White Corporate Feminism

When I first went to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, it was magical. Being a woman in tech means I’m often the only woman in a team of male engineers, and if there’s more than one woman on a team, it’s usually because we have a project manager or marketing person who is a woman.

Going to the Grace Hopper conference, and being surrounded by women engineers and women computer science students, allowed me to relax in a way that I could never do in a male-centric space. I could talk with other women who just understood things like the glass ceiling and having to be constantly on guard in order to “fit in” with male colleagues. I had crafted a persona, an armor of collared shirts and jeans, trained myself to interrupt in order to make my male colleagues listen, and lied to myself and others that I wasn’t interested in “girly” hobbies like sewing or knitting. At Grace Hopper, surrounded by women, I could stop pretending, and try to figure out how to just be myself. To take a breath, stop interrupting, and cherish the fact that I was listened to and given space to listen to others.

However, after a day or so, I began to feel uneasy about two particular aspects of the Grace Hopper conference. I felt uneasy watching how aggressively the corporate representatives at the booths tried to persuade the students to join their companies. You couldn’t walk into the ballroom for keynotes without going through a gauntlet of recruiters. When I looked around the ballroom at the faces of the women surrounding me, I realized the second thing that made me uneasy. Even though Grace Hopper was hosted in Atlanta that year, a city that is 56% African American, there weren’t that many women of color attending. We’ve also seen the Grace Hopper conference feature more male keynote speakers, which is problematic when the goal of the conference is to allow women to connect to role models that look like them.

When I did a bit of research for this blog post, I looked at the board member list for Anita Borg Institute, who organizes the Grace Hopper Conference. I was unsurprised to see major corporate executives hold the majority of Anita Borg Institute board seats. However, I was curious why the board member page had no pictures on it. I used Google Image search in combination with the board member’s name and company to create this image:

My unease was recently echoed by Cate Huston, who also noticed the trend towards corporations trying to co-opt women’s only spaces to feed women into their toxic hiring pipeline. Last week, I also found this excellent article on white feminism, and how white women need to allow people of color to speak up about the problematic aspects of women-only spaces. There was also an interesting article last week about how “women’s only spaces” can be problematic for trans women to navigate if they don’t “pass” the white-centric standard of female beauty. The article also discusses that by promoting women-only spaces as “safe”, we are unintentially promoting the assumption that women can’t be predators, unconsciously sending the message to victims of violent or abusive women that they should remain silent about their abuse.

So how to do we expand women-only spaces to be more inclusive, and move beyond white corporate feminism? It starts with recognizing the problem often lies with the white women who start initiatives, and fail to bring in partners who are people of color. We also need to find ways to fund inclusive spaces and diversity efforts without big corporate backers.

We also need to take a critical look at how well-meaning diversity efforts often center around improving tech for white women. When you hear a white male say, “We need more women in X community,” take a moment to question them on why they’re so focused on women and not also bringing in more people of color, people who are differently abled, or LGBTQ people. We need to figure out how to expand the conversation beyond white women in tech, both in external conversations, and in our own projects.

One of the projects I volunteer for is Outreachy, a three-month paid internship program to increase diversity in open source. In 2011, the coordinators were told the language around encouraging “only women” to apply wasn’t trans-inclusive, so they changed the application requirements to clarify the program was open to both cis and trans women. In 2013, they clarified that Outreachy was also open to trans men and gender queer people. Last year, we wanted to open the program to men who were traditionally underrepresented in tech. After taking a long hard look at the statistics, we expanded the program to include all people in the U.S. who are Black/African American, Hispanic/Latin@, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. We want to expand the program to additional people who are underrepresented in tech in other countries, so please contact us if you have good sources of diversity data for your country.

But most importantly, white people need to learn to listen to people of color instead of being a “white savior”. We need to believe people of color’s lived experience, amplify their voices when people of color tell us they feel isolated in tech, and stop insisting “not all white women” when people of color critique a problematic aspect of the feminist community.

Trying to move into more intersectional feminism is one of my goals, which is why I’m really excited to speak at the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. I hadn’t heard of it until about a year ago (probably because they have less corporate sponsorship and less marketing), but it’s been described to me as “Grace Hopper for people of color”. I’m excited to talk to people about open source and Outreachy, but most importantly, I want to go and listen to people who have lived experiences that are different from mine, so I can promote their voices.

If you can kick in a couple dollars a month to help me cover costs for the conference, please donate on my Patreon. I’ll be writing about the people I meet at Tapia on my blog, so look for a follow-up post in late September!

4 thoughts on “White Corporate Feminism

  1. “I want to go and listen to people who have lived experiences that are different from mine”. I hope most people will feel this way, then diversity will grow out of people’s own interest in it, which is the only way it’s going to grow. Why would you say you feel this way?

    • I think until people interact with others who have different lived experiences, they don’t realize how much privilege they have. Twitter has been a great eye-opener for me in that regard.

      As to where my desire to learn more about diversity comes from, I’m not exactly sure. I’ve always been interested in different cultures and experiences, thanks to my parents, who took me traveling to different countries as a kid. I like most geeks, I was bullied as a kid for being a bookworm and teacher’s pet with an over-active imagination, so I know what it’s like to be “different”. However, I’m not sure why I’m more interested in diversity than the average white cis male geek who was also bullied as a kid. Perhaps being disadvantaged in the adult tech world on one axis (woman vs man) led me to explore the impact on others of being disadvantaged in multiple axis (people of color, trans people, neuro-atypical people, etc).

      • “However, I’m not sure why I’m more interested in diversity than the average white cis male geek who was also bullied as a kid.”
        Some of this might be gross overgeneralization and definitely won’t apply to everyone, but I feel that part of the reason is probably that bullied white cis male geeks transitioned from a place where they where the minority and looked down upon (e.g. high school), to somewhere where they belong and are in the majority (tech/open-source communities). Further emphasized by the fact that geek is chic and trendy now, at least if you fit the stereotype of the Mark Zuckerberg hoodie-wearing white young dude in his 20’s. The roles are reversed, and it’s just “natural” to take advantage of the new position. Maybe it’s even more insidious than that: we have a tendency to reproduce social constructs, and I know that as a bullied kid I sometimes reacted by bullying other kids (yeah, needless to say, I’m not proud). My point being, people might not only ignore diversity issues but also, consciously or not, reproduce the social construct they’ve been taught by rejecting folks who don’t “fit” in the community.

  2. Sarah,
    You should come speak or teach at DevPulseCon in 2017.

    Although the CodeChix board is majority white women (which I plan to fix slowly but surely), take a look at the speakers and the attendees who are mostly women of color (not the US legalese of certain designated groups such as African Americans, Native Americans and Latinas which, I find, to be very restrictive). There is a predominance of South Asian/Asian women with inclusion of Caucasian and Latina women and CodeChix has always been hugely supportive of our LGBTQ members since the beginning. Perhaps, it’s reflective of the bay area and the particular technical sub-areas (systems, networking etc.) we’ve focused on – something we’re considering changing to be more wide-reaching.

    But, yeah, we don’t advertise and we’re not mainstream. And we’re highly technical and no fluff. While we allow some recruiting at the conference, the main focus is education and the programs we run address topics that many conferences don’t address (or are too controversial) from a developer/engineer POV.

    Oh yeah, and we’re an all-volunteer org and run on a shoestring budget. Best way to keep things streamlined and focused.

    Anyway, just wanted to put forth a data point to this post. Thanks for writing about this.

    I had applied to the Tapia conference with a proposal 4/5 years ago and never got a response from them. Another data point.

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