This is the second topic in a series about small acts of rebellion, organization, and dissent that people in technology can employ against the existing power structure. See the first piece, on tech compensation transparency and worker’s organization, here.
The hegemony of white male speech in tech exceeds even their population.
In our workplaces, white men occupy most positions of power, and most of the platforms for speech and influence — even within otherwise diverse teams and companies. Women represent just 4% of senior technical leaders in tech, and black people hold just a little over 3% of senior management positions in IT.
In our conversations, we know that men tend to dominate spoken discourse. In most groups, women speak much less than their proportional representation — less than 75% of the time that men speak. We also know from meta-analysis of the research that there is a strong link between speaking time and expression/perceptions of dominance.
In the online communities so critical to the economic and intellectual commerce in tech, women are actually less represented than they are in the workplace — a result of their extreme under-representation in open source, the high incidence of gendered online harassment, erasure in the media and on social platforms, and the higher social capital men have in online spaces.
In our events, conference speakers are generally white men, male conference organizers get more recognition than the many marginalized people who organize community events, and there are frequent incidents of sexism, harassment and gendered violence. This contributes to a climate where women, genderqueer, androgynous, trans and/or individuals with non-binary gender presentations may not feel comfortable or safe participating in conferences and related social activities.
On a personal note, what has most defined my career and my experiences in tech above anything else is the struggle and drama to be seen, heard, recognized, acknowledged, promoted, respected and paid equally despite the overwhelming dominance of men, the deep implicit and explicit sexism, the blatant misogyny, and the profound boredom and antipathy that comes with being surrounded on all sides by a largely homogeneous community with little to no social consciousness.
One of the most profound acts of solidarity and social change that persons in positions of privilege can take is to let people in marginalized groups fucking speak.
Giving space for speech is a complex issue, here are some ways to start thinking about it:
- Male voices are amplified more on social media, and by comparison, the work, ideas, critique and representation of other groups get less widely shared. Tools like Twee-q can help you see how you amplify across gender groups, and lead to more personal consciousness around how you (even unintentionally) give more credibility, merit and visibility to ideas based on gender.
- Since women are extremely underrepresented in open source even compared to their representation in proprietary software, we cannot rely on tools like Github, which definitionally, by their focus on open source, cannot represent women equally or even proportionally, to serve as a platform for women’s work in tech. What are the ways we as a community can help to get the work of women technologists more exposure, through speaking opportunities, writing, knowledge-sharing, and other efforts?
- Since many tech conferences have predominantly white male speakers, how can you as a community member help to ensure that conferences have better representation of marginalized and underrepresented speakers? If you are a conference attendee, let organizers know that you care about diversity. If you are a speaker or panelist, refuse to participate as a speaker in conferences and panels which don’t have diverse representation.
- Pay attention. Oftentimes, men in tech complain that “there are just no women in this space,” or make similar comments/complaints about other underrepresented groups. This is just simply not accurate, and is one way that dominant groups enforce invisibility on underrepresented and marginalized groups. There are TONS of diverse people in tech, and even if our relative populations are less, we are still here, making things, writing things, doing awesome shit. If you find yourself thinking “there’s just no x people in this space,” open your eyes. Look at your friends group, who you follow on Twitter, who you hang out with. You see sameness because you built sameness around you. Stop mentally erasing the large population of diverse people working in tech and go discover their work.
- When people from underrepresented and marginalized groups are communicating — online, in person, etc. — particularly on the issues that affect their communities, they are often subject to tone policing, derailment, gaslighting and other strategies designed to silence, minimize and discredit their speech. First, make sure you aren’t using these strategies yourself — and second, call it out when other people are doing it!!! Advocate for the ability of people in our community to speak free from the patronizing, paternalistic and oppressive response patterns so common in our industry and discourse.
- In the workplace, be an ally to marginalized groups by paying close attention to the relative amounts of speaking space between members of dominant groups and underrepresented groups. Often, you will find that white men do most of the talking in any given scenario as they work to express and create power/dominance. How can you create more awareness around this well-documented phenomenon and advocate for the speaking space of marginalized people on your team?
- If you are a member of the dominant or most privileged group within tech, try shutting the fuck up. Even if you don’t realize it, the power you carry, the implicit physical and social threat your privilege carries, has an impact on the speech and representation of those around you. Perhaps what you have to say isn’t that fucking interesting, and perhaps you can close your mouth for thirty seconds to let someone else do the talking. Be aware of how much you are talking compared to the people around you, ESPECIALLY if you are in a position of implicit (privilege) or explicit (i.e., management) power.
Have other ideas on how we can help diverse groups in technology be more equally represented online, in our professional community and in our workplaces? Please share your ideas with me on Twitter.
Read my other work on this series — How Much Do You Get Paid?
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