Driving Diversity Change In a “Problematic” World
Charity Majors, a woman I follow on twitter and have a ton of respect for, got a lot of flack for this blog post. She framed it ‘problematic advice,’ and I sympathize with that. Despite being in the tech industry for a long time, I’ve also often avoided saying too much publicly on the topic of diversity because of my hesitancy to be ‘problematic.’ Partly is because: there’s just no clear answers, and I have no desire to derail the progress that others do. It’s hard to write anything nuanced on the internet.
I’ve had my take on Charity’s post sitting here for a while — and I hope it helps frame what she’s said (which frankly, has worked for me) in a lens that could help others.
ON STAYING TECHNICAL
It should not be required that a woman has to be ‘technically excellent’ in order to be able to have a rewarding career in the technical industry.
The reality is that there are plenty of men who float by as mediocre engineers, and that’s ok, because we have a variety of problems to solve and not every one needs a brain trust. But there’s a thing, and it’s a real thing — as soon as a woman is anything but amazing, a conclusion is made of her entire gender.
Is this fair? No. The END STATE we are all working toward is a world where a woman can be simply an average programmer and she isn’t judged as representative of her entire gender.
Is being technically excellent *one of many* viable strategies to build influence and power to make an impact? Absolutely. The more you grow within your career, the more respect you demand, the bigger your title, the more leverage you have over yourself (and others).
But nuance is important. This does not negate the value of whistle blowers, educators, and other ways people have driven social change.
ON TOUGHENING UP
This was probably the most controversial advice Charity gave. The nuance here is to choose when to pick your battles and when to focus on building power and influence.
Let’s be honest here — many instances of sexism are not conscious. There are mild, unintended offenses— things born of ignorance, things that could be corrected with educating a coworker with a quick comment — and there are flagrant, horrific abuses (and everything in between). If you consistently become outraged at the former you sacrifice social capital and impact when you raise your voice for the latter. You are perceived as the ‘boy who cries wolf.’
Is this at all fair? Is it fair to have to consider the feelings of those who are causing offense and measure our outrage accordingly to when it’s most effective? That we have to educate over and over again? Is this the world we should live in? Where women have to endure death by a thousand cuts, no matter how small they are?
Absolutely not. This is not the end state we want to be in, and one of the ugly sacrifices some of us endure as we drive toward amassing influence for long term change. Building a store of influence and a credible voice, and using that social capital in targeted ways is a real strategy to maximize your leverage.
But don’t be disillusioned: no matter how high you rise and how accomplished you are, you are always going to run into roadblocks (sexism or otherwise) you will have to navigate. You’re gonna get angry, and upset. The only thing you can control is how you react to these crises; how you manage and rise above them.
Which brings me to…
QUIT YOUR JOB, NOT THE TECH INDUSTRY
The nuance here is what makes this advice ‘problematic.’ In no way would any one I know condone tolerating a hostile or outright abusive environment, or even one you continue to bang our head around to achieve basic career growth and recognition.
Finding the right environment & not giving up altogether takes courage and work. Educating others is even harder. Knowing when to move on vs. try to impact change in your local environment? Really fucking hard. This is often *unpaid*, *unrecognized* work. The desire to invest that is a personal choice and it comes back to nuance and grey areas. The right choice for me isn’t the right answer for everyone.
And in fact, if you get through enough bullshit, you get to…
USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD
As technical leader who has delivered multiple successful products, I can continue to make hiring diversely one of my priorities, and ensure that I’m hiring other leaders that value that as well. As a successful entrepreneur, I can help other women in startups with the skills and hard lessons I’ve learned. As a female in cyber security, I can inspire other women succeed in a male-dominated security industry and be a voice for change. I can support organizations that are doing good work with money.
But I could not have gotten to that state if I quit tech when it was hard.
Personally, I believe the industry is MUCH BETTER if women stay. This is the most passive thing you can do to support diversity. Just the *presence* of other women/POC/etc makes it easier for others to envision themselves successful in that career. I admire those of us out there that not just persevere, but excel, in spite of the things thrown their way, because that shit matters.
Don’t confuse the desired end state with reality
When I read Charity’s blog, I saw her advice as framed within a problematic system — a system that is, like a lot of life, inherently unfair.
I think it’s important to frame any advice you see within that lens.
If you’ve ever had to plan a long project — getting to the end state can seem so difficult and impossible. The work that takes to get there is painful and fraught with peril and compromises. We think the path to success looks like a nice, neat flowchart. We think change comes from the top down, or the bottom up, when in reality it’s a bunch of arrows coming from a variety of crazy directions, with missteps and everything in-between.
The compromises we make now are not necessarily things we’d tolerate in our desired end state.
It’s hard to work within an unfair system and it’s tougher to maintain morale. The solutions are not easy or clear. The benefits may not be realized for you, or maybe not even within your generation. It’s easy to throw your hands up and declare it completely f’d up and move on.
This advice, and any, is going to be problematic.
Doing your part to drive a massive change — in whatever way is right for you — brings us closer to that desired end state. Which I think, for most of us, is a world where diversity isn’t even a thing we discuss, it isn’t a thing we think about, it’s just there, and we are all free to excel in tech regardless of gender, skin color, or background.