I recently attended AlterConf London, a rather interesting conference examining diversity and inclusion in the software industry.
Write-ups of the talks are below. Two major themes emerged: why the industry should care about diversity and inclusion, and how we can help.
In Open Source Software (OSS) projects, code is of secondary importance. The project’s community is the key component that will lead to success. Thus, newsletters, design, moderation and documentation are some of the most important contributions to an OSS project.
It is in this context that Codes of Conduct (CoCs) are important2. They provide the framework to guide a community through difficult events. Any OSS project of non-trivial size is certain to have such incidents.
Thus, a CoC should be one of the first things a new OSS project acquires. It’s not enough to ‘copy-paste’ one into place, and then ignore it. To be effective, one must understood, kept up to date, and enforce a CoC. A project’s CoC should be prominently linked from the main README.
As an aside, the speaker talked of unnecessarily/inappropriately gendered language. This embodied a subliminally exclusionary attitude. They created a Slack bot for their community that corrected people who used ‘guys’. They recommended the use of automated tools - people seem less likely to become defensive when it’s just a bot.
Marginalised people have to spend effort fitting in with the majority culture. This ‘code-switching’3 or ‘double consciousness’ is an energy-draining distraction.
This is an ‘unfortunate advantage’. Marginalised people have life experiences that force them to develop the empathy necessary to switch between multiple modes of existence.
Empathy is the ability to understand others’ desires and needs and act accordingly (mere sympathy lacks the latter). Life experience develops empathy - it is not something that can be taught. In software development, the ability to empathise with the users of your product is vital in ensuring that users wish to use it. Thus, to gain a competitive advantage, hire more lesser-privileged people.
This speaker moved to Ireland to escape transphobia in Brazil. Transitioning to a woman, they found that other people started treated them differently (i.e. becoming less accepting of criticism). They found it quite hard to settle in to Ireland. In particular, they found the ‘geek’/‘nerd’ stereotype exclusionary to those who come from other cultures (and who are not cis white males).
The speaker had some suggestion about how to make a business more trans-friendly:
- Explicitly (and prominently) include gender identity in HR discrimination policies.
- Have transition guidelines (Ericsson did).
- Avoid gender essentialism - inclusive pronouns are important here.4
Software reproduces oppression unless explicitly designed not to.
The speaker discussed Twitter bots as a form of art/poetry. One of the problems of this medium is that it is very easy to produce oppression without noticing or meaning to. See transphobic joke detection for an example of this phenomenon.
There’s no line item in my timesheet for panic attacks.
In tech, it’s hard to socialise if you don’t drink or like certain situations. This is frequently the case for those affected by mental ill-health. It also takes a lot of energy to pretend to be ‘normal’. The speaker offered some advice to make the industry easier for such people.
- publicise an agenda
- don’t cancel at the last moment (this also helps remote workers)
- consider other people’s time/energy
The speaker expressed the concept of the ‘retrospective wall’. Here, people anonymously post topics for discussion on post-it notes on a wall. This lowers the barrier to raising difficult/contentious topics.
Code reviews are hard, not least because getting tone/context across in text is difficult. Reviewers should not attempt to erase the humanity of the coder - people are naturally invested in their creative work. Don’t assume stupidity. Code review could be a collaborative face-to-face process between reviewer and coder. This might be less stressful and more efficient.
To help people with mental health problems:
- Most importantly: talk, listen, and act!
- Ensure mental health is an option in the sick leave system.
- Meeting-free days (perhaps 1/week?) can help
- Quiet spaces
- Varied social events
- On-site help (councilor?)
The speaker talked about the emotional burden of being constantly ‘othered’ by the words of her colleagues (‘guys’ made another appearance). This forces the less privileged to bear the burden of validating themselves. This is particularly difficult for those in junior positions.
Sexual harassment had a significant effect, even when subtle. As a woman, colleagues saw the speaker as a ‘troublemaker’, ‘taking things too seriously’. The speaker had to fight for a seat at the table.
There are many small things that only affect those less privileged. It is very easy to believe yourself in a meritocracy. As an example, constantly being asked to explain stuff is hard emotional work.
As mitigations, the speaker used the three strike rule to determine when to stop giving the benefit of the doubt to colleagues. They re-iterated the importance of managing one’s energy levels. Finally, those less privileged are under no obligation to disrupt the industry.
The speaker recommended the use of the :raising hand: Slack emoji as a subtle/non-threatening response to the use of ‘guys’/etc.
Employers should better acknowledge ‘soft’ skills, empathy and emotional work.
If you are able, it is useful to build up some savings. This allows you to be able to leave an unpleasant job at the drop of a hat, having enough money to live whilst searching for another job. Support networks are also important - hold allies accountable, and get them to do work for you.
The speaker talked about the concept of ‘hypodescent’ - you will get treated according to your lowest privilege. This makes ‘safe spaces’ difficult - in a safe space for one of your ‘labels’, you can get hated for another. A good way of assessing those who wish to join a group is to ask them how they will avoid hurting people.
Recommendation algorithms reflect the preferences and values of the implementor. This speaker argued in favour of citizen-created algorithms.
The speaker described their experiences. Quiet spaces are important, especially at large social events. Accessibility devices are not toys, so third parties should not attempt to handle them.
The speaker chose to leave their job and found a company. The primary motivation was control and freedom. Running a business requires spending a lot of time cultivating relationships. See The Creative Mind and In the Company of Women.
As a woman developer, one is often underestimated. There exists a male visual language for identifying ‘programmer’, with no equivalent for women. This ties in to the concept of ‘stereotype threat’, where the less privileged will perform worse when reminded of their status (see Whistling Vivaldi). There is also background worrying which causes general misery. Thus, without a thoroughly inclusive environment, those less privileged will tend to under-perform.
The speaker linked this inclusivity problem to the diversity in the tech industry. Women’s participation in CS dropped off in the late 80s as PCs were marketed to boys/men. This also marked the rise of the male ‘geek’ stereotype. Further decline occurred in the mid 00s, as the .com bubble made software seem a less safe career choice. Thus, diversity numbers are malleable on decadal scales. However, any changes will need culture changes.
As an example, many German boys play football, as do an above average number of US girls. Hence the strength of their national teams.
As another factor in the diversity discrepancy in tech, the speaker mentioned that software developers receive much less initial training than people in many other careers (c.f. medicine, physics). There is not a firm plan for professional development beyond osmosis. Demand for software is elastic (c.f. doctors, physicists), so we should not be afraid of expanding the workforce.
We don’t have a good means of determining programming skill. So recruiters pattern match, selecting people who ‘look the part’. Hence, non-diverse groups are a symptom of a mediocre hiring process.
- For an example of the latter, see Candide, scene 3A. [return]
- this reasoning also applies to conferences. [return]
- this was somewhat of a theme of the conference, referred to by several speakers [return]
- I think one of the attendees put it well when they stated: “Hey guys” will be inclusive when “Can all the guys please stand up” results in an entire multi-gender group standing up [return]