Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of discussions about the divisiveness in the tech world. Most conversations focus on women in tech, but the real message is about equality, fairness, and collective responsibility. Coincidentally, I've also been reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom". While the struggles against apartheid are of an entirely different nature, I read a passage that made me pause because I felt it describes the current environment very well:
It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behavior.
– Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
I'm not equating apartheid to gender discrimination, but the acknowledgment of human nature is relevant. Within the divisiveness in technology I have rarely found genuine malice in the masses. Instead, there are exclusionary behaviors that are rewarded and reinforced. When we, as a collective society, reward exclusionary behavior we create more of that behavior. It is the majority that determines what is rewarded; it is the majority that must change the rewards.
The second perspective shift this passage brought to me is how important it is to not assume dark hearted people are the cause. Identify with the people separate from their damaging and barbaric actions. Touch their hearts. This is not about excusing behavior, but reaching a higher level of understanding and ultimately changing behavior. Nelson Mandela was able to look at his persecutors in a way of understanding, earnestly believing they could be touched and softened. These are the people that oppressed and put him in prison, separated from his family for almost 30 years. He was right about human nature. Many of his tormentors later became allies. "[H]is inhumanity has been foisted upon him by an inhuman system." echoes through my head. All those in the majority (myself included) have created, or propagated, a system which rewards the behavior that we want to stamp out.
I don't identify myself as a feminist, but I am a staunch advocate for human rights and equality. Some may say that makes me a feminist, and I wouldn't disagree. Nelson Mandela was not a black rights activist, he campaigned for unhindered basic human rights, equality, and freedom. There is currently a fight for equality, acceptance, and inclusion in the tech world. I want to be a part of that, and I want to change the nature of the rewards. A fantastic writer, @Shanley, asked, "What can men do?". The actions she lists are great, and should at least be considered, and best yet, followed. But there is something more I can do.
Plant a tree so that my children may enjoy the shade.
My son is 7 and my daughter is 2 years behind him. She isn't in school yet and despite her friendly personality she doesn't have many friends that come to the house to play. We're fortunate to have a neighbor with a daughter close to her age. This is my daughter's opportunity to play the games that she enjoys the most. Putting on princess gowns, tiaras, costume jewelry and acting out elaborate scenes. My daughter is exceedingly feminine and she loves it.
My son is a stereotypical boy. When our neighbor comes over he is in a hard place. He looks at them playing, and wants to play with them but not what they want to play. He complains, "it isn't fair!" over and over. It's a very difficult to teach the lesson that you don't have a right to tell others what games they can or cannot play. It's harder, and more important, to teach that he is excluding himself. He is entirely welcome in their world, but he refuses to be dressed as a king and pretend in a world of princesses. He chooses to not play that game, nobody else.
I see a parallel with the way we treat inclusion in tech. We are not actively alienating, we tell anybody they may come into our world. During playtime we are free to choose the games we play. When it comes to pursuing our passions, our freedom to do so as who we are must be unhindered. This means free from harassment and exclusion. Most importantly free from suggestions, or even demands, that someone has to change their behavior, who they are, in order to pursue that passion.
My daughter, age 5, has already told me that girls aren't good at math. She's said that girls can be doctors, but shouldn't be scientists. My son wants a career in science, and it suits him. But it worries me this split in perception exists, despite my efforts as a parent. It further worries me that my son has the potential to propagate the exclusionary practices that are common today.
Have I failed as a parent? Not yet. I've spoken with my daughter, and shared studies that show that girls outperform boys in math in segregated classrooms. We play math games, making her laugh with the numbers. Even so, I worry about her in a STEM career. The current generation is hostile, much too hostile for her gentle spirit. In truth, I'm happy she wants to be a singer, or maybe even a doctor, and not an engineer. That happiness I feel also creates concern and sadness.
My son, though, is where most of my focus is. I don't doubt he will enter into a science-oriented career. It is my duty to help him become well-balanced, and deeply empathic to the world around him. This is what I can do. I hope his experiences during play create that empathy, and all evidence suggests it will. There is the alarming trend that children are becoming less empathic. We need to stop this trend. Empathy breaks down the reward cycle, promoting fairness over individual rewards. If we want to create an inclusive industry, we must help children regain lost empathy and teach our aspiring developers, as children, that everybody belongs.
We must all, especially men and those determining the rewards, show the next generation of scientists, engineers, developers that everybody belongs and should be rewarded on their merit and enthusiasm. The dropout rates of women in scientific programs is disproportionate. I'm pessimistic that we will drastically change the current generation. While we can improve now, it is imperative to educate the next generation.