04 Dec 2013

How to be an ally

This was also a talk during the RailsBridge lightning talks at Github. See below for the slides, as well as the content of the talk.

So I titled this “How to be an ally”, but that’s a lie. You can’t be an ally. No one can. Ally-ness isn’t something that you can have intrinsically, any more than you can inherently be kindness, or rudeness. You can do ally actions. So probably a better name for this is How To Do Ally Work. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Convince me I should care

Tech as a field (and software development in particular) have a stunning gender imbalance. While gender imbalance isn’t inherently a bad thing, it has been getting worse, not better, for the last ten years. The few women who do make it into the field experience omnipresent sexist behaviour, from the tiny to the completely unbelievable. The scale starts with small (but still clearly exclusive) things like documentation that only uses “he”, includes being told “oh, you don’t LOOK like an engineer” every single introduction, and can get as absurd as bosses who demand that the female engineer serve everyone coffee. Yes, that really happens. In real life. This is completely unreasonable, unfair, and demoralizing.

But wait! It gets worse. Even if you’re not a woman, you can still be attacked for being unacceptable. That can include (but isn’t limited to) homosexuality, transsexuality, genderqueerness, having skin that isn’t white enough, or just pointing out those groups are mistreated. Male-dominated culture doesn’t just automatically degrade women. It also normalizes treating women as objects, unwanted sexual advances, and even sexual assault and rape. Right now tech (and American culture in general) is a place where it sucks to be anything but white and male.

Even if you don’t have a personal beef with the dominant culture, there are two big reasons to care about this stuff. First, diverse work groups are well-documented to produce better results in less time than homogenous groups. Second, the only time you can expect to be treated with empathy and understanding is when everyone is expected to have empathy and compassion. So ultimately, your success in business, in life, and in relationships depends on this stuff. No big deal.

What even is allies

Now that you know why you should care, back to allies. Ally, in this context, is a description of how you act. Are your actions inclusive and encouraging towards those who aren’t like you? Do they show that you couldn’t care less about them? Or worse yet, do they show that you are willing to harass, exploit, or attack people who aren’t like you?

It’s important to note at this point that I am NOT saying that anyone (including you) is a bad person, or even sexist. I’m saying that it’s important to think about our actions, and how they impact the people around us, regardless of our intentions.

As a result, ally work isn’t something you can just do once. It’s an attitude and a series of actions, and doing ally work consistently means CONSTANT VIGILANCE. Not just against others, but against yourself as well. Culture has done the best it can to make you automatically assist with the harassment and oppression of people who aren’t like you in some way.

Fucking allies how do they work

So now that you care, what can you do? Primarily, it is this: shut the fuck up and listen. There are a lot of people who have been mistreated. Listen to them. You have not experienced what has happened to them. Listen to them so you can understand their experiences. They will probably be angry. They should be! The culture says it’s fine to mistreat them. Ugh.

Now that you’re listening, you’ll probably only last a few seconds before you’re tempted to say something. Don’t. Don’t change the subject. Don’t talk about how you have problems too. Don’t tell them they’re being too angry. Don’t tell them being angry could have bad repercussions. Definitely don’t say anything that includes “I’m only trying to help”. You didn’t have their experience, and your problems aren’t directly comparable to theirs.

Learn about the things that are upsetting to the people that you care about. When those situations come up in the future, speak up. Make it clear that the behaviour you just witnessed isn’t okay. The cultural status quo is that bigoted actions are okay. Because of that, any witness who does nothing gives both attacked and attacker the impression that they condone the attack. Likewise, a vast body of research makes it clear that humans are willing to silently accept situations they cannot stand until just one other person speaks up. Be that person, and make it possible for others to speak up as well.

You won’t always get ally actions right, but that’s okay. No one does. We need to change the norm to expect that everyone be treated well. You can do that. Once you are doing that, though, don’t expect special treatment. There isn’t a cookie jar or a bag of candy for the guys who are so amazing that they treat women and other minorities like regular human beings. This is minimum humanity, here. Aspire to actively do more, so that you can in fact be awesome.

What about the mens!

At this point, you’re about to meet the opposition. Those people and their allies will fight unbelievably hard against the idea that their actions are damaging. “What about the mens!”, they cry. “Reverse racism!” is another popular one, as is “but tech is a meritocracy!”. Then there’s always my favorite, “feminists hate men and also fun”.

I’ll just cover responses to the top few that I run into:

  1. “Women can’t computer because biology!” There is no biological difference between the genders in IQ, problem solving, or any of the other skills needed to type all day while being angry at computers.
  2. “Tech is a meritocracy!” Meritocracy doesn’t solve subconscious biases. In fact, a study found that performance evaluations in so-called meritocracies were more biased against women and minorities than evaluations outside them.
  3. “That’s reverse sexism (or reverse racism)!” Helping minorities is not unfair to the majority—the majority is already better off than those who need help are even after they get helped.
  4. “Not ALL men are like that!” Of course not all men are like this. Anyone who feels the need to say this is just trying to distract from the very real problems caused by SOME men.

Fortunately, the entire list of complaints is so common that there are already well-researched responses to all of them. A wonderfully concise list can be found on Julie Pagano’s blog, in her post 101 Off Limits. In it, she quickly covers the most common arguments against diversity, feminism, and women. Most answers also include links to other responses with tons of detail and research.

There’s a ton more to learn about this, but it’s hard to tackle all at once. If you’d like to learn how deep the rabbit hole goes, I’ve collected a few links that you can use as starting points to learn more.

Further resources on



Open Source