing exponentially, and so are the platforms on which we choose to gather. Unfortunately, compared to rapidly moving technology, the humanity is progressing slowly.

The interests of so-called tech leaders are often far different from what we need as a community. Their motivation is commercial. Profit curve rather than prosperity and health of the community defines success.

The platform we were once so excited about is dehumanising and urging us to fit into stereotypical and often oppressive societal norms.

We’re disconnected, detached and lonely. We, willingly or not, avoid vulnerability and bringing our true, whole selves to the table. More often than not it’s easy to feel like there’s no room for us at all. We don’t belong. I don’t belong.

Humans always felt an inherent need to gather and coexist in tribes — it’s instinctual. From families, friendships to social connections at a workplace or schooling. Prehistorical humans formed small groups to increase their chances of survival. Nowadays belongingness is a very prominent, basic need that has to be fulfilled for many reasons other than survival. Group membership correlates to boosting self-esteem, strengthening identity and ensures moral support. The desire to maintain social bonds is crucial for our well-being. Being in a community makes us feel good.

Peter Block, an expert in the areas of civic engagement and community building, describes the underlying reason for the lack of belonging:

Our communities are separated into silos; they’re a collection of institutions and programs operating near one another but not overlapping or touching. This is important to understand because this dividedness that makes it so difficult to create a more positive or alternative future — especially in a culture that’s much more interested in individuality and independence than interdependence. The work is to overcome this fragmentation.
— Peter Block

If belonging has such a profound impact on our lives why are we so divided? One of the reasons lies in misunderstanding what being in a community means. Communities are much more than commonality and shared interests. By definition, communities should be platforms for belonging for all of us. We are in a community when we feel comfortable expressing ourselves but also are aware of our co-ownership and responsibilities to the group. There’s accountability for nurturing the community and fostering the same feelings of safety amongst others.

It quickly becomes evident that prerequisites to intentional, meaningful gatherings are inclusion and diversity. And that’s exactly what we’re lacking.

Diversity and inclusion are two different concepts. Unfortunately, they are so often lumped together that they’re assumed to have the same meaning.

Diversity encompasses complex differences and similarities between people such as gender, race, age, ability, socioeconomic status, religion and many more aspects. It means understanding that each individual is unique and recognising the differences. It allows for the exploration of differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. But diversity doesn’t give desired results without inclusion.

Inclusion equates to respecting and appreciating everyone’s diversity. It encourages and ensures participation of underrepresented groups. Inclusion is a sense of belonging that engages all individuals and enables them to function at full capacity.

Equity requires a set of informed policies and practices, intentionally designed to promote opportunity and rectify disparities, as well as informed people positioned to implement them effectively. It guarantees equal opportunity no matter the differences and actively combating what’s dividing us — exclusion.

Exclusion takes the form of discrimination that denies full access to rights, opportunities and resources that are normally accessible to others has no place in communities and our society. Exclusion breeds social detachment, and we cannot possibly build a better future without active commitment. It’d be impossible to progress as a community if even the smallest amount of us feels excluded. This is the dividedness mentioned by Peter Block we have to overcome together.

Is our industry diverse and inclusive? Let me paint a picture of the tech industry today.

The State of the Tech Industry

Women take up between 40% to 60% of global workforce. In our industry, 20% of engineering roles are taken by women at best. Only 6% of Fortune 500 chief executives are women. 98% of VCs are white or Asian males. These statistics get even more horrifying for people of colour. To make matters worse, women experience a 21–29% pay gap, depending on their role.

We are outnumbered and underpaid.

Unfortunately, surviving in tech is much more than dealing with loneliness and the lack of role models. 60% of women reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances. A lot of these stories never see the light of the day, but the ones we have seen painted a mortifying image of our industry and culture. Harassed by co-workers, supervisors, blackmailed by prominent venture capitalists women and other marginalised groups often suffer in silence and slowly retreat from the world of technology to hopefully find peace elsewhere (by necessity, not choice). A few courageous individuals stick around (Ellen Pao, Susan Fowler and many others), speak up putting their careers and mental health at a huge risk.

78% of tech employees reported experiencing some form of unfair treatment. 30% of women of colour were passed over for a promotion, which is twice as much as in other industries than tech. Women rarely advance into senior roles. Only 8% of tech workers say they’ve never experienced gender bias. The staff turnover costs are creeping at $16 billion.

The world of Open Source is even more homogenous — Github’s Open Source Survey reports staggering 95% male contributors. The low percentage of women participating in Open Source is more likely to experience unwelcoming behaviours such as inappropriate content, stereotyping or again, unwanted sexual advances.

Underrepresented groups the Open Source community is missing are by far more invested in creating a welcoming platform and codifying behavioural expectations through Code of Conduct. Unfortunately, they self-select themselves out or never attempt entering a male-dominated, unhealthily competitive world of Open Source.

People are turning a blind eye to systematic issues we’re facing.

40% of men are fed up with hearing about problems in the tech community. There’s a vast difference in venture capitalists noticing harassment (80% female capitalists encountered harassment versus 28% male).

Unfortunately, it’s getting worse. Exclusionary tendencies are spreading. The tech industry has become a safe harbour for only one type of demographic and it’s white, cis men. Our communities are marketing fear. What can we do about it?

How can we advance our communities?

The accountability for the future starts with every one of us. Our industry has no culture stewards. The legislation only reaches so far, most commonly covering workplace environment and not even in all cases.

We glorify our leaders, trusting they’re the only agents of change. This deeply patriarchal agenda limits our capacity for improvement. Members of marginalised groups are organising to fight inequality that hurts them so much, but it would be irrational to expect them to carry this burden on their own — and they shouldn’t. Someone has to take up the gauntlet.

That someone is you and me.

There are no prerequisites. No reach or exposure necessary. Change begins here. The community won’t improve without a continuous commitment of all of its members. No more silent bystanders. No more looking away.

Before I dig deeper into practical advice on how to individually contribute to better, more inclusive communities I’d like to take a few moments to explain the overarching concept that ties it all together — allyship.

Being an ally is an ongoing process of unlearning and re-evaluating. As Mia McKenzie puts it: a way of living life without reinforcing oppressive behaviours we’re claiming to be against.

Allyship is a journey, not an identity. It’s not self-defined but recognised by whoever we choose to ally ourselves with. It’s genuine interest in challenging oppressive status quo. So, how can be allies?

Step one: Educate

We’re all born and raised with our own set of biases, beliefs and stereotypes. To see past them, we need to commit to an ongoing act of introspection, reflection and learning. It’s a laborious and demanding process. You will find yourself challenged and uncomfortable, but the more intense these feelings are, the more likely it is you’re on the right track.

It’s crucial to understand the repercussions and even more so, the causes of lack of inclusion and diversity in our industry. Ignorance is part of the oppression. Don’t expect members of underrepresented groups to coach you. Their lives are a constant struggle to resist the abuse. It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves on intersectional feminism, and there are plenty of materials available to aid that goal.

Start with online resources such as now retired Model View Culture, Geek Feminism Wiki, Everyday Feminism, Guide to Allyship or Project Include. Follow up with excellent books like “Men Explain Things to Me” (Rebecca Solnit), “Unspeakable Things” (Laurie Penny), “We Should All Be Feminists” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), “Bad Feminist” (Roxane Gay) or “Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People” (Anne Bishop) (it’s just a few examples from many). Last but not least, consider attending FrameShift’s Consulting Ally Workshop, LGBTQI and unconscious bias training. If you can’t afford it, try convincing your employer to sponsor internal training. Lend this newly found knowledge to others who might need it.

Step two: Listen

While reading might give us a solid knowledge base, it cannot possibly replace hearing real life stories of underrepresented groups. As Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous puts it: “shut up and listen”.

Listening lies at the core of allyship — it requires a conscious effort to step out of the habit of constantly talking and taking the time to hear the stories carefully. It demands to empathise with them. To accept how challenging or confronting they might be to our own bias and prejudice. It necessitates trusting their truthfulness (but not taking all of them as gospel). Listening is avoiding the spotlight.

The more diverse accounts we’re exposed to the more we understand with whom we’re allying ourselves. We begin to grasp their experiences and obstacles they’re facing. Seeking out the stories is vital (and there are many out there). Sharing them might be a tremendously exhausting process, so make sure you respect the individuals and create a safe space to do so.

Step three: Understand privilege

Privilege is a set of unearned benefits that come with identity traits, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, class or ability, to name a few examples. It’s unavoidable and omnipresent. Privilege is the opposite of oppression, but the two can coexist (which means it’s entirely possible to be a member of an underrepresented group and still experience privilege in some areas). It symbolises power over the oppressed. Being privileged doesn’t imply not experiencing hardship in your life but highlights the facts that in some ways it was easier and more advantageous to us versus others.

It’s our responsibility to recognise and identify the privilege we have. Keep a list if it’s easier than remembering it. Make it transparent. Act on it. Don’t retreat into privilege’s safety net when aiming to be an ally as underrepresented groups don’t have that luxury.

Step four: Combat unconscious bias

Unconscious or implicit biases are shortcuts our brains take in processing tremendous amount of information they receive. It happens outside of our control and awareness. We’re all guilty of bias. It can prevent us from successfully making the most objective decisions and the most negative effect in the workplace and education sector where it limits people’s potential and career prospects. Racial and gender bias is widespread. We implicitly prefer men in positions of authority or choose people similar to ourselves over others (affinity bias).

It’s entirely possible to combat this stereotyping. Make your bias conscious: question your first impressions. Try to justify your decisions or make them collectively, as it’s easier to keep each other in check. Empower everyone to call out on unconscious bias.

Step five: Organise

Each year, thousands of tech-oriented events will be run. From casual meet ups, through workshops to full blown conferences with six-digit budgets. Involvement in an event of any size or type comes with a responsibility to not only ensure a safe and inclusive platform for attendees, speakers and staff but also calls for increased commitment to diversity. It’s our responsibility as organisers to set the tone and expectations for the industry as a whole.

This commitment spans even further — to Open Source projects or any form or more formal gathering. An enforceable Code of Conduct outlining unacceptable behaviour has to become a standard. Accessibility and diversity statements are a must to foster inclusion of marginalised groups. Speaker and panellist lineups have to be diverse, going further than just gender.

We need to help facilitate events for marginalised people in tech.

Step six: Donate and give

Organisations focusing on fostering diversity and inclusion in our industry are often understaffed and underfunded. Frequently these efforts start as side projects but manage to have a tremendous, positive impact on underrepresented groups and the community as a whole.

Donate funds to Women Who Code, Girl Develop It, Black Girls Code or seek equivalents local to wherever you might be. Financially support individuals in diversity and inclusion space through Patreon or whatever crowd-funding platform they might be using. Buy conference diversity tickets to enable more diverse audiences. If it’s not feasible, consider giving back in the form of mentorship in one-on-one or workshop format. Convince your employers to allocate funds towards these initiatives too.

Step seven: Diversify and amplify

As members of the tech industry, we’re incredibly connected, especially through social media. Unfortunately, it’s easier to end up with a homogenous audience than you think. While it’s harder to diversify followers, it’s entirely up to us to decide which voices we choose to amplify. Often the byproduct of that process is diversifying the audience as well.

It’s crucial to choose to amplify the voices of those without privilege. Increase the chances of their work and stories being seen by many. Stop retweeting mostly men. Consciously follow more people with opinions and backgrounds different than yours. Mindfully create a platform for them to thrive and safely share. It’s up to you to decide what to amplify.

Step eight: Take responsibility

No matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes. Write off inappropriate behaviour as a joke. Act defensively. Lash out when called out on our wrongdoing. It’s in human nature to do so. Learning how to deal with mistakes is one of the foundations of allyship.

As Jamie Utt puts it: “allies listen, apologise, act accountably, and act differently going forward”. It’s necessary to recognise and accept we’ve made a mistake. Avoid the temptation of being dismissive and aggressive. Apologise sincerely and take proactive steps to prevent the same slips from happening in the future. Don’t erase the traces and evade responsibility. The internet is great at remembering things in perpetuity. We need to own up to our mistakes.

These are just a few starting points that any of you can act on today to create better, inclusive communities. We need to educate ourselves, listen, fight against privilege and unconscious bias, diversify, practice empathy and more importantly — show up every day.

The technological choices we’re making today, the software we’re creating won’t matter in a span of a few short years. Our code will become obsolete and the only thing to prevail is the impact we had on other people.

Software isn’t a panacea to most important issues humanity is facing, no matter what the industry self-proclaimed leaders want us to believe.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ’What are you doing for others?
— Martin Luther King

People are the utmost important ingredient of our communities and we cannot succeed at building a better future while perpetuating abusive exclusion. I urge you to foster a better platform for us to thrive on. People first.

Will you join?