A Primer on Showing Empathy in the Tech Industry

How to really be excellent to each other

Almost a year after Donglegate, bad things are happening at GitHub. If you’re a woman in the tech industry, you’ve probably experienced some of the unsavoury aspects of our culture, and a lot of what’s happening probably doesn’t sound particularly surprising. If you follow these sort of things at all, you probably know that these two incidents are only book ends for a year worth of bad tech industry behaviour.

For most of us though, there will be no going out in a blaze of press coverage. Our experiences won’t merit an entry on the Geek Feminism timeline of incidents. We won’t be subjected to high profile, bizarre incidents involving founder’s wives. Our industry has a very deep, systemic cultural problem that goes far beyond Adria Richards and Julie Ann Horvath. What these women experienced are far from isolated incidents. Most commonly though, women in tech are quietly lost to attrition. Most commonly it will be death by a thousand paper cuts.

A part of the difficulty in discussing these issues is that we work in an industry full of problem solvers, but this is is a systemic industry-wide problem with no clear-cut solution. Placing the burden on minorities to speak up every time something happens is an unreasonable and unfair approach. There is no single silver bullet though. If there were a way to make an issue of this scale and depth suddenly go away, it would have been done already.

The answer to most of the issues that we encounter is a matter of education. Most people don’t have malicious intent behind their actions, and don’t understand why they’re hurtful. Today I’m going to talk about how to act with empathy in some common scenarios that women in the tech industry frequently encounter.

An important first step is to understand the common shared experiences of tech workers who fall outside of the white male demographic. For a decent list, Breaking Down Tech Privilege From the Inside by Christian Ternus does a pretty good job. This list should not be considered complete nor exhaustive though. A big aspect that makes these issues difficult to confront is that the problems of the minority are often invisible to people outside of that minority. I can discuss endlessly the issues I’ve faced as a woman in the tech industry, but I can’t speak with any authority on the issues faced by people of other races or sexual orientations, or anyone outside of their mid-twenties.

The best that any of us can do is to act with as much empathy and compassion as possible, to do our best to understand and treat with respect the people who surround us, and to accept when we’re in the wrong. Here’s how we can all start.

How to be good to each other

Be aware of your surroundings

Be conscious of your audience, and your surroundings. Be aware of whether there are people in the room who are excluded from discussion, either by body language (backs turned), or subject matter. Include them in the discussion. Consider why it is that they’re being excluded in the first place. Understand the danger in confirmation bias.

Be inclusive

If others are excluded from discussion because the discussion is inappropriate or uncomfortable, stop the discussion. Their entitlement to feeling comfortable in their workplace is more important than your entitlement to inappropriate jokes. Understand that because you’ve seen someone laugh at or make an inappropriate joke outside of work doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel comfortable making or hearing the same jokes in front of any of your coworkers. Remember that men can also be made uncomfortable by inappropriate topics.

Don’t be exclusive

Question whether aspects of your culture are exclusionary. Be conscious of whether anyone will be uncomfortable by participating. Understand the importance of networking and social interactions with peers, and the negative effects of conducting social events in exclusionary environments. Know that not everyone feels the same about drinking culture. Don’t pressure anyone to keep up drink for drink. Always accept no as an answer.

Be compassionate when bad things happen

Never force anyone to quantify a bad experience. If something bad has happened to someone, never, ever try to make them prove the gravity of the situation in order for you to accept their feelings as valid. Work to understand why doing so is incredibly harmful. If you are in a position of frequently providing support to people who have had an upsetting experience, seek to improve skills such as active listening. Be understanding of how systemic, endless, minor infractions can compound to weigh heavily on a person. A single small incident may seem trivial, but for a person who experiences very many small incidents, they are not so inconsequential.

Appearances don’t matter

Leave appearance out of it. Never tell a woman that she doesn’t look like a programmer. She doesn’t look like a programmer, because collectively we think programmers look somewhere between Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Stallman. There is nothing she can wear or otherwise do to present herself in such a way as to fix this. Don’t compare her appearance to other female programmers. This also goes for race and age.

Make your jokes funny for everyone

Don’t make jokes or examples that rely on stereotypes. Understand why using your wife or mother as a representation for non-technical people is not okay. Find ways to get your point across without marginalizing human beings. Be as creative and eloquent in your communications as you aspire to be in your code.

Be a true hero, not a white knight

Be cognizant of your biases and assumptions when explaining concepts to other people, especially if offering unsolicited help. If you’re about to explain an extremely basic concept to someone, especially someone who falls outside of the typical image of a software developer, question whether you have good reason to believe they require help, and if your assistance will be welcome. Ask yourself whether you would assume the same knowledge gap if they fell within the stereotype. Ask if they would like help rather than explaining the subject immediately. This also applies to geek pop culture topics.

Don’t make assumptions

Ask questions, don’t make assumptions. If you think someone has approached a problem incorrectly, ask how they arrived at their conclusion rather than stating that their solution is wrong. Rather than telling them that they’ve done something incorrectly, understand how they got there. It’s possible that they’ve thought the problem through at a deeper level than you have, and ruled out the solution you have in mind. Even if this is not the case, approaching the situation with the mindset of correcting them will be less well-received than if you go in with the mindset of truly helping them. Understand the distinction between the two. Be aware of when you are making an assumption in all areas of life.

Trash talk is BM

Don’t trash talk people’s code, especially behind their back. If you see issues with a piece of code, see the above point. Ask questions to understand their approach. Help to brainstorm if a better solution is possible. Never slander your peers, especially if they are a minority. Understand how offhand comments can reinforce negative assumptions. If you hear someone doing this, speak up.

Duplex, not simplex

Avoid one-directional communication, in either direction. Be aware of whether you’re giving others the opportunity to speak. Listen with an open mind when others are offering ideas. Constantly reassess your opinions and assumptions based on what you hear. Acknowledge others when they communicate to you digitally. Ensure that when people communicate with you via non face-to-face means, they don’t feel as if their communications are going ignored or unseen.

Strong opinions, weakly held

Have strong opinions, weakly held. Always be willing to take new information into consideration. Be aware of whether any aspects of your opinions are based on assumptions. Seek to find out whether your assumptions are correct, especially before taking any action based on these opinions. Seek contrary voices to your opinions. Again, always be wary of confirmation bias.

Power dynamics

Be aware of power dynamics, and your position within them. Understand how others may feel discomfort in challenging you. Work to understand these dynamics, and show others that they will not suffer for offering differing ideas or opinions from yours. Be aware if there is an absence of voices that aren’t the same as yours. Question why that is, and do something to change it.

Have empathy

Lastly, if someone confides in you about an issue that they’ve faced, be empathetic. Understand that they aren’t looking to have the bad behaviour explained to them. It doesn’t help to hear over and over again that the perpetrator likely didn’t mean to be harmful. Ask what you can do to help. Maybe the only thing that you can do is to be there to listen.

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the necessity of codes of conduct at technical conferences. Codes of conduct are extremely important for a great number of reasons. One of the questions that often comes up though, is why we can’t simply be good to each other. A part of the reason why that doesn’t work is because “being good” does not constitute the same thing to everyone. It’s easy to be blind to the feelings of the people around you, and be less than good without meaning it. Fortunately, these mistakes are easy to address. Take these points to heart but don’t interpret it as the ultimate comprehensive guide on how to be kind. Never stop learning about the needs and experiences of people different from yourself; Put others before yourself; lead by example; and finally, always act with empathy.