Wait…why is a white dude making a film about gender diversity in tech?
Since working on Debugging Diversity I’ve often been asked why I decided to embark on the project. While most are supportive, many women have told me that their first response to Debugging Diversity is confusion; others frustration or even anger.
These reactions are completely understandable and in this post, I want to share my motivations for creating the film. Not necessarily in an attempt to change anyone’s viewpoint but simply to start a dialogue about why I believe a film like Debugging Diversity is important.
The journey started back in 2014 when I started a Youtube channel about coding and technology called CODR.TV. When brainstorming topics for the channel someone suggested I explore why tech is so male-dominated. Having been curious about this myself I embarked on creating a short video for the Youtube channel.
Oh, how naive I was.
Before creating any content I thought I should ask the opinions of some women who worked in tech. After a number of long conversations I began to realise two things: 1) this was a much deeper and more complicated topic than I first realised and 2) a 5-minute video would absolutely not suffice.
At the time, I was coming to the end of my contract with my employer. So when I spotted a cheap deal on flights to the USA I decided to book a 3-week trip so that I could explore the topic more deeply. However, when I made the booking I accidentally booked the return flight a full month later than I intended. Now my trip was going to be over 7 weeks! Being too cheap to pay the hefty booking alteration fee I decided to embrace the situation — 2 months in the USA, here I come!
To make the most of the time I lined up as many interviews as I could. I reached out to women who worked in tech on LinkedIn as well as people I knew who were actively working on improving female representation. What ensued over the next 2 months I can only describe as me falling off “idiot mountain”.
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes how when new to a topic, people tend to feel they understand it better than they really do. As they start to learn more they suddenly realise how little they actually know. This peak is what I like to call the idiot mountain. Prior to my trip, I sat happily at its peak blissfully unaware of my ignorance. Due to my zeal and enthusiasm, the fall from idiot mountain was rapid and dizzying as I began to understand how little I knew.
When I arrived in New York City, I lashed out on about 10-grand worth of videography gear. I wanted to make the conversations I was having count by recording them with decent equipment. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was now stuck with almost my body weight in equipment that I would have to lug across the US (requiring many additional baggage fees and taxis along the way). Spurred on by blind determination and a love of fancy new gear I started recording my conversations.
My first interviews were with Hopscotch founders, Jocelyn Levitt and Samantha John at Grand Central Tech on Madison Avenue. This was truly revelatory for me. We discussed the influence of video games in the 1980s, the challenges for female founders and the brogrammer culture.
I then flew to San Francisco where I met with the founder of Black Girls Code, Kimberly Bryant and Poornima Vijayashanker, founder of Femgineer along with several other women (and a few men) working in tech.
Next, it was on to Las Vegas where I interviewed a number of female startup founders working out of a co-working space downtown and the CTO of ROCeteer, Heather Wilde.
And finally, I flew to Colorado where I interviewed the founder of the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT), Lucy Sanders.
Over the 7 weeks, I recorded about 30 interviews and almost 100 hours of footage. But upon returning to Sydney I was about to fall even further down the valley at the side of idiot mountain.
While I learned an enormous amount about the challenges and potential solutions to gender diversity in tech, what I hadn’t realised was the expectation I’d been placing on women to teach me about it. So far, all of the women I interviewed had been extremely helpful and patient with me. But these were all women who had made a conscious choice to invest their time in tackling the issues.
When I started asking other women working in the technology industry about the challenges they faced I occasionally encountered reluctance. Initially, my reaction was of bewilderment which if I’m honest probably made me come off as a bit of a douche. I couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t have the full support of the women I was trying to help.
Someone eventually pointed out to me that by asking women to explain to me their issues and suggested remediations I was subjecting them to significant mental load. Put simply, by asking women to spend time schooling me, I was taking them away from the very things I was encouraging them to do (e.g. coding and other tech-related pursuits).
After some reflection, I came to the conclusion that to help, I needed to work on learning as much as I could about feminism, gender diversity and the challenges in the tech industry. Furthermore, I felt I should attempt to share these learnings with other men.
A friend of mine, Emma Jones asked me if I’d like to be involved with starting a Sydney chapter of the Male Champions of Change (MCC) group. This seemed like the perfect way for me to engage with other men on the issues.
I could be a role model for other men, I thought to myself. And while I still believe this to be true and applaud the work of the MCC, there was yet another realisation to come.
Throughout history, men have predominantly been in charge. Whether it be politics, business or simply the household budget men have usually been the ones calling the shots. Now, while men need to be a part of diversity solutions the idea that they would be in charge of them is utterly at odds with the point.
And here lies one of the most nuanced components of the gender diversity conversation: men must not expect women to bear the brunt of the work in solving for gender equality but equally they must not railroad or take charge of its execution.
Men must educate themselves. Though doing so without at least a little initial guidance is difficult. I was exceptionally lucky to meet myriad women who were patient with me as I fumbled the way through my ignorance. Perhaps now I can take on some of the mental load in guiding other men and sharing what I’ve learned.
Men must take an active role in applying what they learn. As leaders, as partners, as friends or as colleagues. Men must also elevate the women around them and absolutely not take credit for doing so. We shouldn’t do it for praise or reward, we should do it simply because it must be done.
I’ve learned a great deal over the past 5-years but undoubtedly many lessons remain to be uncovered. As an industry, we also still have a long way to go. Groups like Males Championing Change are fantastic but they are still largely organised by women!
So after 5 years of work and spending about $30,000 of my own money I’m as committed as ever to finish this film. Why? Because I want to be a role model to other men and while I doubt have much to teach women, I want them to know that we are in this together.
The Debugging Diversity Film Indiegogo campaign will be running from June 17 and into July. We welcome your support!