The Problem with Ally Panels, and Why We Still Need Them ft. @catehstn

Ally Panels

In 1913, a 7-year-old girl dismantled every alarm clock in her house to see how they worked. When her mother found out, she limited the girl’s exploration to just one clock – a fair compromise. That little girl was Grace Brewster Murray – also known as Rear Admiral Grace Hopper – who became one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944 and continued on to have a 42-year long career developing computer programming for the Navy.

Today, 56% of women in STEM careers leave tech within 10 years, more than twice the dropout rate of men.

From the 1940s to 1980s, women went into programming in much higher numbers than they do today. In fact, the “golden age” of women in Computer Science is considered to be the mid-eighties (37% of CS degrees in America were given to women in 1985). But then, except for a brief spike during the Dot-Com Boom, those numbers dropped.

Why? Essentially, those in power changed the rules of the game. According to Elizabeth Patitsas, a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying diversity in CS, academic institutions were having trouble hiring enough qualified faculty to meet the demand for CS classes and took steps to limit CS enrollment – which disproportionately hit women, minorities, and other non-traditional students:

Steps included adding new GPA requirements for entering CS programmes, requiring more prerequisites, and retooling first-year CS as a weeder course. These actions disproportionately hurt not only female participation in the field, but participation of racial minorities as well. These ‘non-traditional’’ students had disproportionately come to CS via non-traditional paths (such as via psychology or linguistics) and disproportionately lacked the prerequisites as a result. The retooling of first-year CS as a weeder course also resulted in a competitive atmosphere that deterred many women…

Overall, a pattern of cyclical enrolment emerges. Boom times lead to more students, then more enrolment controls; bust times lead to more outreach. Bust times also result in disproportionately many women leaving the field, or not going in at all [6] — indeed, as of 2011, 18% of CS students are female [5].

Clearly, the problem of too few women in computer science and other STEM careers is a candle burning at both ends – there’s the “pipeline” issue of fewer women entering those careers, and a retainment issue of women leaving after a decade.

I’ve written about those issues here, but I’d like to take a closer look into one of the “solutions” currently being proffered:

The ally panel.

An ally panel is a group of people who are in the “majority” – men, Caucasians, able-bodied – speaking about challenges faced by minority groups and, ideally, presenting ideas for how to be more inclusive, diverse, and fair. If you’re seeing inherent problems with this setup, you’re not alone.

Cate Huston, the brilliant blogger behind Accidentally In Code, attended the 2014 Grace Hopper Conference (yes, named after that Grace Hopper) and saw its Male Allies Plenary Panel in action. Here’s the official description of the ally panel:

In any social change movement, the appropriate partnership between the minority group advocating for change, and the majority group holding power and privilege, is crucial. In pursuing our mission to ensure that women are fully present at the innovation table, the role of male allies in our change efforts is key. In this panel, we will hear from men who have been advocates for women technologists, who have been on the front-lines of culture change in technology-based companies. They will share what they have learned as they have leaned in to the challenge of creating workplaces that are fair and equitable.

Huston then wrote one of my favorite articles ever to appear in The Daily Beast: Tech’s Male ‘Feminists” Aren’t Helping – in which she notes the disparity between what ally panelists claimed as values, and their actual numbers, actions, and words.

Women at the conference were disappointed by the content of the panel, where unconscious bias training was lauded despite there being no evidence demonstrating efficacy. Women were told to “just work harder” because they could “make a big difference. . . . At the same conference, women were outraged by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who advocated that women shouldn’t ask for raises but trust in karma.

This is an example of how an “ally” panel goes wrong:

  • When, “allies” are really people who have never faced your challenges tell you how to act, think, or feel.
  • When “allies” are there to pat themselves on the back for minor improvements (GoDaddy bragged about a 1% increase in women in tech, which is statistically insignificant).
  • When “allies” talk about one side of the issue, while completely ignoring the side of the issue they may be complicit in. (ie. Talking about the pipeline and forgetting about what happens once women are in the pipeline).

But, this ally panel, and the reaction to it by Cate Huston and others, spurred a much better idea. Alan Eustace, a senior Vice President at Google, suggested a reverse ally panel.

Alan Eustace‏ @alan_eustace #ghcmanwatch. Let’s reverse the male allies panel. You talk. I listen. Telle gave me West 201 board room at 2pm today at GHC.

This is how an ally panel goes right.

When the people in power not only listen to, but seek to understand and then take real, measurable, statistically significant action – that is an ally panel.

But Huston has a few other improvements she’d like to make, as she told me:

The problem with the ally panel is: Where is it and what are they saying? Where does it take place? The value of a group of men talking about women in tech to a women’s conference isn’t that high; they’re preaching to the choir and taking the place of a woman speaker.

Effective ally panels should listen to those with whom they are allies, but they should also talk to those who aren’t. These panels need to take place where the message of equality and the reinforcement of diverse culture is most needed.

None of us are saying ally panels are bad. After all, if women and minorities were going to fix the diversity problem, we already would have. We do need allies who are in power and who are willing to make changes, set priorities, and invest in creating inclusive work cultures.

Most importantly, we need allies to lead the way for those who don’t even yet realize there’s a problem.

Many thanks to Cate Huston for her help with this article. You can read more of her work on CateHuston.com and follow her on Twitter @catehstn.

You can read more about the first women of American programming in books like:

Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World


Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

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