Being an Effective Ally to Women and Non-Binary People

Posted by and on October 19, 2016

This post is based on a talk and workshop that Toria and Ian gave at Etsy’s Dublin office in August.

Etsy has a strong set of beliefs that underpins our engineering culture. We believe in code as craft. We believe that if it moves, you should graph it. And we believe that when you’ve got some working code ready, you should “just ship” it.

This practice of “just shipping” is known as continuous deployment. We make small changes frequently, and we hide them behind “config flags” that let us test our work incrementally before a full feature launch. Etsy engineers collectively deploy code to the production site as many as 70 times per day.

Now imagine for a minute that you’re an engineer at an organization doing continuous deployment. You’ve got a small change ready to deploy. Your code is good. Tests pass. It’s all been reviewed. But every time you try to deploy, something goes wrong. This happens all the time, but only to you. Every time you try to deploy, you have to spend half an hour trying to fix the deploy system. No one else is motivated to fix anything because it works just fine for them. The deploy system is better for everyone because of your investigations, but fixing the deploy system isn’t part of your job. You just want to ship code!

What would be great is if some other engineers would pitch in and do the work too, so that you have more time to do your actual job. What you need are allies.

Surprise! That was a thinly-veiled metaphor for what it feels like to be a member of an underrepresented group trying to improve their work environment. Relying on members of minority groups to shoulder the burden of diversity issues is just as flawed as expecting one person to do all the work to fix a broken deploy system. You can’t excel at your job when you spend half your time dealing with other stuff. We need ways of spreading the load. We need allies. And we hope that’s why you’re reading this now.

Terminology

So what is an ally? Let’s start by defining some important terms so that we’re all on the same page.

Women, men, and non-binary people

At Etsy, we recognize that gender is non-binary: it lies on a spectrum. When we use the term “men” here, we’re talking about anybody who identifies as a man and experiences the benefits of male privilege. When we say “women”, we’re talking about anybody who identifies as a woman. Some people don’t fall into either of these categories: they are non-binary. Gender discrimination impacts these people too, and as such you’ll see references to them throughout this post.

Much of the discrimination that people face depends on how society identifies their gender, rather than how they themselves identify. A person with a beard is likely to be treated like a man regardless of their chosen gender, but they still have to deal with bias and prejudice in their daily life.

Feminism

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” — Marie Shear

Of course women (and non-binary folks) are people. But while we think “of course they’re people”, we tend to overlook the countless ways in which society as a whole undervalues women and their work: lower wages for the same work or overall lower wages in industries dominated by women, portrayals of women as prizes to be won or objects to have, and the ignoring or ridiculing of problems faced by women, to name but a few.

Intersectional feminism

As you learn more about feminism, another term you’ll see is “intersectional feminism”. Intersectionality is the recognition that people are complex beings with multiple axes of identity. Although we’re talking primarily about gender here, a person’s identity is not solely defined by their gender. Intersectional feminism acknowledges that we can’t solve problems for all women without considering that women have different experiences based on their race, religion, sexuality, gender expression, or able-bodiedness.

Good news! Allyship is also intersectional! If you’re white, you can serve as an ally to people of color. If you can see, you can serve as an ally to people with vision loss. If you’re a man, you can serve as an ally to women. If you’re cisgender, you can serve as an ally to folks who are trans, non-binary, or genderqueer.

Consider intersectionality throughout this post. Ask yourself how these techniques for allyship can be applied for other underrepresented groups.

Privilege

The idea of privilege is often a massive stumbling block for people. We rebel against the idea that we have had an unfair advantage in life. “I had to work hard,” you’ll hear people claim. “I’ve struggled for everything I’ve got.”

Privilege does not mean you had it easy. It means you had it easier. If a man grows up in poverty, and drags himself out of it, that’s impressive. That’s hard. If he’d been a woman, he’d have had to do all the same things, while also fighting society’s expectations of what women can or should do. Privilege is what you don’t have to deal with.

In the opening example, everyone else ships more than you—not because they’re better than you, but because they don’t have to deal with the additional nonsense that you do.

Understanding privilege—and understanding and accepting your own privilege—is a vital part of becoming an effective ally. You’re not being asked to beat yourself up about it, you’re being asked to empathize with others who are less privileged so that you can do something about it.

Patriarchy

Along with “privilege”, “patriarchy” is another term that trips people up. It brings to mind a shadowy cabal of men pulling strings and malevolently excluding women. This is… silly.

Instead, the term “patriarchy” refers to structural sexism and gender discrimination. We are raised in a society that historically and systematically favors men over women. This colors everything we do and everything we see. We’re surrounded by the fruits of this bias, steeped in it from birth. Just one example: studies show that, from an early age, girls are held to higher standards of politeness, while boys are expected to speak dominantly and assertively, producing power imbalances in conversations that continue through to our adult interactions.

Patriarchy perpetuates itself. Not through conscious malevolence (most of the time), but because male-dominated power structures tend to stack the deck against women gaining power, and so produce more male-dominated power structures.

Unconscious bias

The perpetuation of the patriarchy is rooted in unconscious bias. These are biases we don’t even realize we have, but which influence how we think and act. They are instilled in us over the years by repetitive stimuli from our environment.

Consider the following story: “A man and his son were in a car accident. The man died on the way to the hospital, but the boy was rushed into surgery. The surgeon said: ‘I can’t operate! That’s my son!’”

The first time most people are presented with this, they fail to realize the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Mental blind spots like this one show that we are all a little bit sexist. (As a side note, this thought experiment has been around for many years. In recent years, respondents have often thought the surgeon was the boy’s other father. They are more willing to accept a gay male couple than a female surgeon.)

Dr. Catherine Ashcraft from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) gave a lecture at Etsy on unconscious bias. She talked about some experiments for quantifying gender bias. The NCWIT staff took these tests, and all the participants were found to be unconsciously biased against women. To repeat: women, working for the National Center for Women and Information Technology, working to bring gender diversity to our sector, were all biased against women.

We are all trained, over time, to have these habitual, instinctive responses to situations. When these unconscious biases are challenged, we tend to react negatively. For example, women who adopt more traditionally male behaviors and speech patterns in the workplace are often perceived more negatively than women who fit society’s expectations.

What we can do, however, is make conscious corrections. We can actively try to overcome these unconscious biases.

Microaggression

The best way to combat unconscious bias is to recognize that it exists and identify when it’s happening. It’s easy to identify and “call out” overtly sexist behavior, but what about the more subtle and ambiguous stuff?

Casual phrases like “you’re really good at sports for a girl!” or “going out with the guys tonight; leaving the old ball and chain at home!”, using gendered phrases like “the ops guys”, speaking over women in meetings, repeating their ideas as your own, expecting them to do clerical work like note-taking, or standing over them at a desk in a dominant position: these are examples of microaggressions. They’re the “little things” that, examined individually, don’t always seem like a big enough deal to make a fuss over. “Maybe it was a joke?” “Maybe he didn’t mean it that way?” “It’s just an expression!”

But microaggressions are cumulative. Over time, these subtle comments build and reinforce traditional power structures by reminding women and non-binary individuals of their position in society.

We must notice these subtle, often unconscious microaggressions in others—and in ourselves—in order to correct them.

Ally

And that brings us to “ally”: the key part of this post. An ally is a member of a privileged group (in this case, men) who works to enable opportunity, access, and equality for members of a non-privileged group (in this case, women and non-binary people). They are using their privilege, their advantages, to bring about change.

How can allies help?

So… centuries—millennia!—of systematic discrimination against women. Biases baked into us from birth! Society fundamentally biased against women! This is an overwhelming problem. It’s hard to know where to start.

Like any large, complex problem, begin by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts. Start at your workplace. If you can make a difference there, you not only improve the lives of the less-privileged people you work with, but you also improve your working environment. Research shows that more diverse teams, with more diverse perspectives and experiences, make better decisions and build better products.

Start today. You’ve read this far, so you’re already interested in making a difference. Don’t wait until you’re an “expert” on feminist theory to start speaking up. Just start trying. And just like with continuous deployment, when you mess up (and everyone does), get feedback, listen, learn, fix the problem, and try again.

Now you’re ready to start, but as a member of a privileged group, what can you do? What do allies offer?

Ten Steps to Being An Effective Ally

Being an ally is a constant learning experience. Being an ally isn’t a fixed state, it’s not a badge you earn (or take) and sew onto your sleeve and you’re an ally from then on. Being open to feedback and demonstrating that you’re willing to accept and learn from criticism is vital. More than anything, “ally” is a status accorded to you by those that you’re trying to help, based on your words and actions.

So, how do we ally?

1. Educate yourself

There are a ton of resources out there for you to learn from. Make the effort to educate yourself, rather than demanding that marginalized people explain things to you. You wouldn’t ask Rasmus Lerdorf, inventor of the PHP programming language, to explain basic PHP concepts. You would Google it. You would go out and find the articles, tutorials, and forum threads that already exist for beginners. There is already material for you to learn from: go out, find it, and read it. (We’ve created a reading list that would make a great starting point.)

While you’re reading, be aware that feminism isn’t a monolithic block of thought. There are a wide variety of viewpoints on the topic. Be sensitive to the possibility that what you’ve learned is just one viewpoint.

As an ally, you will never stop learning. Keep actively seeking out new writing and material so that you can deepen your understanding.

2. Expand your network

A great way to expand your understanding of feminism and gender issues is to expand and diversify your network. Make sure to follow your female and non-binary colleagues on social media. Then, make a habit of following the other folks they retweet or mention.

If you’d like to introduce yourself to a woman at your workplace or at a conference, do so! Just remember to keep the discussion technical and on-topic: talk to them because you’d like to know more about that new machine learning model they implemented, not because you need more diverse friends.

3. Listen and believe

Now that you have a good number of women and non-binary folks in your network, listen to them! Arguably the biggest thing you can do as an ally is to listen. Listen to the stories of the difficulties they’ve faced and the problems they’re experiencing in the workplace. When you hear their stories, especially ones that don’t fit with your mental model of your workplace or environment, believe them. No “aren’t you over-reacting?” No “I think you’ve misunderstood.” If they tell you there’s a problem, there’s a problem. So listen.

After listening, ask how you can help. Ask how you can support them in resolving the problem. It doesn’t have to be you doing the solving—your colleagues aren’t helpless damsels in distress—but your support can be invaluable.

One of the most difficult things to listen to is criticism of yourself and your actions. You still need to listen and believe and learn.

But just because you haven’t been told there’s a problem, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Speaking about experiences of discrimination is often very difficult, because it tends to be very, very risky. Marginalized people who report discrimination often find that doing so negatively impacts their careers. When they raise issues, they get labeled complainers or trouble-makers, while those they complain about see no consequences or repercussions for their actions.

Remember that you have no reason to expect that they will share their stories or concerns with you. These are not conversations that men, even well-meaning allies, should initiate. Don’t ask for these conversations, but when they happen, listen and believe.

4. Notice the small stuff

Your colleagues aren’t going to tell you about every bad experience; in fact, they won’t tell you about most of them. You can help by noticing problems by yourself and addressing them.

Microaggressions—the small stuff—are some of the most subtly toxic behaviors that women and non-binary people have to deal with. Microaggressions slowly eat away at their self-confidence and patience.

When you see some small inequity, mention it. If a colleague interrupts a woman, say, “I’d like to hear what __ was saying”. If a colleague assumes a woman will take notes, say, “I think __ could have some useful insights on this topic—could somebody else take notes so that she can participate more actively?” or possibly, “Have we considered a formal note-taking rotation to ensure that we’re not making gendered assumptions about who will do the clerical work?”

Try to also consider whether your comment will put the colleague who suffered the inequity in an uncomfortable position. If you’re not sure what to do, you should wait, talk to them privately, then defer to their decision on what further action should be taken. They may wish for you to speak with the person directly on their behalf or they may prefer for you to go to a manager. They may not want you to do anything at all (perhaps because they have plans to address this on their own). Sometimes the very recognition of the microaggression is enough! Remember: they don’t need you to save them, but your support and validation can be very valuable.

If you raise things like this with a colleague, it may feel “nitpicky”. It will certainly feel uncomfortable. But many productive and important conversations are uncomfortable! As an ally, you should be prepared to shoulder a bit of the discomfort and awkwardness that women and non-binary people experience every day.

You can also work on “anti-microaggressions”—small acts to nudge the culture in the opposite direction. Examples might include making sure a diverse range of people are featured in your illustrations, slide decks, user stories, etc., or that you pay attention to gendered language in your tools.

5. Teach others

Another way you can share the load is by teaching. Women and non-binary individuals are constantly expected to teach others about feminism and gender issues. It can be a great burden. Help them out by doing some of the teaching.

Have honest conversations with the people you work with, particularly if you observe behaviors that you know (or suspect) may have a discriminatory effect on your other colleagues. Remember that, most of the time, these behaviors are unconscious, or learned in different work environments. Talking about negative behaviors without blame and educating the men you work with helps them become better colleagues, and in the vast majority of cases it’ll be well-received.

In addition to educating other men, encourage them to speak up if they see instances of bias. The more men there are working on this, the easier it will be to make your workplace a more egalitarian environment.

6. Amplify and endorse

There is no point in having equality of numbers if there is no equality of influence. As such, we have to make sure that people from underrepresented groups are heard in meetings, that they have a chance to speak, and that their views are considered and respected. The frustration of not being able to contribute, or being ignored or belittled, is a fast track to quitting.

One type of unconscious bias is called “listener bias”. We are socialized to think that women talk more in general, and so tend to significantly overestimate the actual amount of time women spend talking in discussions, to the extent that we can think that women are dominating conversation when in fact men are doing most of the talking. As always, be aware of this unconscious bias. Correct for it by inviting your female and non-binary colleagues to offer their opinion in a meeting.

Make sure that women and non-binary individuals in your company have the opportunity to work on high-profile projects. If you make staffing decisions, pay attention to gender bias when considering who gets what role. If you’re not making those decisions, you can still advocate and lobby for them within your organization. Support and encourage them, but don’t micromanage them, or do all the work for them. Trust their expertise. You hired them, so they must be talented. If you don’t make use of their talents, not only do you lose out in the short term, but they’ll also eventually quit and you’ll lose out massively in the long term.

Also make sure they get credit for their accomplishments and contributions. Make sure they get to brag about what they’ve achieved. Approve of this behavior, rather than branding them as arrogant or conceited. Remember that society tends to consider modesty a virtue for women, but not men.

Amplify their voices outside of your workplace, too. If you’re invited to speak in public, ask yourself if there’s a woman or non-binary individual equally—or more!—qualified to speak on the topic. Pay attention to gender balance in panels and speaker line-ups at conferences you’re planning to participate in. Ask the organizer why their panel lacks diversity. Ask to see their Code of Conduct, and if they don’t have one, encourage them to change that. Consider not attending events without a code of conduct or refusing to sit on a panel that only includes men.

Social media is another excellent way to increase the visibility of underrepresented genders. If you’ve followed the advice earlier, you’re following women and non-binary folks on social media and have diversified your network, but consider also retweeting and promoting them. If they share a blog post, consider retweeting them instead of writing your own tweet with a link to the same content. Amplify their voices. Even small acts like retweeting can greatly increase their visibility and introduce your followers to more diverse opinions and ideas.

7. Recruit fairly

You know what else helps with gender diversity? Having more diverse people on staff! This might feel like it’s easier said than done, but there are concrete steps you can take to increase the gender diversity of your team.

The first step, which we’ve already addressed, is expanding your network. We tend to do a lot of recruitment from our personal networks, so having a diverse network can make a tremendous impact on the variety of candidates we can recruit.

Take the time and effort to review your job postings for gendered language: could your words make someone feel excluded or unqualified? Look at where your jobs are advertised: are you going to reach a diverse audience?

After you’ve established a diverse pool of applicants, you need to make sure the rest of the process is as fair and unbiased as possible.

When reviewing résumés, be explicitly aware of your unconscious biases to make sure you don’t filter candidates out for the wrong reasons. This doesn’t mean you’re purposely rejecting someone just because you think they’re female. Rather, you might reject someone because they haven’t described their accomplishments the way you might expect. Remember: women are conditioned to be modest and may under-report all the good stuff they’ve done.

There may be other reasons why they don’t conform to your preconceptions of the “ideal candidate”. For example, maybe you’d expect someone with their experience to have a long history of giving conference talks, but they haven’t been speaking at conferences because they perceive conferences as hostile environments.

When it comes to interview time, be mindful of the fact that there are a myriad of ways to be a successful employee and different candidates will excel in different environments. Using a diverse set of interview styles is beneficial for all candidates. Not everyone does well in aggressive “knowledge test”-style interviews. Some are better on a whiteboard, some are better at a keyboard, others respond well to discussion.

This is not to say that we should lower the bar for recruitment; rather, we should accept that we may be using the wrong measuring stick. Expecting everyone to act and respond in a particular way is the very opposite of recruiting for diverse viewpoints and experiences.

On the subject of recruiting women, it’s worth addressing “the pipeline problem”. This is the idea that we can’t hire more women because women aren’t studying computer science. This is somewhat correct, but entirely misleading. Women are not achieving computer science degrees at the same rate as men, it’s true, but the number of women active in the industry is much lower than the total number of women with relevant degrees (and that’s not counting the women who are capable self-taught programmers). Today, women earn 18% of CS degrees. In 1984, they earned 37% of CS degrees. These women are only in their 50s and still active in the industry. What happened to them? Clearly, the pipeline is not the only problem.

What good does it do us if we hire a load of great women and non-binary people, then they all quit because they arrive in a toxic work environment? What if the pipeline leads to a sewage plant?

8. Model and support sustainable work

In tech, particularly, women quit the industry completely with much higher frequency than men. They often leave not just because of sexist behaviors directly, but for a variety of complex reasons.

The expectations of the workplace can place an unreasonable load on all employees. Men are generally expected to meet those demands at the expense of family and personal life, while women are expected to do the opposite. The assumption that women will not have the time to meet these unreasonable demands is one way that society justifies the wage gap. Then, if a couple decides that one of them should stay home to care for the family, who do you think typically quits their job? The woman! Because we pay her less! But we pay her less because we expected her to leave!

In order to keep women in the industry, we need to pay them equally. More than that: we need to create a culture that supports sustainable work in a way that doesn’t pit employees’ personal and professional lives against each other. In doing so, companies invest in employees’ overall health, happiness, and engagement in their work. Your company may have unlimited vacation time or flexible working arrangements, but do your employees feel comfortable actually using those benefits?

Allies can help by actively participating in and supporting a sustainable work culture. They can normalize behaviors such as taking vacation, taking time for family, not working all hours, etc. Etsy’s CEO Chad Dickerson, for example, took full advantage of Etsy’s parental leave benefits (5 weeks at the time, now 26 weeks for all new parents) to help care for his family. More leaders should demonstrate that you can lead robust personal and professional lives that can enhance and support each other.

People of all genders should certainly still be able to opt out of the workplace to concentrate on their families, but that should be a choice, rather than an ultimatum.

9. Don’t lead, follow

Allies are there to share the load, not to take the lead. Allies simply haven’t lived the same experiences as those with whom they are allied. No amount of listening and learning will give you first-hand understanding of a person’s experiences!

Men are typically used to leading and taking charge, but women and non-binary individuals are perfectly capable of fighting their battles and defending themselves: they don’t need a man to step in to save them. What they need from men is support and understanding to make it easier, and for men to do their part so that eventually those battles don’t have to be fought in the first place.

10. Show up

Show up. Every day. Allyship isn’t something you can do in your spare time or only when it’s convenient for you. It’s effort, it’s work—often hard work. Show up, every day, and don’t let it slip.

Showing up includes a healthy dose of self-reflection and self-awareness. Think carefully about your own actions and behaviors—remember that unconscious bias is deeply entrenched and will rear up when you least expect it.

And don’t stop at supporting women and non-binary people at work. Learn about the issues faced by other underrepresented groups and how to apply your allyship skills to supporting them too.

Don’t expect a cookie, though. Actively working to correct injustices should be the baseline, not something special you deserve to be rewarded for. Do the work because the work matters, not because it looks good on your résumé, and give credit to those who helped you get there.

Being an ally is hard. It takes time and work and effort. Fundamentally, men could avoid this time and work and effort. Society doesn’t expect men to be allies. Men have the privilege of being able to ignore these problems if they want to. We hope this post has helped to persuade you that being an ally is important, but also achievable. You can make a difference—a huge difference—if you step up.

Acknowledgements

The material for this post was inspired (and immeasurably improved) by many women and non-binary people—at Etsy and beyond—who shared their knowledge and experience with us. We’re grateful for their time and effort.

We’d also like to acknowledge the contributions and feedback from men at Etsy who have reflected on their successes—and failures—as allies and shared what they’ve learned.

We also owe a debt to some of the resources made available by NCWIT and The Ada Initiative, as well as the countless people who have written books, blog posts, and talks that have helped us gain a better understanding of this complex topic.

Bibliography

This post references a number of external studies and articles on the research behind issues of diversity in tech and society in general, which are listed below. For more information on the business of allyship, check out our list of recommended reading for allies.

Posted by and on October 19, 2016
Category: philosophy Tags: , , , , ,

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6 Comments

Excellent post! I added it to the list of links on the Open Source Bridge wiki page on “Setting intention” (resources for “Supporting diversity with a new approach to software”) at http://opensourcebridge.org/wiki/Setting_intention#Links

[…] This is a long prelude to what I think is a really great way to describe privilege, from an article by Toria Gibbs and Ian Malpass: […]

[…] came to mind again when I read this terrific post on Etsy’s Code as Craft blog by Toria Gibbs and Ian Malpass. It’s an eight-minute read […]

[…] Being an Effective Ally to Women and Non-Binary People […]

Wow, this is an incredible post. Thank you so much for putting this together! I’ve been working hard on keeping diversity top of mind as we grow our startup (wrote some takeaways a while back: https://medium.com/@salmansays/healthy-hiring-d2b2d28e6dcc#.ceapv042s), and I’ll definitely be sharing this resource with my team. Just reading it speaks volumes to the environment you must have in place at Etsy. Inspiring! Keep up the great work.

This is an awesome article. I think the opening description about the deploy process is a solid way to bridge such a discussion.

Well done.