liz writes stuff down
29Aug/16Off

Burnout from unappreciated, unpaid diversity work

A little over a week ago, an unnecessary dick joke was sent to a mailing list I'm on. It's a mailing list related to a conference I go to, and the joke added absolutely no value to the conversation. Another young woman and I criticized this behavior, citing how it pushes women away from tech and conferences like this one. We were met with lots of men telling us that we were either being too sensitive, violating their First Amendment rights[1], or failing to note the large body of casual sexism towards men in the world. The men on this list constantly need to be reminded that women are the subject of the overwhelming majority of sexualized jokes, both within tech culture and in general. They consistently ignore how those jokes are part of the thousands of systemic paper cuts that, unsurprisingly, push women out of tech. Some men even had the gall to tell us off by saying that this wasn't the reason we don't have more women in tech because all the blame should fall on the leaky pipeline that doesn't get enough girls involved in tech, despite the fact that half the women who are already in tech leave. Somehow, words coming directly from women they know about their own experiences with tech culture can't possibly be valid.[2]

This sort of casual sexism happens a lot on this mailing list. More overt sexism happens on this list, too. Sometimes I write emails or even blog posts that directly respond to it - Dresses, "dressing up", and the software industry, Why is it easier to teach girls to code than to teach ourselves to treat women well?, and I've been programming since I was 10, but I don't feel like a "hacker" - but it always takes a lot out of me. My responses are met with hostility because I dare to question the way things are, so I find myself putting excessive care into tiptoeing around men's feelings when presenting how their actions harm the careers and safety of people like me. Sometimes, even the most measured of my responses are mocked, so I find myself too scared to reply to some of the worst affronts against women. I get people responding to me off list for more than just clarification, presumably because it's easier to tell people off in private. My "allies" generally reply quietly to just me and maybe some of the other young women, but these "allies" rarely confront the list.

I'm unhappy with being more or less solely responsible for making this space a comfortable, safe environment for me, and frankly, no amount of effort on my part will be enough without the male majority prioritizing this, too. This general unwillingness to improve the culture is the reason I am skeptical of inviting other young women I know to the conference. I just don't have the energy for unappreciated and unaided diversity efforts to ensure they will be comfortable and safe. I am not alone in this thinking: other young women on the list also feel that we're constantly going at this alone. We're tired.[3]

The last time I went to this conference was in 2014. All the attendees contribute to the programming through preparing talks ahead of time, scheduling ad hoc sessions for the evenings, and being present for less formal conversation over meals and in the hallways. The conference rents out an entire, somewhat remote resort, and the result is an immersive, intense experience. Somehow, despite being what some call "very introverted", I find the environment to primarily be giving and energizing. I have a lot of unique conversations with incredibly talented and influential individuals, many of whom I only see once a year at this event.

However, these talented individuals aren't a diverse group. At 27, I'm one of the youngest there by far. Women make up a small fraction of the attendees; young women even less so. (I can count the number of women 30ish or younger on one hand.) There aren't a lot of young men. The vast majority of attendees are white like me.

The conference provides a wide range of programming, mostly on detailed technical topics or broad, creative ideas for using tech to improve the world. Recently, there's been some efforts to improve diversity, including having a code of conduct[4] and scheduling a diversity talk in the main programming. That talk, like all talks, was to be done by attendees - women - for free.

I'm not sure how effectively the scheduled talks are usually planned at this conference; I've only been involved in a few. Somehow, I spent about two hours completely planning and getting the right people for one of the technical hours, almost entirely at my leisure before the conference, but I had to spend nearly eight hours - the entire first evening of the two and a half day conference, late into the night - working on the diversity talk despite not even being the point person for it. The talk itself went okay, though I heard secondhand that some attendees still didn't believe there even was a problem. We moderated how we gave our time to questions well. (Often this involved not giving time to questions.) I guess I was proud of the talk.

But I was also really, really, really burned out for the rest of the conference. I ran some other, more casual technical chats in the late night programming - sessions covering topics that sit at heart of the conference, the topics I and other attendees go to the event to be a part of - but it felt more difficult than the other years I've gone. I slept a lot more, as I usually do when I'm emotionally drained, and probably missed out on some of the most interesting conversations since those have historically happened for me around 2am. I felt cheated because I didn't have the privilege of spending that fifth of the conference on the events it's advertised to be about because I needed to be doing diversity 101 instead.

I didn't go last year for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, it would have been a logistical nightmare, so I didn't even have to weigh the considerations above. This year, I could easily go, but these experiences sit heavily on my mind. If I choose not to go this year, this will be why.

[1] No, the first amendment does not cover speech, offensive or otherwise, on private mailing lists.
[2] This is not surprising at all. Men try to gaslight us into believing that our experiences in the industry aren't valid all the time.
[3] Women aren't the only group who are hurt on this list. There was a painful thread about disability a while back. Interestingly, a disproportionate amount of the support for the specific person affected was from women - both disproportionately to the percent of women on the list and to the overall percent of emails sent by women to the list.
[4] Though I haven't heard of this being enforced or of the women I know feeling comfortable enforcing it, so I'm skeptical. I know this conference, like so many, isn't safe - I know things have definitely happened in the years before, and my instinct is that a lack of incidents is almost certainly not why I haven't heard of the code being used since its institution.

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