The other week I was out doing a charity bike ride; a Breast Cancer benefit from London to Cambridge. It was a lovely ride with a new group of cyclists I’d befriended on another ride. I was riding on a borrowed bike which clearly had some mechanical trouble, and I was trying to ride 20mph+ while stuck on the middle crank.
I worked my arse off for the first thirty miles, up and down hills, did my rotations up front of the peloton, and didn’t complain. All the time struggling with this problem, because I didn’t want to be “that person” moaning about my bike.
Eventually, my knees started to really hurt, and I couldn’t keep pretending everything was fine. When I raised the problem, the only response I would expect was to be “Shit! You should have said something earlier, we’ve got you. Let’s all stop at the next checkpoint and get that looked at.” I’m sure you’d expect the same.
Sadly, when we talk about diversity in tech, the mind-blowing majority of responses are so far away from that you just wouldn’t believe it.
Imagine if my team responded like this:
Come on, you’ve always got some excuse. Just buck up and get on with it.
I would lose my mind (and my knees).
Are you sure there’s a problem? Everyone else’s bike is fine.
Yeah, I know full well what problems are affecting me, thanks. Are you going to help or not?
We’re trying to get on with cycling here. Stop injecting bike mechanic conversations into our lovely ride.
Right, I certainly don’t want to be talking about bike problems, but while they’re actively causing trouble for me and not you it’s pretty easy for you to ignore the conversation isn’t it.
Stop trying to get attention, there’s loads of us on this ride and it’s hard for all of us.
That’s it. That is what being marginalized is like in a nutshell - There’s a group of people who have problems, and the majority of people ignore their problems for nonsensical reasons.
Negative Assumptions in PHP
Recently in the PHP community there have been a lot of conversations about social justice, mostly fueled by the relatively recent suggestions of PHP adopting a Code of Conduct. Conversations solving problems faced by marginalized groups in PHP should be seen as a great thing, but unfortunately these conversations are not happening in a healthy way at all.
The PHP community has a handful of well known names, who consider feminists and other diversity advocates, to be full of shit. They consistently label anyone who wants to initiate or expand a conversation about diversity as SJWs or PC-bros, constantly try to discourage conversations by shouting the equivalent of “Nah it’s fine”, and act like there is a huge conspiracy against them, rather than simply a substantial mass of people who disagree with their position.
This set of behaviors sucks, and obviously winds people up. Most people involved - myself included - then react in not the best way. Some people get called “bigots” and “misogynists”, the other side reply with calls of “whiny liberal”, “thought police”, complaints about free speech turn up, the phrase “social justice warrior” is banded around like some sort of slur. By the end of it, nobody has really discussed anything of substance.
Beyond that, quite regularly people speaking up about marginalization are called liars, social justice warriors, their sexuality is questioned, they are told to get thicker skin, accused of blaming their failures in their careers on gender or race, and so much more.
Nice People Have Biases
The maddening thing is that the people saying these things would never consider themselves to be racist, sexist, or anything else. They’re all good people, with what they consider to be logical reasons for reacting the way they do. The issue is that by preventing and/or hijacking discussions which might otherwise explore potential solutions, they are contributing to the problem.
If in the biking situation, a previous team-mate complained about bike trouble, but two mechanics couldn’t find a problem, one might end up thinking people who complain about bike trouble are just making things up. A person using that past example to make that assumption wouldn’t consider themselves to be a bigot, but that is the definition of bigotry. A couple of people being X does not mean you get to assume a group of people are probably also X.
We all have our biases, and they’re really hard to notice, let alone work past. I was listening to a TED podcast with a diversity scholar, who admitted she had some surprising concerns when she heard a woman’s voice introducing herself as the pilot of the plane. She had to think that initial emotional response through for a while, as you can imagine!
Nobody is perfect, we all have our biases. All most people want is for you to open your mind, listen to one another, and stop acting like it’s your job to convince everyone that things are currently fine. They might be fine for you (regardless of your age, gender, sexual orientation, etc), but when other people raise their concerns it’s important not to assume they have a shitty motive for doing so.
Many marginalized people such as women and POC will suffer an array of problems in tech that the average white-dude developer will never experience. I used to think these things didn’t happen, but when I saw a few things for myself, and started listening to the things happening to my friends, coworkers, and peers online, it blew my mind.
If I just shouted “NO IT’S FINE” at these people I would become part of the problem, instead of an ally in training.
My central concern is that solution seeking discussions of legitimate problems are being sidelined, because of some peoples unhelpful assumptions and biases.
I mentioned a few of these unhelpful assumptions above (liars, attention seeking, ulterior motives, etc.), and have written before about another: blaming a grossly exaggerated “outrage culture”.
There are loads of reasons people have for avoiding self-reflection or a change of world view when it comes to marginalization, but the strangest so far is the idea of a “social justice conspiracy”. I will attempt to explain how these extremist viewpoints came to get a foothold in the PHP community, despite being entirely false. Then we can look at the problems, and see if there are some solutions.