Speaking Easy, Part 4: Diversity and the Bigger Picture

This is Part 4 of a series of blog posts on why I am volunteering to mentor speakers at testing (and other) conferences for Speak Easy. Part 1 is herePart 2  here, and Part 3 here.

We’ve discussed some very practical points about conferences and presentations. I see connections to larger issues, and I would like to talk about those a bit.

It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to discuss these issues with any authority. Most of the time, what white dudes need to do when the issue of diversity is being discussed is to shut up and listen, since they do most of the talking all the rest of the time anyways. We should also be aware that appropriation is not just about headdresses at Coachella, either. Go listen to other people – preferably people with first-hand experience, please.

My experience is second-hand at best, and I continue to discover more aspects of my privilege. My perspective is less interesting because of these blind spots. I hope that readers will point out anything I am missing, have misstated, or should have mentioned. I welcome the opportunity to be educated, publicly or privately, if you feel like it…with one exception.

Discussion of diversity issues makes many white dudes uncomfortable. Hopefully, this makes you want to learn more and explore that feeling. If you (as a white dude) are feeling the need to express that discomfort by disagreeing with what’s been said in this post, it’s OK if you *don’t* tell us why and how you disagree. If you are frustrated that you haven’t been heard and had your opinion dismissed out of hand, that you’ve been lumped in with other people based on attributes you can’t control and shouldn’t define you…do I need to continue? Also, if you are a “reverse-racism” or “intolerance” guy, read this, this, or watch this.

Conference speaking is a window into our industry, and our society. As a society and as a species, we are still very immature. Most of us have agreed by now that every person of every background should have the same opportunities to succeed, and understand that overt (and non-overt) judgments of people based on demographic information is not only deeply unjust and incompatible with the future most of us say we want, it is harmful to people on the wrong end of this bias, and it is highly inefficient. Only to the far right wing have I said anything remotely controversial in this paragraph; we have a broadly-held, nearly universally proclaimed consensus on these goals.

Where we disagree starts at assessing how close we are to achieving these goals. Even in places where laws purport to guarantee equality and opportunity for all, and are amply reinforced by policies and training, the reality still falls far short, in a thousand small ways that add up to real handicaps. From what I can tell, it’s tougher every place and always to be a woman, a person of color, a recent immigrant, to have a sexual orientation besides hetero, or to have a sexual identity that is not strictly cisgendered. At intersections of these, it gets even harder. These facets of an identity do not define who a person is, their potential, their skills, or their abilities. Unfortunately, they strongly affect how people treat them.

In the workplace, credibility and influence are both earned and given. <- Seriously, read that. I know I throw a ton of in-line links, and I can see from site stats that most people skip them, but this particular one is important. A taste:

Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.

A typical "leadership gathering"
A typical “leadership gathering”

Leadership dynamics are complicated, but everyone notices, at least subconciously, who talks, who gets interrupted, who is credible, who is challenged, who gets credit, and so forth. Patterns get reinforced all the time, and people are constantly pressured back towards the external expectations others have. This is an effective way to squash dissent and turn collaborative processes into echo chambers for the people that call the meeting and set the agenda…er…I mean, show leadership. When people are pressured to be quiet, they eventually run out of energy. Why should they continue to struggle against the undercurrent of dismissal, when they will punished for speaking up?

Scale-emphasized, still significant
Scale-emphasized, still significant

Tech believes itself to be at least as diverse and a more merit-based industry than others, but it simply isn’t. Tech is sort of like education, marketing, civil service, or other industries where the rank and file are diverse and full of stars from all sorts of backgrounds, but then gets all pasty and lumpy towards the top. At least in the US, we’re losing women year over year in one of our fastest growing industries.

If your response to the discussion of diversity in conference speakers is to point at under-representation in submissions, please think it through one step farther. Why are there fewer submissions from every group besides white guys? Don’t the demographics of our industry suggest there should be a more diverse set of applicants? What are the forces working against that?

I was chagrined the day I finally understood how frequently I was talking over women to restate their ideas, co-opting them and dragging them away from their owners. I’d be even more embarrassed if I told you how recently that was. Dudes, I am paying a lot of attention to this lately, and what I’ve learned is that even with generally good intentions, I’ve been part of the problem. While I will never really understand what it’s like to not have the credibility, influence, and confidence I’ll be listened to just for being me, I will be a lot less of a jerk if I think about it at all. That’s where the bar for being decent on diversity is – pretty low, but still higher than most seem to be willing to reach. Any real awareness is so much better than continuing to coast.

Speaking of coasting, continued acceptance of the advantages we enjoy leads to our world being more crap, because of mediocre white guys taking opportunities they don’t actually deserve from smarter, more qualified people in other demographic groups. Yes, I am willing to live with the potentially painful personal consequences of that, and you should too. The mythical true meritocracy would be a much better place for all of us to live.

Our friends, our spouses, our brothers and sisters – they need us to step forward and help them fix this. Being listened to and taken seriously is a good first step. We can help people be heard, and help them be more confident that they should speak up. As a society, we are doing better lately, but we have a long, long, LOOOONG way to go. Helping people become speakers helps them become leaders, and will make our future better.

Part 5 is out there somewhere, and it’s about my experience learning to speak. It might be a bit before it comes out.