Julie Pagano

Stop Centering the Majority in Minority Spaces

Earlier this week, I received an email about an upcoming event from an organization that focuses on queer women in the tech community. The email announced that one of the keynotes would feature a straight (as far as I know — he’s married to a woman and is not out as anything else), male tech CEO being interviewed by a queer, female technology journalist.

I did a double take the first time I read it. Why would a straight man be centered in a space focused on queer women? I read the email again. There wasn’t an answer to my question.

I turned to Google to try to find an answer. After a little searching, I found that he supports gay and lesbian causes through donations and speaking out. The company he works for has donated specifically to this organization in the past, so his philanthropy directly benefits them. My educated guess is that a straight man is being centered in a space focused on queer women because he is a “good ally.”

This sounds familiar…

All this has happened before

Only a few months back, we saw something similar at Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC). GHC had a male keynote speaker and a plenary panel featuring four men. Two major slots at the world’s largest gathering of women technologists were given to men instead of women. Both of these slots had a prominent woman technologist interviewing these men. The organizations these men work for are known for donating to women in tech causes, including the Anita Borg Institute, the organization that runs GHC. The men on the panel were specifically selected for being “good allies.”

The men featured at GHC did not even do a good job providing valuable content for the audience at the event. Both the keynote and the panel included patronizing and even hurtful advice for women working in the tech industry. Satya Nadella ended up having to apologize for some of the content of his keynote. See my annotation of the male allies panel transcript for more details about what happened there.

A pattern emerges

If you compare these situations, you start to see some similarities:

This is a pattern of appropriation, and I consider it an ally smell. When I wrote about this last year, I even explicitly called out speaking at events.

Privileged people who are known for being allied to an oppressed group will often be offered a platform to speak about the group’s experiences and issues that impact them. Platforms like an interview on a tv show or podcast. Platforms like writing for a blog or publication. Platforms like presenting at conferences or other events.

Why is this happening?

Without being privy to the conversations that lead to these situations, I can’t be sure why this keeps happening. I do, however, have some theories…

The kindest of these theories is that organizations see these people as great allies and want to spotlight them at their events. Maybe for the sake of “inclusivity.” Maybe as a sort of reward for their good work as allies.

The most cynical of these theories is that companies demand prominent positions at these events in return for significant donations. The organization isn’t thrilled about the situation, but desperately needs the money, so they agree to it.

I suspect that the reality is in the middle somewhere. Organizations depend on donations to run events. They want to maintain good relationships with large companies that can provide significant donations. This can be done by showcasing a company at an event, giving them a captive audience and a chance for positive press. The organization also has to keep their target demographic happy, so they invite a speaker who they can spin as a “good ally” that belongs at the event. This unspoken quid pro quo keeps the money flowing.

This is all speculation. Outsiders can’t be sure of the cause, but we can see the outcome…

What’s the harm?

This pattern is harmful. The harm mostly falls on the very underrepresented groups these events supposedly serve.

Underrepresented groups get so few spaces where they are the focus. Spaces where they get to see people like themselves on stage and learn from them. Spaces where people like them are prioritized. Seeing someone from the majority in a position of prominence in that space is demoralizing. It means that yet again the majority is given priority, even in a space that isn’t supposed to be about them. It’s especially a punch to the gut when someone you actually want to hear from is on the stage as a glorified prop — an interviewer to ask questions.

The appropriation of the stage isn’t the only harm. Members of marginalized groups often go to events focused on their demographic to escape the regular micro and macro aggressions they experience at other events. When the stage is given to members of the majority, that safer space can be destroyed. For example, GHC basically gave five men the opportunity to say upsetting and discouraging things to a captive audience of over 7,000 women. Nearly all of them took that opportunity, making the event a less celebratory space for women.

When an organization follows this pattern, they often lose trust and support from the very demographic they are trying to serve. Many women technologists think less of the Anita Borg Institute after last year. I think less of the organization that emailed me that keynote announcement, and I doubt I’m the only one.

It can also be harmful to hold up “good allies” in these spaces. It sends the message that they’re such good allies they deserve to be applauded by audiences of the people they’re allied to. I think this can easily to go to one’s head and encourage all sorts of bad ally behaviors.

Make it stop

I am concerned about this pattern. It seems to be spreading. Happening more and more instead of less. I want to see it stop.

If my theory about financial concerns is right, focusing on the organizations that run these events isn’t going to make this stop. I think it is reasonable to be critical, but I do not want to focus the majority of my pressure on them. I especially feel this way about small organizations — there’s a reason I name the huge, powerful Anita Borg Institute, but not the smaller organization that prompted me to write this post.

I would like to focus criticism and pressure on the people agreeing to these speaking engagements. Nearly all of them are very powerful men of significant financial means. They have the power to say no. They have the power to push back and stop this. They can refuse to be part of this pattern, and even help dismantle it. That is what a good ally would do.

Recommendations for allies

Now, these allies may not be sure how to go about this. They don’t want to screw up and make the situation even worse. I have some suggestions to help them out.

When you are asked to speak at an event:

I would feel uncomfortable speaking at the event because it is for <demographic> and I don’t want to detract from that.

I think <awesome person from underrepresented group> would be a great fit to speak at your event instead of me. Please let me know if you would like an introduction.

If you have the power to do so:

Accountability

Since I am calling for accountability, here is a list of some powerful people who have recently spoken or agreed to speak in prominent positions at tech events focused on an underrepresented group they are not a member of. I call on them to stop doing this and consider my recommendations above.

REDACTED

The first draft of this post included a list of powerful men from large tech companies who should be held accountable for taking spaces of prominence at events focused on marginalized demographics. VPs, CTOs, and CEOs. People who will not be harmed by a callout from some woman on the internet.

However, calling them out can harm me. I have bills to pay and am not in a position to make myself more unhireable than I already am for my writing and activism. I wish I was brave enough to not care, but I’m not in a position to do that right now. I hate that my silence is a form of passive support. These golden handcuffs are becoming heavier every day.