A New Code of Character
Yesterday, at the An Event Apart conference in San Francisco, one of the speakers made a remark that was instantly quoted widely on Twitter: “There are no stupid users, only stupid interaction designers.” The context in which this statement was made was lost, so for all those not in attendance it was anyone’s guess what the speaker was really talking about. How it came across, though, was both mean and shortsighted; it implied that any interaction designer whose work wasn’t immediately clear and obvious to any and all users, must therefore be stupid. Not “has done a stupid job”, mind you, but actually is stupid themselves.
The remark accomplished two things: for one, it showed a lack of understanding towards the field of Interaction Design, but more importantly, it bred hostility within our very own industry, for what seemed like nothing more than cheap laughs. Understandably, various people took to Twitter to address (or mock) it.
This transpired just one day after I (provocatively) pointed out on twitter that pornographic material in presentations is unacceptable—at least for professional settings like conferences—which then sparked a six hour-long public debate about appropriateness and sexism in our industry.
All of these things (as well as actual data backing this up) show that the culture within our industry has some systemic issues we need to address.
Culture and community
As an industry of progressive-leaning, forward-thinking designers and developers, we frequently like to pride ourselves on being socially liberal and modern in our views. Sexism obviously does not fit in that (just like racism, etc.) so we react with outrage whenever we—directly or indirectly—get accused of sexism. Some make claims of a meritocracy, ignorant of the different experiences the privileged and disenfranchised groups have in our field. Much as we may not want to admit it, it needs saying: our industry’s culture does not offer equal opportunities for all. This is not an accusation; this is the start of a larger debate.
A culture with true equality has to be an inclusive culture, one where every individual member has a sense of belonging: a feeling of being respected and valued for who they are and what they do—not for what they look like or believe in. What our culture is like is defined by the way we communicate with one another both online and in person, like at the myriad events we organize and attend to discuss matters of our field. Every conference, meetup, dinner get-together or coffee chat that we partake in, contributes to the kind of message we send outwards about the culture of our industry. Conferences in particular play an important role in this, because they are large events where a significant number of people all get together in person and participate in the culture we put forth.
Since our culture is the collective result of our words and our actions, it negatively affects us all when presenters at an event put up slides featuring a naked woman [UPDATE: the author has since pulled the offending slide, but there is a NSFW backup for posterity], or a cartoon of a naked woman, or a bunch of dildos. Does that say “inclusive culture” to you? No, it says that apparently enough of us think that this is acceptable, or a least don’t openly speak out against it to establish that this is something we do not want in our culture. And that’s a shame, because ask almost any individual member of our industry and they would very clearly (and often genuinely) express support for fair and equal treatment of minorities and women, and favor an inclusive culture with equal opportunity for all. But because we currently don’t have such a culture, nor one of strong self-moderation for that matter, small harmful acts by a limited number of people become representative of our culture. They stand out, and they send a much stronger signal than the combined silence of everyone else. And that signal is: we think sexual imagery is acceptable or appropriate in our line of work.
This is absolutely not an accurate reflection of the views held by many—and hopefully most—individuals of our industry, but, it is how our culture is perceived as a result.
What we’re dealing with is known as microinequity: a system with many small events “which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” Eric Ries explained a similar systemic problem recently, but in the context of racial diversity. Some of these events are overt, like inappropriate imagery at conferences, but many smaller ones establish the culture just as much, if not more so. The research data I linked to earlier discusses how 52% of women in the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths—switch industries due to the hostile, macho cultures and isolation they face in STEM, two factors heavily stimulated by things like pornographic imagery in presentations.
By now we’ve determined that we are still a field of overwhelmingly well-meaning individuals, who would like for this to be a meritocracy, but through a combination of lack of awareness, inaction, and silence, we send the occasional—but clear—message that this is not a welcoming and equal-opportunity industry right now. So how do we fix that?
Solutions towards inclusivity
We can cultivate a more inclusive culture by a variety of methods, all of which we should apply wherever possible.
First, we need to speak up for ourselves and others, as often as we have the energy and willingness to do so. Silence brings with it a tacit approval of the wrongdoing before us; we need to all feel comfortable and safe to voice our discontent, but until we get there we have to be courageous and speak out loudly—also to show others that it is okay to do so. For those situations where speaking up may involve a personal risk—and this is a frequent reality, whether you believe it or not—we should reach out to others who are willing to speak out for us. My contact form is always available for this, and your privacy is guaranteed.
Second, we need to learn how to better empathize with others. This applies to all of us, men and women alike. Yes, this obviously also applies to me. I often use a provocative tone (mostly on Twitter), which some appreciate but others find off-putting and incendiary. To the latter group it becomes unhelpful and unwelcoming, so in order for my message to become more inclusive I am learning to tone myself down. It may lose some identity, but that’s a sacrifice well worth making when it means we all collectively get better in the long term.
Next, we need to have better messaging and language around these matters. Conference and event organizers can start by adding a Code of Conduct policy to their websites; Content Strategists, writers, editors and educators can look into combating stereotype threat wherever possible. Designers can learn how components of their work like color affect usability and accessibility.
Lastly, we should avoid finger-pointing and placing blame, except for overt and/or egregious offenders. We all shoulder the responsibilities here, and we should all put in an effort to be more conscious and aware of the subtleties and complexities of these issues. This is a big thing to ask for, because it takes years to really learn the ins and outs, but small steps here can make a big difference for our culture. Specifically, we should try to adopt more inclusive debate techniques when talking about this issue.
Certain sub-communities within our industry can wax poetically about code or startups, but alienate most women (and plenty of men) the instant they try to discuss the topic of gender. Discussing sexism (or, say, abortion) should be done with women, not about them. That also means listening respectfully to what they have to contribute. It means not dismissing their views simply because they’re women, and paying attention to your own behavior very carefully while discussing these issues.
The greatest challenge that non-feminists have to overcome is the inner conflict they face once they start acknowledging that (subtle and overt) sexism is still pervasive in our society, or even just our industry, because it requires them to admit that they may have implicitly contributed to it in the past via small, unintentional actions. It’s similarly difficult for men (white men in particular) to acknowledge that they’re highly privileged in today’s society, because doing so means admitting that they have enjoyed the advantages of those privileges. This can lead to a somewhat existential crisis, perhaps, but suck it up: you don’t have to be ashamed of having enjoyed privileges. In fact, it is courageous to admit to yourself and others that you have, but it is even more important that you don’t flout or deny them, and that you become more aware of them—and a little more respectful to the opinions of those who did not have those privileges.
And yes, a lot of these suggestions involve making some sacrifices. But I consider that a good thing, as not furiously clinging on to your beliefs, rightly or wrongly, makes you a stronger, better and more respectable person in life. I’m working towards being a better person, making ours a better community. What are you working towards?
I want to thank Cori Johnson, Cindy Li and Dot Richards for their contributions and feedback for this article.