What an Older White Cis-Male Learned at a Diversity Conference

White man plugging his earsI am a middle-aged, white, Anglo, straight cis-male using he/his/him pronouns. I hope I got that right. I have learned it’s not my place to claim I am an “ally” of minorities, but I am trying to be.

Throw in that I was raised upper-middle-class in the American South and own my home debt-free, and you are probably making certain assumptions about me. So do other people who fit my description, meaning those peers will say things to me they won’t say to people who don’t look like us. They, and you, may be surprised to learn I was convinced years ago by the sociological evidence that white straight males from financially secure backgrounds automatically have numerous advantages in the United States, a.k.a. “privileges,” whether or not they take advantage of that luck.

However, I have more to learn, so I went to hear stories I didn’t really want to hear at an event called Inclusion in Open Source & Technology. It was held prior to All Things Open 2019 (ATO), an open-source conference. We heard directly from speakers who have experienced discrimination due to factors they had no control over: humans who happened to be black (the term the speakers used), female, gay, or just… my age. We also saw an episode from a film series, “Progress: The Power of Community.” Below, mostly in the order they appear in my notes, are my biggest learnings. (Wait, where are my notes? Oh, a ferret stole my binder. Hang on a sec… okay, here we go.)

Lack of diversity causes disastrous business failures. Google’s first trial of its facial recognition software returned pictures of animals in place of black humans. Automated soap dispensers and an Apple watch didn’t respond to black skin. Inclusion of at least one person of color (POC) on the development team surely would have caught this.

According to McKinsey, the top 25% of companies for “executive team” diversity on ethnicity/culture and on gender were 33% and 21% “more likely to outperform on profitability.” I’m currently researching diversity impacts for a later post, but so far the scientific literature indicates that as long as the harmful impacts of prejudice are addressed, diverse management on average helps (or at least, does not hurt) various financial performance measures.

Free admission to a conference doesn’t help a single mom to go, and thus to gain its learning and networking opportunities to progress in tech. Without transportation and lodging assistance, she can feel irresponsible doing something the rest of us take for granted as a good use of time and money.

One speaker noted that lack of child care at conferences is a hindrance as well. This conference did not have child care.

“Buy now, pay later,” the model used by some coding camps, doesn’t work for poor single moms either, presumably for similar reasons. I’m guessing a resulting entry level job doesn’t pay enough to pay that debt off when someone was already living hand-to-mouth. And when hiring, companies don’t take into consideration the value of skills like successful parenting, empathy, and knowing how to stretch a budget.

Explicitly invite minorities to voluntary business activities. To understand why, think through how many events you have voluntarily attended where you would be the minority, like a white hetero male attending a black entrepreneurs or gay advocacy meeting.

If you understand the business value of diversity and want to increase your company’s, “Ask us for help and pay us to do it,” Nekima Prophet of PopSchools advised. I added in my notes, “Treat them as consultants,” in other words.

De-emphasize coding as the only route into tech, since that discourages minorities who, like me, don’t want to be programmers. Think about the many other tech roles, like business analysts, technical writers, support engineers, product managers, or for that matter, Agile coaches!

Only talk about shared identities with people who aren’t like you, unless they bring up the difference(s). You’re both employees of the same company, and basketball fans or parents or needlepointers or whatever. As one speaker mentioned, she didn’t need to be reminded she was a “Young, Black, Gay, Female in IT.” She already knew that.

Diversity isn’t enough; you are not getting the full benefits unless minorities are as fully integrated into your workforce as are the majorities. That’s the difference between mere diversity and true inclusion.

An African-American woman attending another tech conference was stopped each time she tried to re-enter, despite wearing her conference badge, while most people walked right in. She didn’t specify, but guessing her age, this had to be in the past 10 years—not back in the 1960s.

Venture capital firms, being dominated by white males, rarely fund ventures by founders who aren’t white males. When a pair of executives for a company with a goal of empowering women sought venture capital, the female CEO had to step out of the room for a moment after the pitch. One of the all-male VCs then told her male partner they would easily fund the company if he were the CEO.

VC funding rates for black-led ventures are so low, most founders give up and rely on methods like crowdfunding. I add this is an example of how inclusion helps the majority. Excellent potential investments are denied white investors, and great products and services never get to white customers, because they never even get presented.

Despite not feeling welcome in tech companies, people of color want to be in tech for the same reasons anyone else does, but there’s another reason. Generations of African-Americans were prevented from accumulating and passing along wealth, first by slavery and then by well-documented, government-supported discrimination that prevented blacks from getting mortgages, jobs, federal agriculture loans, etc. Blacks are having to catch up, and the financial opportunity of tech is one way to create “generational wealth.”

Minorities may feel “imposter syndrome” even though they know they’re just as qualified as everyone else in the room. I get this. As a consultant building a new practice, I’m often in a room full of people more successful than me by one common standard, current income. I’ve had six-figure incomes and know I’m the expert in the room at what I do, but have to push through the feeling that I’m out of place.

Covering up differences when possible, a practice termed “concealment,” harms individual and team performance. A guy in his 20s recounted hearing his boss use a homophobic slur when he was 16. (I’m using male pronouns because I think he did.) For years he changed his walk, talk, and partner pronouns to hide that he was gay. This creates stress and anxiety, which in turn are known to lower productivity. Just talking less to limit the risk of being found out reduces collaboration, reducing team performance.

Never touch someone else’s hair at work. That one I already knew: Unless you’re a hairstylist or maybe a health care worker, there is no valid business reason to do so.

It makes no sense that menstrual products aren’t provided in company bathrooms. Employers provide napkins, toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, so why are women expected to bring gender-specific sanitary products?

When you hire an older person into a company, they may spot problems earlier because they’ve seen similar ones before. Despite this, people who lose a job after age 50 face low rehire rates into career positions.

According to the Women in Tech Project, women leave the industry at two times the rate of men, 50% of them within the first year. In other words, if you don’t create a welcoming and safe environment, much of the money and effort you expend on recruiting women will be wasted.

As I foreshadowed above, making things easier for the disabled helps everyone. A wheelchair group lobbied for years to get Berkeley, Calif., to replace standard curbs at street intersections with ramped approaches (known as “curb cutting”). This made life easier for anybody with baby carriers, roller cases, delivery carts, etc. Other examples are closed captioning and video transcripts, both of which I have found useful at times.

And unfortunately…

Older white males don’t attend diversity conferences. Most sources I’ve seen suggest at least 70% of upper managers in the U.S. are white males. In my side section of the room, out of 65 people, five were like me, or 8%. Looking around during breaks, I saw no indication there was a phalanx of white male executives who would have upped the percentage (perhaps huddling together in a panic).

These stories left me so depressed, I skipped the opening ATO social event and went home to ponder. Over the next two days, I practiced a recurring piece of advice from these speakers, which boiled down to: “Listen.” After explaining why I was doing this, I asked women and people of color, “What helped you overcome the barriers to your entering this industry?” Their welcoming answers illustrated our greatest source of hope, the human determination to overcome ignorance and hatred.

I’m not going to tell you their answers, though. If you look like me, go ask someone who doesn’t.


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  • Hunt, Vivian, Sara Prince, Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, and Lareina Yee (2018), “Delivering through Diversity.” McKinsey & Company.
  • Inclusion in Open Source & Technology (2019), All Things Open, Raleigh, N.C., Oct. 13.


  • Jennifer Cloer, ReTHINKit Media
  • Brittany Glover, Intersections
  • Jocelyn Matthews, Storj
  • Nekima Prophet, PopSchools
  • Matt Rogers, WillowTree, Inc.
  • James Schweitzer, IBM
  • Adrienne Smith, Intersections
  • Navya Solkhan, Green Level High School
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