Increasing Intersectionality at Tech community events

Since standing down as a Microsoft MVP last year, I’ve never been so glad to be away from it as I have been right now. I’m not going to repeat the various dogpiling here and I can see why people are so angry and hurt. Judging from my twitter DMs, people are afraid to speak out and they are hoping that I will do it for them. I left the MVP Program because I did not have a safe space to speak out, and that’s clearly not changed. This blog is about encouraging intersectionality as part of diversity and inclusion.

Intersectionality describes how different elements of a person’s identity can be discriminated against – with negative outcomes for businesses and community alike. It is not a new concept – it’s been 30 years since Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe how discrimination against different facets of a person’s identity can overlap and impact their lives. We are not one-sided. Your colour, your gender, disability and sexual orientation all interact to affect lived experiences and contribute to unequal outcomes in ways that cannot be attributed to one dimension alone.

Academic research shows that Black women have less access to training and receive less mentorship and sponsorship, leading to fewer opportunities to develop their careers, compared to white women. As a result, while only 21% of C-suite leaders in the US are women, only 4% are women of colour, and only 1% are Black women. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black women in the US have been nearly twice as likely as white men to report that they’d either been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours and/or pay reduced (Reference). So the time to tackle these issues is now.

Personal Context

Here’s some context to get you started. Note, I am here to amplify other people’s voices and I thought it worthwhile to explain some of my achievements and motivation for diversity and inclusion. I was brought up in a family where my aunt and uncle adopted and did emergency fostering for children of all colours, and I grew up with children, family members, who were a different colour from me. I loved them all. Even at that young age, I could tell that my cousins of colour were treated differently – and worse – than I was. I’ll never forget people walking across the street to get away from myself and my cousin, a child of colour, and the staring. All that did was make me fiercely protective and proud of them.

I also spent time as a member of the Jehovah’s Witness group until I was about 10. I am not a JW now, but the process did teach me a lot about putting others before yourself, and also about community. My family helped build the local Kingdom Hall, for example – we all did it as a group.

Moving on to later, sitting in a police station, my sense of injustice became very personal as it became clear to me that in the UK, we have a legal system – but not a justice system – and I had to drop a case which meant that other people got hurt after me because I was not strong enough to speak up and speak out. Now, I am back in the police station, talking about harassment and they are making progress based on digital witness evidence; so this time, I am getting somewhere. If you don’t speak out, it has consequences for other people.

Diversity in the Cloud

So, if you speak up and speak out, you can make a difference. In 2019, I tried to hold a ‘Diversity in the Cloud’ event and I even had a meeting with the leadership from Microsoft about it. I reached out two two groups; LGBQTIA+ and disabled people, normally sidelined and ignored by the tech community. It is easier to focus on women in tech because it is a large visible minority. Another minority is colour, along with the protected characteristics such as age according to the UN.

To the Diversity in the Cloud event, I attracted local LGBQTIA+ charities including Stonewall and Support U, who are a stonesthrow away from the Microsoft UK office in Reading. I also attracted a trans keynote speaker, putting a stamp on the event. Then, the event fell apart, as five weeks before the event proceeded at the Microsoft Reactor, Microsoft pulled all the funding. I could still use the Reactor, but they pulled the food and event security. I could sort out food, but the issue with the event helpers was that I needed extra assistance to help guide people around the Reactor who were registered blind. Microsoft’s decision to pull the event security and ‘helpers’ meant that I didn’t have the support they needed and deserved. It’s not enough just to provide wheelchair friendly toilets. how does someone, who is blind, find their way around a building they have never been in before? They need someone to walk them around with their guide dog to find the toilets, for example, and the event ‘helper’ support was supposed to do that and there were too many attendees for me to do that by myself. None of the MVPs stepped forward to help and only one Microsoft person offered to speak.

So, very reluctantly, I had to cancel the event and inform attendees. It’s not a matter of just sending out an email from eventbrite – for people with visual impairments, it is hard to wade through spam and so on, and I had to contact people individually and it took about two days. There was also a personal element – I was gutted. I was also embarrassed because, when I reached out to the LGBQTIA+ audience, they just shrugged shoulders and said ‘yes, we knew Microsoft would do that’ and there was an air of resignation about it.

I never tried to hold another event again.

Data Platform achievements

I have endeavoured to try and pick at least two protected characteristics when I have spearheaded events. For PASS BA and the PASS Women in Technology, as one of the Directors, I encouraged and joyfully celebrated as we chose women of colour for keynote speakers. At other events, such as the Power BI Summit and SQL Saturday Edinburgh events I held, I deliberated targeted people of colour along with women to speak with direct invitations and then followed up with phone calls and emails with personal invites. Each one of them was brilliant.

For the recent incarnation of PASS Data Summit, I am disappointed and confused that the precon lineup only contains one Hispanic woman. I applaud their efforts in women in technology and I am not criticising their selection. I am not saying that they haven’t worked hard and you’ll know that I got totally burned out by the demands of the Program, so much so, that I made a public plea about it. I’m saying that I’d like to see more people from non-white backgrounds and I am doing that without diminishing the current speaker selection. I’d like a bigger table that includes more people from a variety of backgrounds.

I cannot believe that there was not a single precon good enough by a black American or brown person from India, for example. I have ideas on whom I would have chosen, brilliant people of colour including women of colour, and I’m not sure where they have gone. We successfully recruited black women before but where have they gone? With some of the recent issues around race in the community, it is a surprising omission and it sends the wrong message. In the post George-Floyd era, and some of the community dogpiling, I was surprised and disappointed that this was not high on the agenda.

I’ve shown time and time again that intersectionality is important; you can’t simplify people into just one axis. There should have been room at the table for a Black American, for example, as an absolute minimum. I don’t believe that nobody was good enough; if they weren’t, you reach out, you mentor, you support, you pay them to deliver a precon, and you celebrate their achievements. We can always do better. I am the first to tell you PASS in its original incarnation was far from perfect. Note: I didn’t apply to speak and I won’t attend the event because I’m not interested in Data Platform community, so this is not sour grapes speaking. I’m so disappointed that my community work has gone nowhere.

As an admittedly quiet member of the LGBQTA+ community, I also tried to work behind the scenes so that this section of the intersection was not forgotten. I ran into issues as it became clear that some people feel uncomfortable about it but that didn’t stop me trying. I can pinpoint the end of my friendships and relationships with some people at Microsoft broke down and it was at the point when I talked about my own personal situation with them, and that, for me, marked the beginning of the end with some previously good relationships that I had. Talking about these issues makes people uncomfortable but it has to do that in order to make the right changes. I wasn’t successful here as I’d hoped.

At SQLBits, I held a DitBits event (Diversity in Technology Bits) because of the intersectionality part. I got women attending…. but also people of colour, disabled people and white men. I’d hoped that would turn into something bigger but it didn’t, but perhaps there is still room for the future.

Way forward

By focusing on one protected characteristic, the intersectionality aspect of people is not being acknowledged. I’m a woman, but also a member of the LGBQTIA+ community with a Jewish background. This speaks to many people who are just not one thing, and we should not be seen as just one thing.

We need to celebrate being seen, heard, and valued. However, until we are seen, we will not be heard and we not be valued. First impressions do matter, and our perception influences our opinion. Our opinions are not facts. Even little things like changing your screensaver will enhance your perception, changing your preconceptions over time. First impressions do matter. It is more than numbers, however, and you can refer to the work of Professor Martin Davidson to learn more about leveraging differences.

It’s not too hard to deliberately go after people from different backgrounds and celebrate the intersectionality of people. I have done it relentlessly, and achieved success in events for years now. That said, we can always do better but, after the bad experience with the Diversity in the Cloud event funding being pulled by Microsoft, I have had the stuffing knocked out of me and I lost a lot of face, so I won’t bother trying again.

When people speak out about injustices, hear them out. Remember, people are talking about deep hurts and that’s hard to verbalise. You can’t expect to get everything laid out in a nice summary for you. It goes deeper and it takes time. I am not here to talk over people. I am here to try and amplify the voices I am hearing.

We all love to belong to something bigger than ourselves. No one wants to get judged and no one wants to be left behind. Feeling behind is the worst feeling in the world and if it happens in your professional arena then nothing can be worse than that.

You also need to realize that everyone is human and everyone is imperfect. So, there’s always room for judgment, mistakes, taking you for granted, making conclusions, thinking wrong about you and so on and so forth. So don’t let these obstacles stop you from being inclusive and trying to be intersectional. I am certainly learning all the time. One useful tool is Project Implicit from Harvard.

Any gains should be preserved and built upon. I recognize that, as a PASS Board member, we could always do more and better. I tried my best to emphasise the intersectionality in the past but that seems to have got lost. I do hope that they will add a place at their table for some of the brilliant people of colour who can contribute.

Learn from others’ achievements. I did some work with the University of Portsmouth a while back, and they have a great number of achievements to check out what they have done.

Every little adds up. For my company, I have signed up to be a Disability Confident employer. Your area may also have a range of schemes.

Final note

This blog post isn’t about calling out individuals. It’s a call for a systemic and thoughtful change, and not to lose the progress that was once in place. We have had enough dogpiling and it is painful to watch. I would not have got involved if people hadn’t contacted me personally who can’t speak out due to fear of backlash. I’m pretty used to it by now, I suppose.

I feel all my PASS work for a decade was an utter waste of my time and I wish I’d never got involved. I’m glad I’m not part of it now since I can contribute in different ways. I am so done with it that you would not believe it.

I’ve moved on a lot since PASS, and people perhaps think that PASS and former friends are more important to me than they actually are. I am not having a go at people since I really can see, based on my review of community people’s businesses as an example, that some people are in real financial difficulty and there is a lot of stress around. Sure, my words can be twisted around but this exercise isn’t a good use of people’s time to pore over and twist words, or my time to try and defend. This narrative deflects away from the message of this post, and it should not. Karma is a powerful thing, and I am not going to pour heat on anyone, particularly people who are already in a difficult place. Instead, I am walking away and they can say what they like. I don’t want to fight with people, particularly those who really aren’t in a good place. Instead, I can feel the fear of being in their position.

All I’m asking for is a kaleidoscope of people from different ethniticies, races, colours and backgrounds to be a prominent, leading part of the Data Platform story; in other words, I hope the progress continues and my decade-plus of work just doesn’t disappear. I’m so deflated by the loss of an opportunity to do something really positive and good.

A few weeks ago, I was named one of the top three Gender Equality influencers in the tech world and I hope that influence can be used for good, and thats the motivation for this post – along with some of the heart-wrenching DMs I am getting over Twitter.

I’m still not a silent spectator and I’m still not in a safe place so I guess I just need to sit and wait to be slaughtered by people in the tech community again. But I hope that you can see that my drive has been in place for a long time, and I’m still learning, and the way that I say things doesn’t make me wrong. I’m really hoping that this nudges people to make a good impact on their community, rather than slaughtering me online. Surely we should all want the same thing?

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