Diversity, equality, toxicity, etc.

We all lose when a young man who cares about diversity and equality is hesitant to speak publicly about the subject because we’ve made it toxic to do so.

Yesterday, I published a post titled Stop staring at my willy, please. But I wasn’t writing it for the sake of my own willy. I felt it was important to shine a light on the subject in the name of all the other willies out there who don’t feel comfortable speaking publicly on these issues. Because, make no mistake, there are guys out there who care deeply about diversity and equality. Unfortunately, it seems that some of us are on a mission to make this subject as toxic as possible for a man to speak about. I say unfortunately because, if we are to achieve greater diversity and equality, we need the support of all voices.

What’s the problem?

The status quo today is the boys’ club. Call it the patriarchy, if you like. A guy speaking out in defence of greater diversity will rattle some cages in the status quo and will naturally expect varying degrees of criticism from both men and women who have invested in the boys’ club, gone through rites of passage to secure their positions within it, and benefit from its continued existence.

One such piece of criticism is called ‘white knighting’. This, according to the Geek Feminism Wiki, is ‘used by anti‐feminists to criticise any feminist action from a man’ and is closely related to the ‘not a woman’ tactic:

A silencing tactic used against male feminist allies commenting on sexist incidents is to point out that an ally is not a woman and thus can’t identify sexism, or is patronising women by identifying sexism and thus presuming women are weak and need help and taking care of.

It is in fact possible for intending allies to be condescending in their actions, but the mere fact of being male and speaking out against sexism is not automatically so.

This tactic is sometimes part of a double bind, in which some defenders of an action do not accept criticism from women because the women are outsiders, or too emotional, or similar, and others do not accept criticism from men, because they aren’t women.

As I said, any man speaking out in support of greater diversity will naturally expect such criticism from lifetime members of the boys’ club. But what happens if they are also attacked by those who appear to support the same aims? If such attacks come from women who identify themselves as feminist, then these men will find themselves ambushed from all sides. And anti‐feminists will no doubt be quick to point out that they were right on the white‐knighting and not‐a‐woman charges.

This is exactly the situation that Dr. Tom Crick and I found ourselves in last week. Our crime was to take part in a small segment focused on men who campaign for greater diversity in technology as part of a much longer radio show. The story was spun into a rabble‐rousing ‘woman replaced by two men’ story with a catchy hashtag that pitchfork and torch‐bearing defenders of diversity could rally around to slander the names of all involved.

And, I’m all right with that.


I cut my teeth on the Internet debating the Second Gulf War with middle America on my blog. Needless to say, I was against it and I wasn’t a fan of the shrub namesake who was in charge at the time, either. I’ve probably been called every name under the sun. It’s OK, my thick skin and I can take it. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I enjoy the abuse but I chose to have a public persona in my field and I’m outspoken about the subjects that I care deeply about and I’m willing to pay a price for that. But what sort of example are we setting for others?

Take last week’s incident, for example. What would a guy watching the events unfold feel? He cares about diversity and he cares about equality and he sees two role models who are willing to talk publicly about it. Then he sees them being flayed alive from all sides. What do you think his reaction would be? And if he chooses to keep quiet in the future, who loses? We have to ask ourselves just how toxic we want to make this subject for a man to speak publicly about.

This isn’t just theoretical musing. I received an email this week from one such young man. It was titled ‘Diversity, equality, toxicity, etc.’ It offers a rare, open, and honest glimpse into the thoughts of a young man who cares about equality and diversity who witnessed the events of last week. He’s allowed me to quote from his email without revealing his real identity. Let’s call him Roger.

Here’s Roger’s first email in its entirety:

Hi Aral,

Hope you are well.

Small/big request: please can you write more (in public) about your thoughts on the toxicity around the diversity / equality debate.

It’s a big problem that I want to help solve, but to put it bluntly I’m completely unsure as to who / what I should be listening to and offering my support to.

The fact that it’s sometimes women who are fighting against attempts to either discuss the issues or make changes I find really confusing. And in many cases it’s just difficult to tell one way or another, so many mixed messages and hidden agendas. I have no idea how best to help without inadvertently making things worse.

P.S. I listened to the Radio 4 segment yesterday and I think Amy had more insight into the value of computing / programming than many of the ‘professional’ developers I’ve met!

P.P.S. I’m just watching Miss Representation, which explores the broader issue of the way women are portrayed / represented in media, etc. Only about half way through, but can’t recommend it enough (if you haven’t already seen it).

I feel the letter speaks for itself. Here’s a young man who clearly cares about diversity and equality but is both unsure about how to help and afraid to speak out because of how toxic we have made the subject. We have to ask ourselves in whose interests it is to make this subject so toxic. Surely, we should be welcoming and open to all supportive voices and, if anything, helpful and caring in our responses to people who support the same causes as we do.

Roger elaborated on his thoughts in a follow‐up email:

I’ve toyed with the idea of putting on programming / dev related events in the past, and the recent dramas have completely dissuaded me from doing that in the near future. I’ve also been researching the viability of building web / software tools to help conference organizers, and I’ve demoted those ideas for similar reasons.

I’m aware of the issues, but as a privileged white male I’ve not experienced them much myself. And rhetoric, either written or verbal is not my strong point. So I’m looking to others to point out the ‘right way’ so that I can voice my support and / or follow by example.

Unfortunately this is where it starts to get confusing, because it can often be community leaders and women saying there isn’t a problem, that attempts to fix the problem are offensive / patronizing, that privileged white guys shouldn’t be getting involved, that women are the problem and not enough of them are standing up to be counted, that they have never experienced discrimination, that everything is being blown out of proportion, that they are sick of the debate, that as a woman they are OK with an all‐white‐male lineup of speakers, etc.

To me there’s no doubt that there is a problem, and I think fixing diversity / equality is one of the first steps towards solving the bigger problems the world has. But the toxicity is definitely putting me off getting involved.

Roger is exactly the kind of voice we want to encourage to speak out on these issues and I find it sad that he is put off by the toxicity of the environment we’ve created.

Diverse and egalitarian environments don’t just benefit a single group; they benefit each and every one of us. If we want to live in such environments in the future, we need to encourage everyone — regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, etc. — to speak out in support of the cause. We are not fighting for any one group’s right to equality, we are fighting for everyone’s right to equality. And the battle belongs to us all.

So, let’s be kind to each other.