My therapist told me that I didn’t have to do this.
When I wrote my original post, I wasn’t aiming for bravery or courage. I wasn’t thinking of solutions or ways to solve the issues I’d faced. I wasn’t trying to establish myself as some sort of expert on the topic of workplace diversity. I was aiming to do something I have been working on lately; being open, honest, and vulnerable. I wanted to speak my truth. I really wasn’t expecting the overwhelming response and I have been struggling with the attention; I’ve never enjoyed the spotlight or been good at receiving accolades. I’ve also been going through an intense period of personal evaluation and discovery, making the attention that much more difficult to process. I’ve cried more than a few times and am certain I’ve put a significant dent in Ghirardelli’s Dark & Sea Salt Caramel stock over the last 14 days. I’ve also found it difficult to figure out how to respond, how to follow up. What follows is one of my many, many attempts to do that.
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” -Ralph G. Nichols
Thank you to everyone who took the time to read my story. Thank you to those who have reached out to me with kindness and understanding. I am honored, grateful, and appreciative for the deluge of interest and the outpouring of supportive, kind, and empathetic messages.
Thank you to those who have shared your stories with me. They have been equally touching, upsetting, moving, and compelling, and I am humbled that you felt comfortable enough to share them with me.
Thank you to those who have asked any of the following: What can we do to make you feel better? How can we make you feel less isolated? In short, how can we fix it? I recognize that you were affected enough by my story to want to take action, and I am grateful for that. I’m grateful, but have been anxious about how to respond to those questions in particular.
Enter my therapist. She says it’s not up to me to solve these problems. She says that I don’t have to respond to expectations that I have “the answer.” She’s right, and yet here I am, writing, because I empathize with those looking for a solution. I get it. I am a fixer. I’m a problem solver. I like to understand and analyze an issue, figure out the best way to approach it, then deliver a solution. It’s why I’ve had some level of success in my field. Not being able to solve a problem makes me squirm. Not being able to solve a problem I caused, even unwittingly, results in severe feelings of discomfort. I say all this to underscore that I understand where people are coming from when they ask for a fix. They want the comfort that comes with knowing that everything is “right” in the world.
An interesting thing happened in a discussion about my post that I got looped into. Members of that discussion continuously moved the discussion away from the isolation, the loneliness, the harassment, and instead chose to focus on Oakland. Oakland crime statistics, gentrification, etc. When I or someone else tried to redirect the conversation back to the real issues, someone would invariably steer the conversation back to Oakland. My initial reaction was one of frustration. How could they not understand that Oakland was tangential to the real discussion that needed to be had? Then I looked at the participants with empathy and understanding and developed a theory: discussing the issues I raised probably made them uncomfortable and so they chose to discuss the most comfortable topic instead. At that point, I stopped fighting the move to make the discussion about Oakland, but made a point of noticing and remembering the unwillingness to be uncomfortable.
[…]college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years.” http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/
I peeked in on some other discussions about my post around the internet. I didn’t read much, but what I gleaned from the fraction I saw was this: very little, to no empathy or understanding. There was a lot of blaming me, a lot of minimizing my experiences, some called me a racist for wanting to work in diverse environments, claims that I “knew what I was getting into” when I decided to work in tech, but very few attempts were made to try to look at things from my perspective. Given that the tech industry skews young and empathy among college students has experienced a steep drop in the past 10 years, my instinct is that low to no empathy is endemic in tech. That makes the lack of empathy more understandable. How can one show empathy if it’s not something they have the capacity for? How can a person attempt to understand the plight of another if they lack empathy?
Other commenters assumed that I thought I was a unique snowflake, a one-off who wants the world to bend to fit her. While I disagree with this characterization, I understand the perspective. Right now, it appears to most that I am an outlier and that I am the only one who feels the way I feel in my industry. I know this to be incorrect and those who have lived similar experiences do too. Sadly, without those who have suffered in similar ways speaking up about their struggles, it’s easy to dismiss my story as not the norm. One voice is an anecdote and people want data.
Though I know that I am not well versed in this subject matter beyond my personal experience and the experiences of a few others, though I recognize that I don’t have to provide a solution, though I am not arrogant enough to even think I can provide a solution, the solution, though I am keenly aware that there is no quick and tidy way to solve what has been a problem for many minorities in several industries, I am still here, writing this, because I want to try to help. Instead of trying in vain to offer a solution where there is none, I will instead offer some thoughts on what can help us take steps toward improving.
Being mindful of the responses I received and my limited knowledge on the topic, I humbly offer the following ideas for ways to improve the experiences of minorities in tech, colored by my own understanding and experiences.
- Honesty and vulnerability from people who have had experiences similar to mine.
To the countless people have responded to me saying “This is my story”-please share your stories. It’s hard to know that you are suffering if you don’t speak up. I understand how hard it is to do that. I truly empathize with being wary of the consequences and the attention. Right now, though, there are many who don’t recognize that there are people in their environment who are struggling. Please say something. If you need to say it anonymously, reach out to me. I’ll share your story if that feels helpful. There are those who need more data points before they’ll believe that the issues I raised are endemic. Your voices are needed.
- A pointed and direct effort to feel empathy for and display understanding toward those who are being honest and vulnerable.
If your coworker has chosen to share their story and truth, please respond with empathy and understanding. If empathy isn’t something hard wired into you, here are some tips: Listen as though it’s your only job. Avoid the urge to tune out. Avoid the urge to form counter arguments or move into defensive thinking. Avoid the urge to be “right”. Avoid the urge to critique. After listening, relay back what you heard. What was the speakers perception? How did they feel? What was troubling for them? Note: If your response to reading this bullet point was something akin to “touchy-feely drivel”, I’m asking you to not engage in these discussions until you know where that disdain is coming from and why you feel it. I used to have the same reactions to discussions of feelings and now understand that those reactions were informed by many other things going inside myself that I needed to work on. When I was in this state and engaged with people who were open and vulnerable, I did a lot of irreparable damage. I’m imploring you not to make that mistake, please.
- Be willing to get uncomfortable and discuss the real issues.
Once everyone has been honest and listened with empathy, start talking about the hard things. Recognize that because these meaningful discussions aren’t the norm, they may feel uncomfortable. Being ok with that discomfort can allow you to continue talking about the important matters, rather than moving to other, more comfortable topics.
- Find common ground.
I recently learned about C.P. Ellis from a talk given by Roman Krznaric. C.P. Ellis was a Ku Klux Klan member who abandoned the Klan and became a civil rights activist after finding common ground with a black woman, Ann Atwater, with whom he was forced to co-chair a 10 day community meeting. Finding common ground helped him to see Ann as a person and thus he was better able to empathize with her point of view. Finding common ground may have a similar affect on the relationships with your coworkers. It may be something as small as sharing an affinity for the Simpsons or you might find out you both have encyclopedic knowledge of Motown hit songs. Finding that common ground may make it easier to have real discussions about the challenges or struggles being faced in the workplace.
- Avoid racist, sexist, or otherwise belittling talk.
If you find yourself frequently thinking or saying racist, sexist, or otherwise belittling things, it might be a good idea to try to figure out what’s at the root of that. If you’re really analytical like I am, try to point your analytical laser beam at yourself. Perhaps try writing a post-mortem on yourself when you say something belittling to a coworker. Figure out the root cause of the issue, identify the steps leading up to it, and come up with a plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
- Ask instead of making assumptions.
When planning team-building exercises or fun offsites or other non-work work events, check with everyone on the team to see what their interests are. If the majority of the team has similar tastes and interests, try to avoid going with things the majority likes all the time.
- Respect and embrace differences.
If you’re one of the majority mentioned above, try not to skip out on or complain about the non-work work events that don’t appeal to your tastes. That could send a message that you’re not respectful or appreciative of the differences of your teammates. Try to enjoy the new experiences. If you‘re unable to enjoy them, at least learn about them. (This is how I learned that I’m pretty good at first person shooters.)
- Try to avoid incredulity.
This one is a little personal but I doubt it’s uncommon. When you mention some popular song, artist, TV show, etc from your upbringing, consider that your co-worker might have a different cultural background from yours. When this becomes apparent, try to avoid incredulity. For example “How have you never heard Dark Side of the Moon?!!” If you ask that of someone who didn’t grow up with Pink Floyd as a large part of their upbringing, you’ve forced them to defend their own culture/background. In this case, a better response might be “Oh, I like Pink Floyd a lot. I especially like [Name of song by Pink Floyd], you should check it out if you get a chance. Who are some of your favorite artists?” This way your coworker doesn’t feel like they have to explain why they weren’t exposed to certain things and you get to learn something new about them.
That’s all I’ve got. Speak openly and honestly, listen without defense or judgement, be empathetic, be understanding, be willing to get uncomfortable, find common ground, avoid belittling your coworkers, ask instead of assuming, embrace differences, and avoid incredulity. In summary, just be good people to one another.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. I appreciate it and am immensely grateful for all those who want to affect positive change. I recognize that I’m not an authority on these matters, so I completely understand if you decide not to accept a word I’ve said. That’s your choice and I respect it. I do know that what I’ve mentioned above could have greatly improved my last 13 years in the tech industry.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Erica Joy Baker is a lifelong computer nerd, a consummate book worm, a recent therapy devotee, and a future resident of Oakland, Ca, just as soon as she figures out how to deal with that down payment. She rarely blogs at ericabaker.com and feels really weird about writing about herself in the 3rd person.