Lessons on tech inclusivity from the Sydney Mardi Gras

The streets are noticeably quieter today, with little trace left of the parades and crowds of last night. Except maybe the in-store displays ranging from rainbow flags to custom signs about love and tolerance. Something Sydney’s retailers have embraced as a part of the yearly Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

In town for some meetings, I took the chance to catch up with friends. One of which is an Australian representative of GLEAM, the Gay and Lesbian Employees at Microsoft advocacy group at the namesake software company. He kindly invited me to join a Mardi Gras party that kicked off on rooftop with staggering view of the Sydney harbour bridge and opera house.

Admiring the view, I could see countless little flashes of colour, with rainbow flags in windows, on light poles and even rotating street advertising. It would be easy to take for granted an event of representative inclusivity at this scale and in a city like Sydney. But even the world-famous Sydney Mardi Gras started only in 1978 — a history that in itself is fascinating to read and certainly within one generation of activism.

Also fascinating is the perspective events such as these afford for the tech sector. It was impossible to walk down Oxford Street without feeling the excitement and joy of a community preparing for the parade. And I use that “community” in the inclusive sense of everything from LGBT right through to Sydney itself.

And me, a straight white male and startup founder working in tech, amazed to hear the experiences and advocacy of my LGBT peers.

World-leading advocacy (means there’s a world’s worth of work left to do)

During the event I had the chance to meet other GLEAM representatives from regions including Singapore and Japan. Regions that perhaps aren’t afforded the freedom and tolerance that Sydney now illustrates in shop windows displays and rainbow flags right across the city. And regions that remind us that the work of inclusivity is always driven by the community first.

It occurs to me how essential these conversations are, and how much impact these groups can have inside our tech bubble. Whether that’s Microsoft’s GLEAM or the likes of Google’s Gayglers, these aren’t token contributions. These are real humans putting in the community effort to improve the lives of other real humans.

Inclusivity as a practice

One of the things I’m reminded of talking to the Microsoft employees and a gaggle of Googlers is the lifecycle of awareness and empowerment as far as these issues go in tech culture.

It’s very easy to take for granted how much hard work is going on. Back in my Red Hat days I watched the company’s contribution to It Gets Better. These were and are an inspiring series of personal video messages from LGBT people to youth faced with the challenge of coming out. An awesome initiative as individuals, but even more amazing to see companies like Google and Microsoft and Apple and Pixar and Disney get involved as well.

Just getting started

But here’s the thing. Flags and videos and parades aside, these initiatives exist because our colleagues and friends and family members still don’t have the equality that they deserve. And tech certainly has barely begun the journey towards being fully inclusive.

Which doesn’t make sense on a business level, as according to a MackKinsey report, gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform those that aren’t. Its getter better for ethnically diverse companies who bump up to 35% more likely. Diversity is simply good for business (and even open source).

Marching on the road ahead

Pulling focus back to the rooftop looking down over the Sydney Mardi Gras, I couldn’t help but think about the road ahead for these exceptional peers around me.

For the Microsoft crew, their advocacy resulted in a 2012 statement that “marriage equality in Washington State would be good for business”. In 2015 we saw Australia joining the call, with Microsoft “supporting the calls for Australian marriage equality”. And in 2017?

This weekend in Sydney the wider tech community has certainly jumped right into the Mardi Gras celebrations. But if we can take just one thing away from the event for the year ahead, it’s an awareness of the importance of these stories of our peers and the challenges that they face in their daily professional lives.

I’m grateful for the GLEAM team for taking the time to share their stories — and I’d encourage you reading now to consider learning more about your colleagues and your community too.

Thanks for reading. I’ve set myself a personal challenge of writing and publishing daily for the month of March. Partly as an exercise in lean writing and partly to explore the impact of contributing these quick and raw narratives. This was day five’s post — what did you think?

Like what you read? Give David Ryan a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.