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A Lead Developer's Tips on Diversity

codemouse92 profile image Jason C. McDonald ・8 min read

I've had the privilege of working with a diverse group of developers at MousePaw Media over the years, including several ladies who left a lasting legacy on our projects. It provides an incredible opportunity to help set a precedence for the young developers I train.

The tips below certainly apply to managers and formal leaders, but everyone can make use of these! We all have some degree of influence in our workplace, professional communities, and social circles. We all lead somehow.

Normalize Diversity

It can seem so innocuous, pointing out to everyone in team how diverse they are, but this can actually do more harm than good, even in a group of well-intentioned, inclusive-minded people. Why? Drawing attention to differences makes the differences the point of focus. In a team, it is usually far better to focus on commonalities, such as "we're all coders."

In reading some of the posts for #SheCoded, I've noted something of a trend: a lot of woman coders don't really want to be labelled as "woman coders" per se. They want to be known simply as "women" and "coders"! Would you want to be introduced to a different group primarily as a "white male coder" (or whatever your group), and have everyone fawn over you like you were some sort of curiosity? I doubt it.

Understand, we need campaigns like #SheCoded to bring attention to issues like gender inclusion and equality in the software development industry. Drawing attention to diversity causes on social media, and through our professional networking, are excellent practices. That's not what I'm talking about here.

When you're actually working, it would not be productive to stand up and announce "we have three woman coders in the room." Your team isn't blind...they can already see that fact. The best thing you can do in a team is to treat all coders as equally intelligent and qualified. Normalize diversity!

As a leader, this meant I'd learn the technical skills, strengths, and weaknesses of each developer on my team, without regard to their gender (or any other factor). I'd assign sectors of the code to everyone, and whomever was the "expert" in the room on a particular topic, I'd defer to them.

One young lady carved out a legacy for herself on the team by becoming the resident expert at interface design. The gentlemen on the team quickly came to regard her as an equal, accepting her feedback on their coding decisions in the same manner as from anyone else. Because I treated her as an automatic equal to every other team member, the rest of the interns I was training followed my example.

Don't Ignore Discrimination

If I encounter inappropriate behavior on my team, I address it quickly and without excessive drama. This should go without saying, but too often leaders are afraid to rock the boat, and that's a major reason why change is so slow in coming!

Address behavior on the scope it occurs. If someone makes an inappropriate joke in a meeting, calmly correct it in the meeting. If that same joke occurs in a private conversation with you, deal with it in private. We don't want to shame people, but we also want to set a clear standard for behavior.

If the inappropriate joke is addressed in the meeting it occurred, everyone present learns "this is not acceptable behavior," and you help prevent future problems. More importantly, anyone negatively affected by it learns that you will defend them. This fosters a healthy and safe environment, and establishes you as a leader that can be trusted.

It isn't really surprising to me how much discrimination in the average workplace goes unreported. If a boss is never observed taking appropriate action against, for example, a sexist joke in a meeting, there would be no reason to trust him to appropriately handle something as sensitive as a harassment claim. Trust is earned, especially by leaders. You have a responsibility to everyone you manage to deal with the little things, so you can be trusted with the big things.

And yes, this also means your own conduct must be absolutely above reproach!

Learn to Spot Bias

I am pleased to say that inclusion was seldom a problem within the teams themselves, so far as I know. I have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, and I created an environment where staff members were comfortable bringing concerns to me.

A major part of that dynamic began at the interview phase. With a background in psychology and communication, I've learned how to ask questions and interpret responses to catch, among other things, bias.

On one occasion, I was interviewing a candidate for the internship program. Because I had determined in the phone interview that he was potentially a match for the team creating the animation engine, I brought along the assistant lead developer overseeing that team - a young woman - to take part in the interview. We divided the questions up strategically, so I could watch how this candidate would respond to his potential supervisor.

The interview is one for the history books. The candidate seldom made eye contact with the assistant lead developer, facing me instead while answering her questions. He ignored a useful suggestion she made during the coding challenge. For all intents and purposes, he acted as if she wasn't even there.

We didn't hire him.

I hear plenty of men in this industry talk about how they support women in programming, but that's a far cry from actually treating them as equals in the craft. I never asked the candidate outright about his feelings on the topic - I simply observed his behavior.

If you have the opportunity, I strongly recommend taking courses in nonverbal, interpersonal, and intercultural communication! (Your local community college probably offers them.) Of everything I studied in college, these are the classes I use every single day I'm alive.

Address Your Own Bias

"Thanks" to human psychology, we all have biases. It's a common gestalt we use to evaluate the world around us, probably related to our survival instincts: "I ate this green berry and got very sick. Green berries make me sick." It's nigh on impossible to go through life without any biases at all.

I learned through my studies in intercultural communication to detect and address my own biases. I have to listen in on my own internal dialogue and take note of any strong emotional responses I have to various stimuli.

One of the ways we hide our biases from others, and even ourselves, is through reaction formations. A reaction formation is essentially a strong emotional overcompensation. A relevant example would be if a guy felt the need to stand up and announce to the whole office "(female coworker) just wrote some awesome code!" This stands out as somehow unusual to him, perhaps even uncomfortable, so he has to make it clear to everyone around him that he's "actually totally comfortable with it."

By the way, reaction formation is also one of the main reasons for that "mansplaining" phenomenon: some guys are trying so hard to include women, without actually addressing their faulty belief about what women are capable of understanding, that they feel they're being benevolent by "catching the woman up" on all the knowledge he thinks she lacks. Mansplainers actually think they're being helpful.

As a lead developer, it has been very important for me to catch my own biases (yes, I have some, although probably not the ones you're thinking of), and then make a concerted effort to respond neutrally. Over time, the choice to not react either way to someone actually weakens my bias, actively retraining my brain.

Defy Your Own Stereotypes

If you look at my profile picture, you're going to see a "millennial white male." Even as you learn more about me - my head injury, my Mohawk heritage, my Christian beliefs - your brain is going to automatically start anticipating my behavior. That doesn't mean you're a terrible human, just that you're a human. As I said, we all have biases.

Some of the stereotypical labels people try to apply to me are...

Entitled, judgemental, arrogant, bigoted, broken, lazy, unreliable, uncultured, non-intellectual, xenophobic, hipster, tech-obsessed.

If you ask anyone who knows me, none of those descriptions apply to me at all! I know that those biases are also not my fault, but I am partly responsible for the fact that none of them stick, either.

Because I know what the stereotypes are, my responsibility is to conduct myself above reproach. This is the responsibility of every single person in existence. We all face stereotypes; we can't stop others from trying to apply them to us, but we can make it hard for those labels to stick. This is something I try to tell every intern I work with, no matter who they are or what their background is. We each have the opportunity to help others overcome their biases.

For example, if you're part of a group that is stereotyped as being "chronically late" and "bad at time management," you have a responsibility to make sure you are not chronically late. Understand, you won't be able to stop the outright bigots from misinterpreting the rare "I got stuck in traffic" as confirmation (it's nearly impossible to overcome confirmation bias anyhow). You will help everyone who is trying to overcome their biases by providing them new experiences: "Not everyone who is X is chronically late, because Jane isn't!"

Understand, too, that responsibility is to your fellow members of the stereotyped group, above all! Every time you defy a stereotype, you make the road smoother for the next; conversely, every time you fulfill a stereotype, you make the road harder.

Learn to Empathize

Knowing and fighting the stereotypes you face will give you empathy for others. I can identify in part with the struggles of women in tech because I remember the pain of being stereotyped in my own way, and of having to overcome people's poisonous assumptions about me.

On this topic, I need to issue one more warning: do not assume your struggle against bias is "harder" than someone else's. One can't even truly make the comparison, since no two people or life experiences are the same. Objectively speaking, I am grateful that I've never been physically attacked for who I am, but I have been emotionally and verbally assailed in the past.

I've had a longtime friend throw me away as subhuman once she learned I was Native American. I've been automatically rejected for my quiet faith without my even speaking about it. I've been rejected as "too broken" because of my head injury and its lasting symptoms. I've been regarded as incapable of reasoning because I'm a millennial. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard "you wouldn't understand, it was before your time", as if I don't read. It hurts.

I don't need sympathy, and I wouldn't dare to compare it to someone else's struggle. Pain is pain.

Yet, in a way, I'm glad it hurts, because it means that I can come alongside someone else who is being hit with poisonous assumptions and stereotypes. I can say "I understand what this is like. I've been there."

My own story isn't a ticket for a consolation prize, although some have insisted I should use it as such, which is absurd. My story is there to give me enough credibility to help others. My scars are part of what makes me safe.

Summary

As leaders, we have an incredible opportunity to shape the future.

  • Normalize diversity in your team. While it's good to draw attention to topics like gender equality, don't make a big deal about someone in your team being "different". Treat them the same, and others will too.

  • Learn to recognize the signs of bias and discrimination. Communication courses are immensely valuable to this aim.

  • Don't turn a blind eye to discrimination in any form. Address problems calmly, and in the scope they occur. Only when you've proven yourself trustworthy with the little things (like addressing inappropriate jokes) will you be entrusted with the big things (like handling harassment complaints).

  • Conduct yourself above reproach. Discover your own biases, and learn to overcome them by responding neutrally to people and situations that trigger them.

  • Defy the stereotypes that others may try to misapply to you. This smooths the road to others who face the same discrimination.

  • Gain empathy for others from your own experiences with discrimination, stereotyping, and bias. Don't compare your experience to that of others; we all know what pain is. Your scars are part of what makes you safe.

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