At npm everyone cares a great deal about workplace diversity. It’s a privilege to work in such a positive environment and in truth, I haven’t been the best advocate for diversity. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “but Shivs, you’re a woman interning in the ‘Tech Mecca.’” I’m entirely an edge-case when it comes to most women pursuing careers in technology. My parents have PhD’s in CS and my community has been nothing but supportive; we could argue I was fated to be a developer from the womb. I simply haven’t been exposed to many of the difficulties minorities face in this industry. Now despite my lack of roadblocks, I’ve still managed to happen upon a single, self-important thorn in my career path—namely, the rise of the “brodom.”
Let’s take this back to last summer. I remember walking into the stunning office of my first real internship—tall glass windows, fully stocked kitchen, giant redbull vending machine, even a game room equipped with two ping-pong tables. It all seemed promising. Fourteen engineers greeted me and I hardly noticed I was the only woman in the room. That was until my co-worker found it timely to announce, “looks like we gotta stop with the dick jokes, huh?”. I laughed off many of these insults throughout the summer. A further snub, I’m not trained as a designer but spent the summer completing what were mostly front-end tasks thrown at me. Moreover, while the specifics I’ll refrain from sharing, I can understand how it proves to be difficult keeping matters in professional scope because workplaces also lend themselves to social interactions. However, unwarranted remarks and general disrespect for personal decisions in the workplace undermines one’s agency and marginalizes community members. In all honesty, I found it easier to join the “brodom” than to fight it. I cast my dresses and skirts into the depths of my closet in exchange for hackathon t-shirts and jeans. The less attention I could bring to myself, the better. The tipping point of all this came when I was rushed to the hospital during the last week of the internship. All it took was a trip to the emergency room to leave my sense of self-worth even more dire. This was the beginning of my concerns with diversity in our community.
In our industry, we’re all encouraged to be insufferable smart-asses. Humans, and developers in particular, fail to decouple pride from their interactions. Moreover, we tell those afflicted to “toughen up” instead of confronting the problem directly. On the internet, with increased anonymity, it’s easy to be overbold. The consequence? It’s incredibly disheartening, in the open-source community for instance, for an enthusiastic new contributor to be shut down by a matter-of-fact thread of comments. Being well acquainted with many of these issues, I decided to attend a diversity forum at NodeConf (nodeconf.com) last week with my co-workers from npm. The first of these sessions was very tense; we essentially threw a mob of passionately opinionated people into a room and awaited the impending chaos. The following discussions held much greater resolve and succeeded in creating a document (soon to be released to the public) acknowledging issues and actionable goals for the coming year. A few of my takeaways:
1. Realizing We All Have a Shared Vulnerability
The tech industry is a heated contest; everyone feels the pressure to one-up each other, but we must resist the need to be self-defensive at the cost of another. It is imperative we be welcoming and use actionable criticism. At times it can be difficult to keep our interactions in-scope of our contributions to the community. However, it is crucial to respect personal decisions and avoid undermining a person’s prerogative.
2. Collaboration > Competition
In truth, competition isn’t entirely detrimental to workplace culture. One could argue that “healthy” competition is more than acceptable. But, if said competition begins to pose a problem, for goodness sake, please dial it back.
3. Leading by Example
Community leaders have to be exemplars of inclusive practices, perhaps even held to a higher standard. At the first of the diversity discussions at NodeConf, some of my co-workers spoke openly about our company’s opt-in policy of “the guys jar”. Anyone who chooses to participate donates $1 to the jar every time they uses the term “guys” over a whole slew of other options—”folks,” “people,” “everyone”…etc. The policy was received with all sorts of opposition, even an offensive note sent to the company email.
4. Trust the “Ouch”
If a community-member reports an issue that defies your own world-view, don’t ignore it. For example, many npm users will submit complaints regarding difficulties using npm on a Windows machine. Problems using Windows is something of a cultural joke. So, it’s easy to dismiss these complaints because we—via only our own circumstances—have survived thus far unobstructed; this does not promote diversity nor an inclusive culture. At npm, we’ve identified this as being unproductive and have therefore put some effort into resolving Windows users’ concerns. As a general rule please listen first, hear second, respond third.