Despite millions of dollars in investment by companies such as Google and Facebook the needle of diversity in Silicon Valley has barely shifted. Ellen Pao’s recent article in the New York Times evaluating if anything has changed concludes there’s potential for change, but not much actual change:

Five years from now, if enough people speak up for others, the answer to “Has anything changed?” has the potential to be an unequivocal yes. — Ellen Pao

It’s easy to get caught up in hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about the latest racist and/or sexist tech fiasco. It appeases a sense of morality while avoiding the work of addressing our own biases and behaviors that reinforce patriarchal white supremacy. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be outraged that people of color earn significantly less than white colleagues or that {tech-cxo-a} just did {horrible-action-b} and still made {obscene-dollar-amount-c}.

A nuanced understanding of privilege, both ours and others’, focuses energy on our own behaviors and beliefs first. Once we have a handle on those, we can channel that energy outwards to our direct sphere of influence. Change comes from within, and equity in tech’s funding, employment and compensation landscape is a big change.

Understanding Privilege

Privileges, simply put, provide safety from harm and increased opportunities. Conversely, someone who has increased vulnerability to harm or decreased opportunities could be considered underprivileged. Privileges may be acquired innately, earned, granted, imposed, or through other means.

An innate privilege could be a genetic predisposition to heart health. An earned advantage, such as excelling in school and collecting a strong professional network, is something to be proud of. Granted privileges, like knowing someone else will make sure you have food and shelter while you launch a business, are an incredible blessing. Imposed privileges are a kind of granted privilege that perhaps you’re not comfortable with, such as if your pay is higher due to your ethnicity or gender presentation.

When introspecting on privilege it can be useful to think along several axes:

  • Physical and Mental Health
  • Relational and Social Integration
  • Occupational Flexibility and Stability
  • Financial Stability and Leverage
  • Citizenship and Backing Documentation

You can visualize the interplay of these aspects of privilege like waves. They’re complex and complicated yet predictable interactions that shape our interactions with the world.

Like waves, privileges may interact constructively. Someone with a strong financial safety net may likely wind up with a better education due to not feeling the pressure of needing to work full time to pay their way through school. They may also interact destructively. Neurologically atypical students often receive a lower quality education in school systems not designed to support their needs.

These interactions feed into themselves, compounding or reducing one’s privilege in current and future contexts. Reduced privileges may sometimes be mitigated by simple strategies rooted in understanding the struggles and needs of the underprivileged demographic. Whirpool found that supplying schools with washers and dryers improved attendance for financially underprivileged students.

I mentally visualize my (and others’) privileges as a graph or matrix. Interconnected, nuanced and unique. When confronted with a privilege gap it’s easy to leap to stereotypes or media projections of people. When I’m struggling to understand someone else’s decision making or behavior I try to mentally overlay my understanding of our relative privilege. Mentally overlaying our relative privilege both slows down my judge-y tendencies and helps humanize others.

Owning Your Privilege

When thinking about our own privilege, it is helpful to anchor our baseline on others’ lack of advantages. This helps us avoid the trap of thinking we have nothing to offer because others have more than us, as well as helps us build empathy for those who have less privilege.

Developing a realistic understanding of the advantages, power and influence we have can be uncomfortable. Imposed privileges are especially difficult. Perhaps that interview for my first job was because my parents knew the owner. Maybe I can laugh about the times I got pulled over because police rarely escalate when stopping a well dressed white person. These advantages can be a source of guilt and shame, or we can choose to acknowledge, understand and work to mitigate the struggles of those who don’t have the same advantages.

Leveraging Your Privilege

There are many ways someone in a position of leadership may leverage their privilege to improve the equity of the tech sector. Here are a few I strive for.

  1. Read books. Books by authors who don’t share your privilege graph are a great way to gain outside perspective. bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody is a great introduction. I like to balance my harder reading with fiction, as that’s a great way to see a world from the perspective of someone else. Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor are all incredible authors who blend real talk and powerful, engaging stories.
  2. Don’t inflict help. As problem solvers, engineers have a tendency to rush in and “fix” things. Instead of offering advice or trying to solve someone else’s problem, do this instead: observe, listen and learn. Despite spending the last ~5 years of my life trying to understand how privilege impacts my and others’ opportunities and vulnerability my instincts are still very often wrong.
  3. Center the needs and desires of those you are trying to support. It’s easy to project your desires onto someone else. Make sure you truly understand other people’s needs and desires when trying to support them individually. Be mindful of tokenization and stereotypes, and avoid using them to guide your actions and beliefs.
  4. Get positive consent every step of the way. Privilege has a huge impact on what works, even in similar situations. Ask permission before making a suggestion. Instead of offering solutions they would need to act on, offer suggestions for what you can do to help. Be ready to adjust or back away completely based on the response.
  5. Focus on sponsorship and the environment. Oftentimes this involves advocating for responsibility or compensation improvements for people who would be punished for standing up for themselves. Provide resources and make space for people with a different privilege graph to shine. Then get out of their way and stand by and behind them.
  6. Apologize early and often. Everyone makes mistakes. Owning mistakes and any harm caused sets a good example for others on how to make an environment more inclusive. Further, doubling down or ignoring our own harmful behaviors or actions can cause even more harm than the initial error. That said, demanding forgiveness or over-apologizing centers yourself, as opposed to the harm you caused others.

Detoxing tech is our responsibility. A 2012 research study by Catalyst demonstrated that people in leadership, especially white men in leadership, who train in inclusive leadership practices increase behaviors critical for building inclusive relationships and teams, as well as a decrease in general workplace incivility.

That said, we don’t have to do it alone. Look to people of color and members of underrepresented groups for leadership and follow their lead. Move beyond the pipeline and pay for help learning how to detox your workplace.

If you’re looking to make broad organizational changes, work with experts like Nicole Sanchez of Vaya Consulting, Valerie Aurora from Frame Shift Consulting or Ashe Dryden.

For those with less organizational influence or financial power, consider investing in a workshop or coaching from a professional who understands your goals of a more equitable organization. Jennifer Tu, for instance, is exceptional at helping teams and leaders learn how to identify and change behaviors that impact members of underrepresented groups.

There are also opportunities for individual contributors and others without institutional authority. Invest in building your professional network to include people from underrepresented groups. Identify, follow and learn from leaders with a different privilege graph in your field. Buy books and take training on being supportive. Provide opportunity scholarships or fund organizations led by members of underrepresented groups.

This requires investing your time, attention and finances. It isn’t enough to acknowledge the problem anymore. It’s time to do something.

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