Julie Pagano

On Fighting for Marginalized People in Tech

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time now. I tweet about it occasionally, but have never properly collected and shared my thoughts. A few people I respect asked me to, so I’m going to try. This is a tricky topic. I’m probably going to get some of this wrong. I’m not actually sure there is a “right” here. I’m open to feedback. My opinion is not set. I’m interested in your thoughts too. I am here today to talk about fighting for marginalized people in tech.

As per my frequent disclaimers, I’m a queer cisgender middle-class white woman who works as a software engineer. That skews what I talk about and my perspective. I am neither comfortable with nor qualified to speak for other groups, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think their thoughts, viewpoints, wants, needs, etc. aren’t important. I would be excited to see thoughts from other people on this topic and try to help share them with others, so they are hearing from a diversity of viewpoints.

This is not a 101 piece. This is mostly targeted at people directly involved. If you’re a member of an underrepresented group and are involved in tech, you’re involved whether you want to be or not. There are also some notes for allies.

Things are changing. Slowly. So slowly. An inch at a time. The fight is hard because you can barely see the changes. You practically need time lapse photography. The fight is hard because we’re not just fighting oppression. We’re fighting ourselves. We’re fighting each other. Sometimes it seems like we’re fighting over the tiny inches given to us while those in the majority enjoy thousands of acres of opportunity. They get to focus on tech while we argue over tactics and the one true way to be a minority in tech. Why are we killing each other over the inches? I want fucking miles.

Apologies to users of the metric system for my imperial-centric language.

There Is No One True Way

Let’s get this out of the way first. There is no ONE TRUE WAY to fight for marginalized people in tech. This isn’t a religion. Nobody is in charge. There are no gods or prophets providing us with a golden path that will surely lead us all to a safe and better future for diversity in tech. Anyone who claims to have the one true way to address these issues is lying, deluded, or both.

one true way

All you have to do is look at the landscape to know this to be true. There are widely varying and intersecting identities among the marginalized people in the technology field. No one approach could possibly understand and meet all of their needs at once. If you think it can, I have a bridge to sell you…

Kill Your Heroes

In my talk about impostor syndrome, one of the tools I identify for fighting back is “kill your heroes.” What I mean by this is to stop treating some members of the community like celebrities who magically got to where they are, are awesome at everything, and never screw up. Kill the hero. Leave behind the human being that’s actually there.

This applies here too. Remember how I said we have no prophets? The hero-worship gets a little too close to that for my comfort.

kill your heroes (not literally)

The people frequently looked up to as heroes are those doing the most vocal and visible work. While this is important, it’s not the only work that should be valued and looked up to. The people who are able to be vocal and visible are often the most privileged. That privilege can lead to a lot of mistakes, especially when it comes to including more marginalized groups.

If there’s no one true way, why are we building up “thought leaders” that only seem to fit within a fairly limited mold? There’s something going terribly wrong when the “heroes” of the underrepresented people in tech are mostly middle-class white women. Are we just creating smaller versions of the very structures we’re fighting against by building these hierarchies?

Mostly holding up these people as important can be detrimental to people doing equally important, but less visible work. It can make them feel like their work isn’t important. That they’re not doing enough. That they’re not supported or respected. That’s bullshit. Their work is important, and they need support too.

Not only is this bad for others, it’s bad for the “heroes” too. Many of them don’t want to be celebrities or thought leaders. They never wanted to speak for all of us, but when they were held up to celebrity status, people started to assume they were. Their lives are put under a microscope both by those who adore and hate the movement, making it difficult for them to live their lives. They just want to be human beings like everyone else. It’s nice when people appreciate someone’s work, and that support can help keep them going. However, appreciation is different from veneration. Let’s keep the former and throw out the latter.

I talk about this as someone who is often vocal and is sometimes visible. I’ve had people treat me like a celebrity, and it kind of freaks me out. It’s not good for me as a person to be looked up to that way. An inflated ego seems like a good way to put me on a path to screwing up even more than I already do. A collection of followers uncritically hanging on my words could potentially lead me to lose my way. As I say in the disclaimer at the top, I don’t want to speak for everyone. I want to stand with people as a friend or an ally, not be looked upon as a hero.

guinea pig in armor
social justice warrior, reporting for duty

I’m someone who can be the tank** some of the time because I have the privilege for it to be relatively safe for me to do so. I’m literally filling the role of the social justice warrior. That role isn’t very useful by itself. This is a team effort, and all of the roles matter. We need a rogue and a mage and this metaphor is running away with itself… My point here is that we need a diversity of roles to accomplish things. Stop disproportionately holding up some of them as more important than others. It’s doing more harm than good.

** Tanks are characters in gaming who redirect enemy attacks or attention toward themselves in order to protect other characters or units.

Diversity of Tactics Is Important

Let’s continue on the topic of how diversity of roles are not just important, but critical in the fight for marginalized people in tech. Again, there is no one true way. Different tactics are going to solve different problems, and working loosely together they can push for change.

Do What Works for You

Everyone is in a different situation. Everyone has different energy, availability, safety concerns, health, etc. to consider. Pick the approach that works for you. You don’t have to pick only one approach or stay with it forever. You can mix and match and ebb and flow. There is no one “right” way.

On the flip side, let people choose the tactics they want to use and the battles they want to fight. You probably don’t know their situation, and it’s crappy and presumptuous to tell them what to do. Not everyone can fight every battle, not even those with lots of energy. We all have to pick and choose.

Note: My comments here are mostly directed at marginalized people. When it comes to allies, there are some roles they choose that can be a problem. See my comments about allies in mentoring and leadership roles for more context.

What Kind of Tactics?

There’s dozens or even hundreds of different roles and tactics people can use to fight for marginalized people in tech. I don’t think any one by itself is more important or valuable than the others. I think a diversity of approaches is necessary for growth. Some is quiet. Some is loud. Some helps a few people. Some helps many. Some helps in the short term. Some in the long term. It’s all important.

Since I mention a lot of roles don’t get the credit they deserve, I’m going to call out some of them here. Work outside of this list is also important, but I’m not going to attempt to list EVERYTHING.

Showing Up

If you’re a marginalized person in tech, just showing up is an act of activism. Staying, especially beyond the 10 year mark where attrition rates tend to skyrocket, is not easy. You are taking a stand just by being there. The more underrepresented a group you’re in, the harder I suspect it is. Some groups are so small, the NSF doesn’t even give them a number on their list of employed computer and information scientists.

chart of nsf data
Data from the NSF about employed people in computer and information science by sex, race, and ability. Several racial demographics aren’t listed here because their entry in the NSF document does not have numeric values. Other demographics are not represented because data is not collected about them.

Support

Support roles are important. People filling other roles are often stressed out from their own fights. They need safer spaces where they can take a break, heal, and re-energize. People in support roles can help build and maintain those spaces. They can be a kind ear or a supportive voice when others need it. Support roles can also include things like mentoring and sponsorship to help marginalized people thrive.

Humor and Satire

Laughter is good for people. It’s an important outlet for many activists. If I couldn’t joke about this stuff, I think I’d give up. I need that release valve for my stress and frustration, and so do others. Humor can also help present difficult topics in a way that might be more approachable to others. Never underestimate the power of good satire.

screenshot from the film Brazil of a man fighting over a desk in a tiny office space
The satirical film Brazil does an excellent job representing the limited office and desk space at many tech companies.

Teaching

Providing marginalized people with the knowledge they need to get involved in tech is critical. There’s not much point in building more space for marginalized people if there’s aren’t enough of them to fill it once it’s there.

Technical Work

Technical projects that focus on helping marginalized people are an awesome form of work. These groups are underrepresented in the technology field, so there is often nobody to advocate for them and their needs. These projects try to help address that. They also provide a great place for members of marginalized groups and their allies to work on projects that excite them because they’re helping people they care about.

Act Locally

Pushing for changes at a local level is useful. Making sure a local user group or conference institutes and enforces a code of conduct. Pushing for unconscious bias training at your workplace. Doing outreach to get more people from marginlized groups involved in your community. These changes are often small, but they matter to the people they impact. These local changes can set a good example for others and help foster larger changes.

Ally Work

Work to foster allies is useful. Teaching people to leverage their privilege to join the fight is useful if they learn to be the good sort of allies (see my “ally smells” series for thoughts on the not-so-good sort). This is great work for people from the majority groups to do. Reach out to people like you to join in the fight. Teach them how to do so in a way that helps not harms.

Radical Activism

The revolution doesn’t come from asking nicely. It just doesn’t - take a look at history. Ultimately, what we need is a dramatic change in the tech industry. The status quo isn’t working. People have been trying for decades with almost no improvement and, in some cases, a decline. The change we ultimately need is radical.

Being confrontational about inequality, shouting about fucked up behavior, and, yes, using the word “fuck” sometimes (quick, get the fainting couch) can be useful. Unwillingness to be ignored. Holding people accountable for their bad behavior. This is important too. Some people listen when you ask nicely. Others need a figurative slap across the face to be woken up. It’s not an either-or proposition. We need both.

feminist hulk
Sometimes I turn into the feminist hulk.

Online Work

Online work matters too. Things like twitter, IRC, email lists, blogs, open source projects, and more. This work is important because many parts of the tech community interact online. All of the other kinds of work I’ve talked about can happen here. Some kinds of work can only happen here. People can anonymously share their stories to give themselves a greater degree of safety. People who are often alone in their local communities can find others like them all over the world. The ability to feel like you’re not alone and that you have power in numbers is so important for some.

And More…

The items I listed are just some of the ways people can fight back. There are so many more. The ones not listed are also important.

A Space Between United and Divided

This is the elephant in the room I vaguely allude to in my opening. We’re divided. We’re not just fighting oppression, we’re fighting ourselves. We argue over tactics and fight over these tiny inches of space given to us. We become fractured groups pitted against each other wasting energy we could be directing at people and institutions that actually deserve it. Energy we could be using to fight for miles of space for ourselves.

I’m not saying we should all hold hands, sing Kumbaya, agree on everything, and create a united front. I don’t think that’s possible or even desirable. Many of the fractures and tensions exist for very real and important reasons. Attempts to gloss over that in the name of unity will leave issues important to the most marginalized behind. That is unacceptable.

Is it possible for us to find a space between united and divided? Somewhere where we can target more of our energy outward and upward. I’m not sure, but it would be nice to try. Divided and fighting inward, we are few. Even loosely working together, we have numbers to push for more dramatic change.

Here are some thoughts on places we could improve…

On Being Nice

One of the big areas of infighting is the tone argument. This is an area where I think we are capable of improvement without a lot of work. Again, there is no one true way and diversity of approaches matter.

If you like being nice and think that’s most helpful, be nice. If you prefer to be acerbic and think sharp criticism is most helpful, do that. If you’re like me and prefer to mix and match, do that. Do what works for you, and let others do the same. If you don’t like how someone else is doing it, do something different. Don’t undercut their approach by saying they’re doing it wrong. There isn’t a right way. Diversity of approaches matter.

Related reading: The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

One of the “Good Ones”

What do you think of <activist>? They’re so angry. You’re not like them. You’re one of the good ones.

I am sure many of you have heard some variation of the above. Someone asking you to put down someone else. If you give in, you get a figurative pat on the head for being one of the “good ones.”

Don’t be a part of this. People who say these things are basically asking for your permission to write someone off. The thought process in their head might be something along the lines of, “Look! Another one gave me permission to ignore this person who makes me feel uncomfortable!” Best case scenario, they’re going to point at you as a reason why they don’t have to listen to another point of view. Worst case scenario, they’re going to use it to try to tear down that other person.

Don’t let them use you as a tool to hurt others. Don’t let them use you as a tool to divide us more. There is no up side or value to this. If you’re feeling up to it, call them on this behavior. It’s really awful for them to put you in this position.

Related reading: The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck

You’re Involved, Even If You Don’t Want To Be

This is a note to the marginalized people in tech who claim they’re not involved. That they don’t care. That nothing bad has ever happened to them, and their identity is irrelevant. That the people who say they’re involved are doing more harm than good.

You’re involved even if you don’t want to be. As I mentioned previously, just showing up as a marginalized person is a form of activism.

Saying you’re not interested is still taking a stand. Saying the fight for marginalized people is divisive is taking a stand. Saying these things don’t happen because it never happened to you is taking a stand. When you say these things, you’re getting involved. Your involvement is undercutting the other people doing hard work to improve things. Your involvement is doing harm. I suspect some do this as a form of self-preservation. If you’re not fighting back, you’re not a target. Sadly, this will not save you.

Just because nothing has ever happened to you doesn’t mean you’re safe. These stories play out every day. Someone who thought they were safe gets harassed or called a slur or finds out they are paid less than their peers or a hundred other terrible things that happen. No matter how much you try to play the game. No matter how “nice and unthreatening” you are. One day that story can be you. I really wish that wasn’t the case. Nobody deserves to learn the hard way.

Some of us will be there for you when the hard way comes. I wouldn’t count on your friends who dislike us so much to do the same. In the mean time, if you don’t want to be involved, please stick with “showing up” as your involvement. That’s the closest you actually will get to “not being involved”.

The Choir is Too Damn Small

Firecat has this great analogy between activism and a chorus of people singing.

Relates to sexism but also applies to any action that requires input and vigilance from a multitude of people.

“Let’s say that fighting sexism is like a chorus of people singing a continuous tone. If enough people sing, the tone will be continuous even though each of the singers will be stopping singing to take a breath every now and then. The way to change things is for more people to sing rather than for the same small group of people to try to sing louder and never breathe.”
- from firecat on dreamwidth

This hits close to home because I see a lot of burnout happening in activist circles in tech. There’s too few of us trying to sing our loudest, and we’re never getting a chance to breathe. The choir is too damn small.

I know it’s difficult to not see results. I know it’s hard to push back. The thing is, it would be easier if there were more of us. More people to take it up and let others take a break. More people making it harder to ignore. More people saying “that’s not ok”.

I know I said that there’s a lot of ways to be an activist, and being vocal doesn’t have to be part of it. However, I wish a lot more people would join us, even just a little bit of the time. You don’t have to take it on full time. Even doing it a little bit every once and a while gives someone else a chance to breathe. They need that before they turn blue in the face.

The Standard You Walk Past is the Standard You Accept

This one is for the people who care, but aren’t in the marginalized groups. The supposed allies.

I’m asking the marginalized people to join the choir more often, but I recognize many of them can’t. For the allies, I’m not asking, I’m telling. This is one of, if not the most, important thing you can do as an ally.

I’m so sick of the people suffering from these issues being the ones who spend the most time fighting it. It’s exhausting. As a privileged person, it is safer for you to call out bad behavior, and you are more likely to be listened to. Step up.

When you see or hear people doing terrible things and say nothing because that is easier, you are silently accepting that behavior. This goes doubly for any of you in positions of power or leadership. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept**.

** This phrase originates from a message from the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO, to the Australian Army about unacceptable behaviour by Army members.

Conclusion

I expanded my thoughts here because some friends asked me to, but this is for me too. Much of the criticism here I’m directing at myself as much as others. I’m culpable too. I’m talking about this because I’m worried. I’m worried about the burnout I see in myself and others. Worried about how slow the progress seems. I collected my thoughts to help me focus and maybe spark a discussion. Thoughts?


Attribution