Find your Peers

Kaja Santro · 19 Oct 2020

Foto by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

Diversity as an Illusion

It is 2020 and it seems quite hip and up to date to promote your company or your team as a diverse group of people. One reason to have rather diverse groups of people working on and developing successful products is no secret:

A homogeneous group of people tends to forget to fit a product to work for people who are not the same as them.

So if a group of people with good eye vision create a website, it might turn out to be less accessible to people who are blind or color blind. Now if the group of people would already have only one blind member, the probability of designing an accessible website is already much higher. But you will see later why only one blind member might feel outnumbered in a team and why it makes sense to have two blind people on the team.

We have also experienced this when Apple launched their new health app not implementing a menstruation cycle tracking feature, while to around half of the human population this would be highly relevant at some point in their life. When this came up it turned out that the team developing the app was a male humans only team and they had naively forgot about this very important part of how they actually were created and came into the world.

But this is not the main reason why companies brand themselves as being diverse. Let’s be honest and admit that the decision to brand your team as diverse is to show that you are hip and not outdated. So if we all agree on this first premise:

Most companies use diversity to brand themselves as hip.

We can also conclude that the culture that is lived in the teams of these companies is not much different from the ones that have very homogeneous teams. So if you join such a company thinking “Wow they mention a diverse team of people in the job posting” or “Cool there is a Black woman on one of their photos from their office, they must be aware of diversity!”, you might find yourself surprised seeing mostly white men in your team or at least in the upper levels of the company. This might also come together with the company not knowing how unsafe it can feel for women being the only sober person at a social event of the company or how they will not have any fallback plan for when their employees reproduce and need to breastfeed some time during the day. They might also have all their contracts and other written documents only addressing the male version of humans. And they will probably never even consider making their product accessible and inclusive. They might not know how racist microaggressions affect some people and they will not offer any help to make fasting and working go well together during Ramadan.

So the first learning here is:

Don’t fall for diversity as an illusion.

But what is real diversity?

The Mathematical Argument for Representation

We all know that white able-bodied men are overrepresented in tech teams, at least in Europe. Still we sometimes stumble over job postings for developer jobs that go something like:

We are a diverse team of engineers. Our team mates come from England, Spain, Russia and Italy!

But if you would actually look at the team you would see something like this:

Photo by Tim van der Kuip on Unsplash

So even if we have a diversity of hair cuts or a diversity of nationalities, this will still feel very discouraging to the people with certain awareness of the whole problem (mostly the people being affected by racism, sexism, ableism etc.). If we talk about diversity, we also have to talk about representation.

With representation I don’t mean that you need to represent the small amount of women working in tech in your team, because this would just repeat the sad pattern of the sexist tech industry. With representation I mean an actual representation of the population we have in the world or in your country.

So let’s model this on a team of 10 developers. If you want your team to be truly diverse, you will need to think of how many people in this country are women, how many are color blind, how many are from the former GDR and so on. As we know, women are the majority of the people in Germany (around 51%). If we round that down, we would have to have at least 5 of the people in the team to be women in order to represent the population. Now interestingly more men than women are color blind (red–green: 8% males, 0.5% females). So if you would want to have color blind people represented in your team and you round the numbers, you will have to have one color blind guy.

In Germany about 81% of the population are from so called West Germany and around 19% of the population are from so called East Germany. If we want to represent this in our team as well, we should have 1 woman and 1 man from East Germany and 4 women and 4 men from West Germany. This is before you count how many people in Germany actually don’t have a German passport, how many people are not fitting into the binary perception of gender and are gender or otherwise queer, how many people are Muslim, how many people are Black or people of color, how many use a wheel chair, how many are older than 60 and adjust your team in that way.

As you can see representation will be much stricter than just sprinkling your tech team with one Black woman to make the whole team seem more diverse. To be fair the number of 10 developers makes it much easier to properly represent groups of people than let’s say a number of three developers. You would have to compromise with a small team.

Being the Token

I have recently watched a movie about Freddie Mercury and how his band Queen evolved. It is called “Bohemian Rhapsody” and it beautifully describes the struggle of Freddie being the only gay guy in the band. While nobody in the band was being homo-hostile and the general vibe in the band seemed to be a self understanding of being family and loving each other, Freddie felt alone with being gay and his band members not relating with the pain of feeling different in a very fundamental aspect of his being. It felt like an unbreachable gap between Freddie and his beloved band members.

Have you ever been the only one representing your identity in a group of people? Have you ever been the Freddie Mercury in Queen? Have you been the only fat* person in the room? Or the only Black person in a company full of white people? And did this somehow keep your mind busy? I can tell you how it feels being the only woman in a tech team. It feels like anything you do differently from the others will automatically be perceived as connected to your gender.

Bild von MonikaP auf Pixabay

I was constantly trying not to stick out too much as different from my team mates. It was already weird enough that when going on a retreat with my team, I was the only one who was sleeping separately in her own room (a privilege that I tried to see as a good thing). But I was suffering from being perceived as very emotional. While I am in fact very emotional and totally like that about myself, I don’t want to feed the stereotype of women being emotional while men being rational. I can also be super rational by the way and if you know a little bit about how the brain actually works, you also probably don’t believe in this false dichotomy. But even if there is such a thing as rational and emotional people, and even if I do have a very emotional side to me, I don’t want everyone to think

“Oh you see, of course our only woman in the team is the emotional one. This totally fits with my beliefs.”

I would be as emotional even if I was a guy. But being the only woman in the team makes me represent all women in the universe somehow. If there would have been two of us and the other woman was super unemotional, I could be as emotional as I want to without this falling back into the trap of representing all women. The other woman in the team could represent unemotional women, while I could represent emotional women.

Fortunately my team of homogeneous able-bodied middle-aged heterosexual guys back then was quite friendly and did not only recruit me for being a woman, but also because they liked my tech skills and me as a person. And fortunately I also bring enough stereotypically male attributes with me to be a cultural fit in a male only tech team (I like bad jokes, I am very loud and overly self-confident and love playing football and foosball). But what if not? What if I would have been a less loud woman who was only recruited to decorate a male tech team with a pinch of diversity? That would have been called tokenism. And it is happening everywhere.

I was lucky too. Often women who are “loud” or confident can be perceived as “pushy” or “bossy”, while the same attributes on men would be perceived as “strong leader” and “convincing”. Please pay attention to this next time in your own team. Would you feel like the same behavior that a man shows and impresses everyone with could also have the same effect if a woman showed the exact same behavior?

Finding my Peers

In the beginning of 2020 I switched to Liefery and something that made me feel very sure of being in a good team here was the fact that in my job interview with the tech team there was another woman. When I was introduced to the rest of the team I was very happy to see even more women. This meant for me that in the future the part of my mind that before was busy thinking “I am the only woman here” would be free to do some actual coding. Also I would probably not be the only one wondering if I was paid enough for my position or the one raising questions about gender equality in our work place.

Having more than one woman in the team has many advantages for me and we are working on a representational number. It has also shown to correlate with a lot of awareness of equity and equality related topics like transparency of our equal income and so on.

And not only are there many other women on the team, they also really empower and support each other. The general vibe at work is that we are a relevant number of women and if one of us is raising her voice there is usually at least another one of us uttering her approval and strengthening the voice of the first one. I recommend developers to find teams where you will not be the token. And I recommend companies to employ a group of people that will not have one person as a token, but rather a relevant and representational number of women, Black people and people of color, disabled people, different ages, fat people and every beautiful variety our human kind has to offer.

Even if I am already really really happy in our team and I like that we are very aware of all of the things mentioned in this blog post, we are still having a lot of things to improve. When we spoke about being a very white team and how we would love to change that, one of our team members informed us that he as a Mexican does not identify as white. Already speaking about the problem taught us a lot and we were very happy to learn from this conversation. One thing that I always notice wherever I go is how few people there are from Turkish background. Growing up in West Berlin, almost 75% of my class in elementary school were from Turkish, Kurdish or Lebanese background. How come I never see them anymore? As you can see, there are a lot of things that we still need to figure out in order to become a more representative team. It is a continual improvement process.

*I am using the word “fat” in the neutral descriptive meaning and not to shame fat people. If you still feel like “fat” is a bad word you could go and read articles about why it is not, like this article here.