Being a good ally
10 May 2017, by Helen Hosein
The technology industry is notoriously bad at embracing diversity. Almost everyone acknowledges the problem, but a lot of folks don’t know where to start. As a non-binary person of colour who’s worked in technology for their entire career, I’ve seen and experienced a lot of things that I think could be better. Here at Softwire, my colleagues often ask me what they can do to help. This is where allyship becomes important – to amplify our voices and help make the technology industry (and the world!) a more equal place.
Who can be an ally?
Anyone can be an ally! It doesn’t matter what your own background is, or how you identify. Even if you’re going through your own struggle, you can still be an ally to someone whose struggle may be slightly different than yours. If you don’t think that applies to you, that’s ok too – there’s no need to feel guilty about privilege. What we call privilege may just mean that there are more ways that you can help out.
A good ally isn’t a perfect human being either – we’re all flawed, and we all carry our own biases. Part of allyship is educating yourself and working to overcome yours.
What do I have to do?
I can’t speak for all marginalised folks (nor would I want to!) but here are three steps that I’d suggest to get you started.
Step 1: Talk to us
Ask your friends and colleagues what it’s like for them (understand, though, that sometimes talking about it is hard, so be patient). You may already have done some reading up, which is awesome, but don’t assume that you already know what your friend’s or colleague’s experience is like. Everyone’s experience is different. Your friend may have a very different experience from someone you’ve read about, or someone you’ve talked to in the past. The more you talk to us, and listen with humility and an open mind, the more you learn about us as individuals and as a group.
Step 2: Believe us
When you talk to us, some of what you hear may surprise you! It’s easy to imagine that our negative experiences are rare, not only because you may not experience them yourself, but also because you may not hear about them. For a person who feels marginalised, it can be embarrassing, or worse, frightening, to face the prospect of coming forward. In some cases, they may feel personally threatened.
Those who do speak out usually feel more comfortable doing so among other members of their group – they know these are people who will understand. If you’re not a member of that particular group, you may never get to hear those stories. That makes it all the more important, when someone does make the leap of faith to confide in you, that you believe everything they say. By believing them, you demonstrate that it’s safe to come talk to you about their experiences.
Step 3: Support us
Get involved! There are loads of ways to help support marginalised and underrepresented folks in the technology industry. You can lend your skills at events like codebar, support inclusive events like AlterConf or Diversity in Tech, sign the Minimum Viable Diversity Pledge, or do lots more stuff like those.
Don’t neglect the people you already know, as well. If you’re managing someone who may be from a marginalised group, check in on them. If there’s something they’ve asked for in your 1:1s, make sure you follow through.
Most of all, make sure you give us space to be heard, and back us up when we need it.
Remember that “ally” is not just a noun, it’s also a verb, so make sure you do the work to help out. This article is just a starting point; there are a lot more useful resources out there when you’re ready to take your journey as an ally further. The job is never done – there’s always more to learn, and more to do, so keep working at it!