Thursday, January 10, 2013

Unpacking Male Privilege

This week, several articles, tweets, and websites reignited the issue of diversity in technology, specifically in conference settings.

On January 4, Rebecca J. Rosen, senior associate editor at The Atlantic, published "A Simple Suggestion to Phase Out All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences."  Rosen borrows an idea from the non-profit organization Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community: men should simply decline to sit on all-male panels. The column was spurred by the announcement of the overwhelming male majority of panelists for the Edge conference.

It was, as the title claimed, a simple suggestion. Unfortunately, some people do not understand the definition of "suggestion."

On January 6, designer Andy Rutledge launched a satirical website, Conference Quotas, poking fun at the discussion around increasing diversity at tech and design conferences:

To the credit of the Internet, most people were not amused:

Jamelle Bouie posted a spot-on response, "Diversity? That's for Racists."  For further reading, Baltimore writer Rodney Foxworth had published an outstanding essay on conference diversity and inclusiveness just a few weeks prior.

But wait there's more!

As if women and racial minorities are now pitted against each other, vying for the enviable "token" status. As if gender diversity and racial diversity are mutually exclusive issues. As if we're only capable of addressing one minority group at a time, and it must be the least-represented.

And there's that word again: privileged.

The word is frequently misused and is now commonly interpreted to mean "born with a silver spoon in your mouth" or "never had to work for anything," but that's a distortion of the actual definition. Privilege is more about advantage and immunity than wealth or work ethic.

In the late 1980s, Peggy McIntosh published "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack."  McIntosh compiled a list of subtle and not-so-subtle advantages that white people can expect on a daily basis, such as, "I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race" and "I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group." 

The Tech Lady Mafia crowd-sourced a list of male privileges (advantages, immunities) they have encountered in various business transactions, conference settings, and social gatherings. 

This is not an attack against men. This is not a case of us vs. them. This is a starting point for further discussion. This is a call to awareness of the sometimes too-subtle-to-recognize digs at female presence, integrity, professionalism, and expertise. All of the contributions are based on real-life experiences of women in the Tech Lady Mafia, so please be respectful in your comments. 


  1. Despite the poor, satire-soaked delivery by Andy Rutledge, can you (or someone else) address his argument against such a movement?

    "Diversity is what can happen when lots of different people choose to show up. Diversity is not about how people look, but about how people think. Diversity defined as applying to race or gender or sexual orientation condescendingly assumes these qualities entirely define the person in question, and constitutes a sexist, racist, homophobic attack on individual dignity and sovereignty."

    1. I think the key part of that is the "show up." People don't show up (or stop showing up, as other conversations have revealed), when they feel unwelcome, alienated, anxious, or objectified. If all other things are equal, then you can make it a conversation about "who shows up," but as this post aims to argue: all other things are not equal. Women have started deliberately avoiding certain communities, conferences, events, and gatherings, specifically because of the bad experiences they have had in those settings. That's a problem that requires proactive solutions, not passive indifference.

      Secondly, people aren't "entirely define[d]" by those characteristics, but they are immensely important in shaping people's experiences and perceptions. Being "gender-neutral" or "color-blind" isn't productive either. Diversity is about accepting the various experiences and perceptives that people bring to a situation, acknowledging circumstantial barriers to entry, and addressing those obstacles in an equitable way.

    2. Has there been a study showing consistent, marked decline in minority attendance at certain meetings or conferences? As of now, it mostly seems to be anecdotal. As a white male, I've felt unwelcome, anxious, etc. at meetings and conferences before too and opted to not return. I'm not sure if that's all that uncommon of an occurrence.

      I think that the problem is more about the composition of people in the field rather than their representation at conferences and meetings. For example, with the Edge conference, perhaps the lack of female representation on that committee was because only roughly 10% of people receiving Computer Science degrees are women, and that trend is getting worse. (

      Personally, I have chosen to pursue a more positive, constructive approach by going out of my way to attract minorities to pursue higher education in science. I view this movement of refusing to attend white male-dominated conferences as a negative, destructive approach that may exacerbate the problem further by discouraging minorities from participating in meetings and conferences. Just my thoughts: maybe we should focus our finite energy on positive actions rather than negative reactions.

    3. I don't have the statistics on conference attendance, but I do know that the percentage of women majoring in C-Sci has been declining for the past thirty years (

      I agree completely that the problem is rooted in the composition of people in the field. I don't think this is "negative" approach, it's just intended to bring awareness to some issues for people who ARE currently in the field. However, I don't think acknowledging gender imbalance in certain fields precludes diversity initiatives. After all, if we want to encourage young girls to pursue careers in engineering and technology, the environment needs to be more hospitable for women - today, tomorrow, and 20 years from now.

  2. Who helped you write the code is a totally reasonable question for an investor to ask.....

    1. That would depend on how it is asked, would it not? I regularly ask candidates who list a complex system on their resume about the size of their team and particular areas of responsibility. I don't, however, ask if they needed "help" on their part of the system. I'm sure that there's a way out there to phrase the question that also specifically includes the words "who helped you write the code" that doesn't provoke the internal response of "why would you think I needed help?" -- for example, if it were preceded by something like "In terms of this overall effort", or "You've said this was a group effort, so". As stated, however, the phrase assumes that help was present and therefore needed. Next time you're showcasing something you wrote, try to consider how you'd feel if one of your audience asked you "who helped you write the code".

  3. It is very difficult to see how any of the items on your list of male privileges actually consist of an immunity or advantage. Additionally, many of your privileges suggest events that are extremely rare, and even then simply aren't privileges. The first privilege you list is perhaps the only substantial one. I think you should put yourself in the shoes of a racial minority prior to the civil rights movement. Think of the many overt forms of institutional discrimination that you would face, and the tangible white privileges you would lack. Merely being a minority does not mean the majority is privileged, and being a novelty is very different from being unwelcome.

    That's just navel-gazing anyway. The social model of "privilege" is patently worthless, as anything can be twisted into a source of privilege (being gay, being terminally ill, being bald, etc.). Thus, if you can't claim victimhood by overt discrimination, privilege is always a sure bet. Legal and institutional discrimination are topics worth thinking about and acting against; privilege is not. (Equality is not equity, etc.)