You are attending a meetup. You are not one of the speakers, organizers or, in any way, connected to the leadership of the group. You are just a simple attendee. As the event begins, you realize that in front of you is a panel of industry experts. But, it's not just any panel. It is a manel.
You look around the room, and as you do, you see numerous women developers. Capable, qualified, excellent developers. Why weren't any of them on the panel?
Research on the effects of male overrepresentation is still emerging, but studies have shown that all-male representation has the effect of delegitimizing the processes that occur, whereas, gender balance confers legitimacy to the decisions and process. This legitimization and delegitimization paradigm can be applied to both "progressive" and "conservative" results.
From an anecdotal perspective, never seeing people like you in leadership roles can have a demoralizing effect on the individual. As someone born and raised in the United States, and having spent almost all my adult life there, and as a member of a minority community, I know firsthand what it is like to not have one's culture represented in popular culture or to have only a caricature of it on display.
With that in mind, let's return to the situation of the manel at the meetup.
What do you do?
This was a real situation that I experienced just a few months ago. It has stayed with me because unlike TV dramas, substantial periods might elapse before we face moments of weight and gravity. Often, we go through the humdrum of the daily routine and days blend into each other as a collage of the mundane. Yet, this was a moment that felt different.
What I did was not particularly elegant, but it was an almost instinctive response.
As the moderator was scanning the audience, we locked eyes for a moment, and I said: "This is bullsh*t." His facial reaction let me know he saw it. I also sent a message to a WhatsApp group of colleagues who were in the room expressing in a more verbose form what was wrong. This caused a bit of conversation to ensue in the group.
When it came time for Q&A, a woman in the audience was called on and made the question/statement explicit. She was much braver than I, because I can exercise my indignation as a male ally, but she took the actual risk of rejection and ridicule. Instead of ridicule though, she was responded to with an enthusiastic round of applause from the rest of the audience, and a pledge from the organizers not to let it happen again.
It was uncomfortable to be so open about my discomfort. I was nervous about how I would be responded to. Was I opening myself up to being insulted? I am not one for confrontation, like many of us, and this felt way of out of my confrontational comfort zone.
To be an ally is to be willing to become uncomfortable. To be an ally is to be willing to exercise one's privilege, especially when it is personally hard to do so.
I can remember many of the people throughout my life who put themselves forward to advocate for me. When I was in public school, it was the friend who raised the issue that a Christmas themed party was not inclusive for a multi-cultural holiday celebration. As a professional, it was my colleagues who asked about special dietary requirements for catered events. There are so many other instances.
Of course, I could, and often did, raise my voice as well, but there is a lot more power when someone who comes from the privileged group advocates for you. It transitions from being that group's (e.g., gender, ethnic, cultural, religious, etc.) issue, to being an issue for everyone.
Even though it is not easy, and frequently makes me uncomfortable, I pledge to continue to make myself uncomfortable when the situation calls for it. As others have done, and continue to do for me, I will do for women in this field. It is by threading together a culture of mutuality that we will make this field one that is indeed a place for all of us.