women in computer science

Inclusion is a Hack

Credit: Flickr / Marek Kubica

I wish more people understood that (in tech) inclusion – as we talk about it – is a hack. Firstly, “inclusion” is a shorthand for “inclusion of the historically under-represented”. The “historically under-represented” piece is the reason why we need the hack. What started with the deliberate exclusion of people of color and white women from a high paying field (see: Hidden Figures, and this extract from Brotopia for examples), has become – if we’re generous and believe people generally know better than that now – an unthinking perpetuation of an environment designed without diverse input.

Children used to be excluded from public life. To let them in, hacks were required – like adding changing tables. Initially these were just in the women’s bathrooms, because people couldn’t contemplate children without a woman to take care of them. If we designed a public space in a world where children are part of public life, and childcare is evenly distributed between people of all genders, things would look very different.

The thing is: it’s hard to contemplate that world, because we bring so much baggage from this one and all the ones that preceded it. So we keep trying. We keep hacking.

Perhaps because we keep missing the end of “inclusion of those historically under-represented” we fall into these holes of “inclusion is including everybody” which is the thinking that Lambda Conf started on which led them to make a case for… including Nazis. Now it’s the programming conference for White Extremists, with all the strong currents of misogyny that generally implies. Which brought them full circle and back to an environment that – guess what? – people of color and white women are not part of.

The truth that we don’t acknowledge is that inclusion is not just who you let in, but who you push out. When Google allowed Damore to circulate and refine his memo for months – including him – they allowed him to raise questions about women’s fitness and ability to do their jobs. I know at least one women who cited that memo in her decision to leave, and I doubt she was the only one. It’s important to mention here the coded racial language of the memo would not have fostered a good environment for people of color.

When we’re not specific about what we’re doing and why, it allows people to claim “not included” when what they truly mean is “I am uncomfortable with this hack that now makes this environment feel less designed by and for me“. It starts us down a path where we start equating everyone’s feelings and trying to decide by popular vote. If we have a team of 25% women, and we have a vote to ask if people feel included when the team is address as “hey guys”, we might call 75% a success and keep saying it. (This is to say nothing of making comparable the need to make a small adjustment to your language with being reminded that you weren’t expected to be here 10+ times a day.)

This is why allyship and intersectionality is so important. When white people speak up against structural effects of racism. When men speak up about the structural effects of sexism. Because the other truth we must acknowledge to ourselves is this: when we don’t speak up for others, we too perpetuate the structurally racist and misogynistic status quo.