How Do I Ally?: Being an Ally to Women In Technology

What does it mean to be an ally to women in technology? Am I an ally if I believe that men and women should be treated equally? Am I an ally if I consider myself a feminist? Am I an ally simply because I say that I am?

We hear the word “ally” all the time, and yet it’s not always clear what being one entails. Being an ally to women in technology is an active position. We cannot be allies without practicing allyship any more than we can be engineers simply by appreciating a beautiful line of code. Being an ally requires work, introspection, and a serious look at how we think and act. In this blog post I will discuss three concrete ways to be an ally to women in technology.

I am focusing on women in technology for the sake of simplicity, but recognize that these techniques are not unique to just women and are not unique to just tech. As such, many of the sources I cite are about how to be an ally to people of color, or people who fall under the LGBTQ umbrella. So when reading this post, please click on the articles and videos that I link to, and also be thinking about how these techniques can be extended beyond just women in technology.

So here are three things to get you started on your path to being an ally for women in tech:

Be Conscious Of Your Subconscious

Everyone is biased.

Say it with me: I am biased.

Being biased does not make us bad people. In fact, evolutionarily, there was a good reason for us to be biased. Biases are shortcuts in our brain that allow us to make snap decisions about people and things without wasting too much time and energy figuring it out. If primitive humans saw a big, furry creature with fangs that was roaring at them, and instead of running they sat around wondering if their fear was lion-ist, odds are humans would have died out long before I had time to write this article.

But having an evolutionary reason for bias does not mean that we should accept the negative ways it manifests in our culture any more than we should eat McDonald’s for every meal simply because we have an evolutionary predilection for sugar and fat.

So the first thing it takes to be a good ally is to become aware of your biases. This may seem very simple and straightforward, but bias consciousness is a long-term project. I think about bias on a regular basis, and yet sometimes I still refer to my Uber driver as “he” before I ever see their face. But once we make the commitment to bias awareness we start to see how bias plays a role in our decision-making. Only then can we affect change. For examples of how bias affects our reflexes and associations, I encourage you to take the Harvard Bias Test.

Be Conscious of Your Privilege

Everyone has privilege.

Say it with me: I have privilege.

Was that harder to say than “I am biased”?

When you hear the word “privilege” you may think of a “life of privilege.” You might picture being fed caviar out of silver spoons while sitting on downy sofas in The Hamptons.

That’s one definition of privilege but it is not how we are using it in this context.

Privilege means “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

The emphasis here is “only to a particular…group of people.” Notice that this doesn’t specify which group of people. It doesn’t assume race or gender or social status, and that’s because there are different privileges for different groups of people.

As a white person, I have the privilege of walking into a convenience store without being tailed. I also have this privilege because I’m female. I’m young. I’m small. On the other hand, as a woman I lack the privilege of people automatically assuming I have authority. I lack the privilege of “looking” strong. Smart. Fast. Like an engineer.

In other words, I have some privileges and not others. Everyone does. Take a moment to think of a place where you have privilege and a place where you lack privilege.

So the second thing it takes to be a good ally is to be aware of your privilege. Just like with bias, this may seem very small, but having a privilege is like wearing blinders. We don’t always notice what happens outside of our immediate experience. A good ally will make efforts to exercise the muscles that identify where their privilege comes into play in their work life. In addition, a good ally will listen to and empathize with the stories from people who lack their privileges.

Use Your Privilege to Compensate for Your Subconscious

Once an ally has committed to identifying bias and privilege in themselves and others, they can use that privilege to combat bias when they see it.

This is a huge topic, so we’re going to break this down into three examples. For each we will identify the bias at play and the privilege that allies can use to help in the situation:

Situation 1

In a chat room, a man posts with an engineering question and a woman posts with an answer. The man ignores the woman’s response in the thread. Then a second man comments with the same answer as the woman, and this time, he is acknowledged.

The bias at play here is that women are perceived as less knowledgeable than their male counterparts. They are often ignored or overlooked when they have an answer to a problem. They are interrupted more, and heard less. This means that men have the privilege of being perceived as more knowledgeable, of speaking without being interrupted, and of being trusted when speaking.

Being a good ally in this situation means using the privilege of being perceived as knowledgeable to help the women who are seen as less knowledgeable. To do this, we use a practice called amplification. This Hillary Clinton-approved technique involves a male ally repeating what a woman said and then giving her credit for it. In this case, “Laura said to try ‘git rebase -i master’. Give that a try and let her know how it works.”

Or, better, yet: “I think Laura had the answer. Laura, can you repeat what you said?”

A male ally will use his privilege to amplify what the woman said by repeating it, but doesn’t steal the credit for it as if it were his own idea.

Situation 2

In an all hands, a male leader stands up in front of an org and thanks all the “android guys” for pushing the product towards release. A woman feels hurt by this and after the meeting talks to him about how she felt left out of the term “android guys”. He apologizes that she was hurt but says that he thinks she’s being too sensitive, and that he uses “guys” as a gender-neutral term.

The bias at play here is that a woman calling out a sexist comment, even a minor one (especially a minor one!) is seen as not being a team player. They are seen as being too sensitive and not assuming good intentions in their coworkers. As a result, in this case, the woman’s feelings being hurt were undermined by the fact that the leader hadn’t meant to hurt her.

In this case, a good ally might recognize that it is a privilege to be able to call out a sexist comment or turn of phrase without it reflecting negatively on their gender. A male ally pointing out a sexist turn of phrase would be seen as “objective” since calling out a sexist comment towards women doesn’t serve themselves.

In addition, men tend to be applauded for their achievements while women are docked for their mistakes. If the woman’s reaction to this comment is seen as a mistake, then this could negatively impact her career. On the other hand, even if a male ally received the same reaction from the leader as the woman, it would be less likely to count against them.

So, a male ally could have used his privilege to call out this behavior instead of leaving it for the woman to do. For a good example of how to use privilege to call out offensive behavior, check out this video

Situation 3

During performance review season, a handful of women up for promotion are all considered “too green” to be promoted.

The unconscious bias at play here is that women are perceived as less qualified than their male counterparts. In addition, male leaders tend to nominate for promotion people that remind them of themselves (other men) as opposed to who is the most qualified. This problem is self-perpetuating, because without more women on the upper levels, there are fewer people who actively seek out newer women to mentor. And this leads to women being promoted less often than men.

A male ally, especially one that is already in a position of power, might use his privilege of being trusted and listened to in order to promote strong women in the workforce. Seek out women to mentor, nominate women for promotions and other honors. Put women on big projects so they can prove themselves, and don’t forget to proselytize their accomplishments to raise awareness in the office. And, if you hear people using biased language to not promote someone, ask for specifics. Educate yourself on the woman’s performance that cycle and be prepared to offer counterpoints. For example: “How can Laura be too green when we promoted Steve and she’s been here longer than he has?”

Conclusion

Being an ally isn’t always easy. It requires us to be constantly listening, learning, and looking out for oppression as we see it. Not only that, but it requires us to act when we see something that feels off. And every situation is different, so we must always be asking ourselves how to act. We want to avoid knee-jerk responses in favor of a long-term strategy, and this is hard. This takes energy. This is a big ask.

But let’s not forget that this is a two-way street. Everyone has some privileges and lacks others. If men in technology act as allies to women in technology, then they are not only raising awareness for the problems women face in technology, but people of color as well. It raises awareness for agism, homophobia, even height and age discrimination. If we think of an ally as an active instead of a passive position, privilege no longer has to be something that we’re ashamed of. Allyship can turn our privileges from embarrassments into tools that we use to improve the state of our relationships, our companies, and our world.

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