The right-handed world of technology

Why it’s right that we focus our efforts when trying to build a more diverse technology community

Like lots of people, I’m involved in a number of formal and informal initiatives to increase the diversity (particular gender diversity) within technology. Through my company I host and sponsor events and workshops, I coach our team on inclusive behaviour and I work to make our hiring process friendly to all.

Sometimes it is necessary to bias your efforts to achieve balance. Take codebar, for example, which is an organisation focused on creating a more diverse technology community. They hold weekly workshops around the UK and the world to support and coach people from under-represented groups as they move into the world of technology. These sessions are not open to members of groups that are extremely well-represented (i.e., straight white cisgender men) in technology.

I’ve worked with codebar since its inception two years ago and I’m frequently asked: how is it fair to not invite straight white cisgender men to workshops? How is that equality? I now have a fresh answer to this question, which I thought I’d share.

My wife and I have an extremely equal relationship, but that doesn’t mean we do a 50:50 split on all tasks. She hates grocery shopping, I get annoyed changing the bed and she loves doing the laundry. So we do more of the jobs we like doing — we trade. It’s equality, but not through us each doing our “fair share” of every job.

I happen to enjoy cooking a lot, so I do the majority of our food preparation.

I, like most people, am right-handed. My wife is left-handed and one day I was watching her cook dinner as we chatted about our days. Like lots of technology people, I think a lot about my personal efficiency and try to minimise the number of movements I make and trips I take when making food — get everything out of the fridge at once, get spicing and seasoning ready when you need it, boil the kettle early etc etc. I watched my other half cook and couldn’t believe the process she followed — it was noticeably more chaotic than when I cook, constantly moving around and always reaching for things.

As I watched, I realised why. Everything in our kitchen is set up for a right-handed person. Our hob and oven are on the extreme left, with knives, chopping boards, plates, seasoning, herbs, spices, sink and fridge all to the right. This makes cooking easy for me. I chop something on my right and then naturally move to the left to put in a pan. For the left-handed person, every action was an inefficient trip around the kitchen.

Even the cupboards open in a way that only makes sense to a right-handed person. And the configuration of the hob puts the stronger burners to your right — so you can pan fry the meat with your right hand and keep an eye on vegetables or pasta in a slower pot to the left.

Through a combination of my setup, and the way that our kitchen was designed long before it was ours, the whole world of food was biased towards me — the majority. Without even realising it, I just had an easier time and found myself asking why other people were struggling, having seemingly been given the same setup, tools and ingredients.

The right-handed domination of our world extends way beyond the kitchen. Ever seen somebody cross their body to use their left hand to tap their Oyster card or iPhone on the card readers on the Tube? Perhaps it’s because they’re left-handed and they can’t use their phone with their right hand — and the readers? They’re on the right.

I use this observation to remind me that I’m playing life on easy mode. Everything has been set up to favour me. When I’m in a technology meeting, nobody assumes I’m there to make the coffee. When I go to a user group, nobody thinks I’m a recruiter. I’m smart, I work hard and I’ve achieved a good deal, but my barrier to entry was low. Even as somebody who struggles with mental arithmetic and therefore failed all mathematics and was never considered for a computer science degree, I’ve still done well.

I’ve been helped by being a right-handed person in a right-handed world, and when we bias our diversity efforts towards those groups that are plain and simple missing from the world of technology, that is not unfair. It’s the very definition of fairness, and we should be proud of it.