I’m writing this because over the last few months I’ve been working with a group of incredible women, Jo Morfee, Ellie Hale and Siana Bangura from Catalyst and Shanice Blair from Agencies for Good, discussing how we can make the network and also the wider tech for good world more inclusive. Today I spoke at a Catalyst event on this topic and I hope that event, and this blog, will start a conversation about how we achieve this.
I’ve had many positive experiences working in digital in the charity and wider tech for good space. Lately I’ve been having lots of thought provoking, challenging conversations with charities about inclusion. I’ve learned so much from these discussions, and they’ve made me realise that something is missing from tech for good. Inclusion needs to be top of the agenda alongside developing the products and services which will tackle social justice, climate change and the other big issues of our time. I don’t see how you can achieve the latter without the former, and it isn’t happening consistently yet. In fact whilst inclusion is now getting more airtime in the charity sector this hasn’t always been my experience in tech for good.
Inclusion really matters to me as a woman of colour. It’s also something we’re tracking the impact of in The Charity Digital Skills Report survey where we’re looking at digital funding and support needs across the social sector, including for groups facing racial inequality and other organisations tackling the inclusion agenda. Inclusion is a shared problem across the sector and that’s why I’m pleased that Catalyst has started a conversation about it at today’s event.
What’s it really like to be a woman of colour in tech?
I’ve largely had very positive experiences, and I have collaborated with so many people who have been respectful and supportive. I am lucky to do a job I adore.
Being a woman of colour in tech though brings its own challenges. I’ve been in work situations in the past where I’ve seen men commit abuses of power, such as , out of the blue, whispering obscene things in my ear when I was talking to them at a conference, or calling me to say they had noticed what I’d been wearing on a day when I was in their office, and making highly personal and inappropriate comments.
A man once suddenly made a lewd, disgusting innuendo about something he wanted me to do in the middle of a conversation over coffee about a work project. And during lockdown, another man contacted me repeatedly on LinkedIn insisting that we meet in person (I did not know him) in specific places in my local area, including where I used to go for my daily walk.
All of these experiences have been horrible and frightening, the more so because they happened when I was simply trying to do the job I love.
I’m sharing my story here today because for too long it’s made me feel fear, shame and humiliation. This toxic burden is not mine to carry.
I, like many others, have been silent for too long. I priced dealing with this harmful behaviour into the cost of having a seat at the table. Why isn’t just being good at our jobs enough? Time and again I’ve seen female leaders across our sector deal with situations that their white, male contemporaries don’t have to worry about. I can’t be the only woman who feels battle weary.
The sad reality is that things like this do happen in the sector. It’s not good enough and we need to change this. I hope my story will encourage more women and men to call out incidents like this.
Whilst I’m seeing a lot more good practice around inclusion since the pandemic, and the conversation has definitely improved amongst the charities we are working with, there is still a lot more work for us all to do.
In some tech for good projects I have witnessed as well as experienced work situations where people of colour are othered and where macro and micro aggressions are committed, and where there is a shocking lack of representation of people from minority groups. Once you see this, it’s hard to unsee it, and it’s troubling when others simply aren’t aware of what’s happening.
Collaboration is in the DNA of tech for good and this won’t be meaningful without inclusion. The complexity of the social justice and wider societal issues which this sector exists to challenge needs as many different perspectives and viewpoints as possible. Otherwise how will we make a difference?
I don’t want the things I have described above to happen to other women of colour in tech, although I suspect I’m not a lone voice. And most importantly I don’t want my young daughter, who wants to work in digital one day, to go through this.
We owe it to the digital talent of today and tomorrow to sort this out. Amazing people who don’t feel that they belong in tech for good could leave. We cannot afford to lose any more skills from the sector, especially when digital expertise is at a premium.
Tech for good should be a brave, innovative new world.In some cases I think we are perpetuating systemic inequalities , rather than dismantling them. And that worries me.
What you can do
I work with many men across the sector who are supportive, kind and respectful, and who are keen to do more to improve inclusion. Here are 3 things I’d suggest:
Listen. Some of my male colleagues have told me that they really want to support more women and people from minority backgrounds but aren’t sure where to begin. It’s okay to start with small steps. Just starting the conversation and then checking in with the women you work with periodically about what else you can do to help them will be helpful. I’ve had so many brilliant conversations with men since #MeToo and have learned something new from all of them.
You could use this blog as a conversation starter, showing it to colleagues and asking if it resonates with them
Educate yourself. Talking about power and gender politics can feel uncomfortable and confronting. However all of those things are already happening beneath the everyday surface hum of the workplace. Acknowledging what you have in your favour is a good place to begin. For example, next time you’re in a meeting look at how often men are talking as opposed to women and others from minority backgrounds. Did everyone have a chance to contribute? Was everyone listened to equally, and did the chair help facilitate this?
Real privilege is not noticing your own power. Real privilege is not having to read the room. You can change this. If people who are different to you are being treated differently seek them out and find out how you can use your power to give them a platform.
Take action. After listening and learning comes action. If you spot something happening to women or others from minority backgrounds that doesn’t feel right, speak up. I’ve taught my son that if he hears anyone speaking about women in a way that he wouldn’t be happy for them to talk about his sister or I then he needs to say, ‘That’s not cool,’ or ‘I’m uncomfortable with this.’
The Mayor of London has produced an excellent resource on how men can be better allies.
There is everything to gain from making tech for good more inclusive. It will help us create the products and services that could help solve the biggest problems that our society faces right now. This will only be possible if everyone feels safe, included and that they belong.