3rd May, 2017
As a feminist woman working in a male-dominated field, I’m fairly well versed in discussions of diversity. And as the D word has been hot on everyone’s lips for a while now, I’m sure you’re all over it too. So – now that we understand that hegemony is boring, that women and minorities not going anywhere and we get why diversity is so important — I wish to ask a difficult question. Now what? What are we planning on doing with all these wonderful ‘diversity hires’?
Such importance is placed on the “pipeline” when it comes to gender equality in tech, as though the main goal should be on getting more women and minorities in the door. Yes, that’s a nobel aim and it has its place.
But I am sick to death of talking about “diversity hires”. Too often, it’s the women activists pushing for new blood and new ideas through their unpaid labour, instead of the hegemonic decision-makers who let their office culture get so stagnant in the first place. It’s time for some next level discussion in Australia.
The struggle doesn’t end with getting people hired. We need support systems in place to help those minorities deal with being The Only Them In The Room, and we need to get them in the halls of power where the decisions are made.
There needs to be more focus on what comes after the dominate groups pull their collective fingers out and hire more women and minorities. Because let’s be real here; it’s their responsibility to ensure marginalised people aren’t lambs to the slaughter. We can’t keep acting like throwing resources at the “pipeline” and thinking that teaching young girls to code is going to fix all our problems. Because it won’t.
Engineer and activist Erica Joy talks about the phenomenon of “enculturation” in her chapter for Elissa Shevinsky’s Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Startup Culture. As a black woman working in tech, she shares her experience of the other side of diversity, explaining the crucial importance of not getting distracted with messaging regarding worker output or the company’s products. Instead, companies should rather focus their attention on making sure they assist with the massive weight put on underrepresented individuals, as they go about their day jobs.
It is imperative that people don’t lose who they are in a quest to fit in with the hegemonic culture. Every time we adopt the characteristics of those around us in order to conform, we are participating in enculturation and risk losing the characteristics that make us, us.
It can be incredibly isolating being the only one like you in a room, especially as a woman. But that dial is turned up to eleven as a black, queer, or trans woman. As the joke goes, “A man in a room full of women is ecstatic, a woman in a room full of men is terrified”. It’s funny, because we’re constantly being killed! HA HA! But the kernel of truth is solid. Putting the onus on minority individuals to fix everything via their mere presence is unfair, and treacherous. If we don’t attempt to protect what makes us different, we will be slowly homogenised with the group we surround ourselves with. We risk un-diversifying a diverse pool of people, after we convinced everyone that was the end goal and the solution to all our problems.
The onus shouldn’t be on the marginalised people to avoid this happening. Sure, there are things we can do to help avoid enculturation, but with the already burdensome emotional labour involved with existing as a minority in tech, it may be too much to expect. Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado attest to this in Working Identity where they describe the taxing nature of assuming an “appropriate” workplace identity for minorities. Whether its being extra careful at work to avoid conforming to cultural stereotypes, trying hard to not speak with a certain accent or inflection, or being extra Peppy and Friendly in order to fly under the radar, minorities are already doing enough.
Employers and fellow employees can and should help.
They can do this by being aware of tokenism, analysing the “cultural fit” of their organisation (not just asking people to comply with it) and having an open dialogue with minority employees. Or, those at the top could move over and start promoting the hell out of women and minorities into positions of power, so all this would take care of itself. Now, wouldn’t that be a nice result?
Leena was an advisor to Australia’s first exhibition celebrating women in games Code Breakers exhibiting at ACMI, Fed Sq 25 Jul-5 Nov.
Leena van Deventer is an award-winning writer, game developer, and educator from Melbourne. Her first book Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the fight for the future of video games with Dr Dan Golding (Affirm Press) was published in 2016. Leena is the co-founder and Director of WiDGET (Women In Development, Games & Everything Tech), a grassroots intersectional not-for-profit organisation supporting women game developers, with over 550 members.