Today I work as the lead front-end developer and Scrum-master (a type of team-leader-figure) in an e-health project. Before I decided to change profession and become a system developer I had a career within the cultural sphere as an artist, writer and a project manager. And I have found that there are things in feminist performance art that translates very well to tech.
The most noticed and successful art project I’ve been a part of was the art group The Dinner Party. Me and my three colleagues arranged actual dinners for women within the cultural sphere, discussing different topics. Our ambition was to create safe environments so that the conversations could deepen faster, even if you were seated next to a stranger. Working with The Dinner Party taught me that there is no room that can be comfortable for everyone. If you create an atmosphere that works with some personalities, it will inevitably clinch with others. We learnt that being inclusive was really challenging, but in the end we tackled it with trying to be as open as we could about ourselves and what we wanted to create with the evening in question. And if you found that interesting you would come. Obviously there were some things that we kept in mind to lower the threshhold for unaccustomed people. The dinners were not expensive. You did not have to join a discussion if you didn’t want to, you could just listen in.
In tech there are other thresholds that need to be lowered to make all kinds of people feel welcomed.
In this text I summarise some strategies and tips and trix that I have found useful navigating this industry and I wish all team-leader-types in tech should have heard about these and reflected upon them. If not only to discard them! I mean, if a company clearly communicate their view on inclusion and equality, we as employees can more easily navigate which teams we want to be a part of and which we don’t think will suite us. Who share my core values and who doesn’t.
One way to include, as well as exclude, someone is through language. The more insecure you feel in a room, the heavier the impact of exclusive language will be. So think about language, how you describe your team and what words you use to create a sense of companionship between colleagues.
When my former boss described one of his old teams he always used the term ”My guys”, which in swedish translates to ”My boys”. Like ”My guys deserved a hockey game in the office space, they work so hard.”. But when a woman is hired, the Guys can no longer be just the Guys and the whole team needs to redefine what to call them selves. And that is unnecessary work. Another ex-boss of mine always said: ”You can never be to clear. ”And I believe her. Words mean different things for different people and it takes time to learn eachothers vocabulary. So you can never be to clear when you’re trying to communicate something to a team or a teammember
I would also like to mention transparency. For me this has worked very well within my team. I have tried to make my positioning clear, like this is what I expect from you as Scrum master. For instance, if you are late you tell me. If you work from home you tell me. Otherwise I’m gonna find you on Slack or email and ask you about it. I try to be transparent if there are uncertainties about something in the project, because people can feel it if something’s up and then they react to it in different ways, some worse than others. I really believe in transparency in many things, but there is always a balance to it. I mean you can over-inform and you don’t want to waste your teams time. But it is good for creating an open environment where there is easy to talk because you know how the communication channels flows, what is expected from who, when and where.
Another toolset for excluding or including people are: Master suppression techniques and its counterparts and confirmations strategies. Nowadays these are not techniques that men in suits use to oppress women in heels. It can be that great guy at the office that everybody loves but who has a sense of humor that not everybody gets. Especially if you’re new at the office, or from another background. And these are techniques that we all use, most of the time unconsciously, and this is why we need to address them again and again. To learn how to identify them and also learn how we can disarm a situation when a suppression technique is in play. So, I will run through five of them very briefly and focusing on what you can do when you encounter them. The headline of the MST (master suppression technique) will also hold its counterstrategy and confirmation technique for future reference.
Making Invisible –> Take Place –> Make Visible
Making invisible is to silence or otherwise marginalize a person in opposition by ignoring them. For example, when you’re in a meeting and a persons suggestions is not beeing heard in the same way as another persons. This kind of lack of respone from an individual or an entire group can be deliberatly done or just an unconsious result of how a group always have functioned. If you see this technique in action I think the best way to tackle it is by the bystander. Like, ”Hey, you interrupted when x was talking. I would like to hear what they have to say”.
Ridicule –> Question –>Recognise.
A classic in many areas. This is when you in a manipulative way portray the arguments of, or your opponent themselves in a ridiculing fashion. I always think of Nelson in the Simpsons when he points at someone and yells ”Ha-ha”. Unfortunately not everyone is as obvious in their ridicule as Nelson. This is a technique that is easier to act on as the person being on the recieving end. Because you as well can use humor! If someone is making fun of you in an inappropriate way you can use a counter-humor-attack to question it. Like ”Ha, that was funny, but still a bit weird, why did you want to comment my point that way?” And then you can get back to the core in what you wanted to say; ”I mean, my point was x, so I might not see the humor in that”. The goal beeing to come out as the better person from that argument. You want your opinion to be heard. And as a bystander, don’t laugh at stupid jokes. That’s it! Don’t encurage assholes being assholes. Even if it is the boss that is making the joke. Just see the person trying to get their point heard and listen to them, recognize that.
Withholding Information –> Cards on The Table –> Inform
Withholding information is to to exclude a person from the decision making process, or knowingly not forwarding information so as to make the person less able to make an informed choice. This can sometimes be a tricky technique to uncover. If you’re in a meeting and you didn’t get all the information you needed, it could be a mistake and that the person calling to the meeting just have forgotten, or it can be a sign that the organisation misses the right structure for meetings. But it can also be used deliberatly as a suppression technique. If you are responsible for a meeting try to make your intentions as clear as possible and inform in due time. Not an hour before or in a room where not everyone is seated. And be clear about the meetings intentions, is it a place where you want to make decisions or is it a discussion.
Double Bind –> Breake The Culture –> Double Reward
Double bind is to punish or otherwise belittle the actions of a person, regardless of how they act. Whatever you do it’s not good enough. If you deliver on time you’re sloppy. If your’e careful you take to much time. Don’t double bind. Anyone. Affirm your teammembers and collegues in every way you can. See them even if you don’t have much in common with them, ask them about something they like and let them tell you about it. Acknowledge their strengths. If they’re awesome database administrators, say so! Like ”damn that’s organized, I’ve never seen anyone drop a table that fast.” And invite them to fika. Everyone should be invited to fika always!
Heap Blame/Shame –> Intellectualize –> Confirm Reasonable Norms
Is to embarrass someone, or to insinuate that they are themselves to blame for their position. This is hard. Sometimes this can be obvious, like someone getting the blame for something a collective is responsible for. But it can also be very personal. Like you get passed on a promotion for beeing dressed in a certain way, or not acting like everybody else in the company. And then when you ask your boss about it, you get blamed for not wanting the promotion enough, or not doing what is expected from you. Then this master suppression technique can be hard to pinpoint. Because was it not your fault? Was it the boss that took advantage of your different-ness and chose not to acknowledge your hard work? Master suppression techniques are 50 shades of grey, and the more grey they get, the more we need to talk about them.
The Feminist Scrum
Did you know that the Scrum framework actually has a lot in common with feminst meeting strategy? It’s true. One cornerstone i feminist meetings are the round (rundan i Swedish) where everyone in the group has to say something. It can be an open question about how the persons day have been, and everyone has to say something about it, or they can pass, like ”I don’t want to say anything right now”. But the point is that it is shown to be easier to enter a diskussion later in a meeting if you already have opened your mouth and said something earlier. So the round is to make sure that everyone has had the opportunity to take some space and get everyones attention. This in Scrum is of course the daily Scrum. Sure it is more oriented on what each teammember is doing to contrubite to the sprint-goal, but still it’s an efficient way to make everyone in the team feel seen and be give an oppurtunity if they have something they need to say to everyone.
Collaboration And Chances – That’s How We Get more women into tech
A safe space and creative environment creates the breeding ground for innovation and originality and, of course happier employees.
This text is an adaptation of a speach I made the 25th of August 2016 at a VR and AR Meetup in Stockholm.
Drawings: Pär Boström