Considering Intersectionality in the Tech Community at Large

Nicole Thayer ·

Welcome to our final post (for now) in the series on intersectionality in the tech industry. Before now, we were focused on how we at Carbon Five might improve at building products with an intersectional lens. For those unfamiliar with the term, intersectionality is defined by Merriam Webster as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the lawyer and civil rights activist who coined the term, says that intersectionality is a lens through which “you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.”

For this post, I wanted to look beyond the challenges and successes at Carbon Five to see how companies of different sizes and structures addressed intersectional concerns. We reached out to former Carbon Fivers at large gaming and tech companies as well as small B2B companies that offer products to developers. All our respondents requested anonymity for both themselves and their companies, so we’ll be using pseudonyms.

The responses varied quite a bit. Some companies are taking substantial steps to consider and promote intersectionality at work. Some don’t see it as a priority. On the whole, larger companies with international reach have invested more resources into meeting a broader range of intersectional considerations.

When you’ve already scaled

As a consultancy, Carbon Five is often working with companies on greenfield projects — products that are pre-launch, or still looking for product market fit. Our respondents were writing to us from large and well established companies. Corey (not his real name) works at an internationally known game studio, and Aaron (not his real name) works at a large company that makes developer tools.

The challenges larger companies face in prioritizing intersectionality in their work are wildly different from the ones we face at Carbon Five. Corey and Aaron talked about creating work for international audiences, and the dangers of second-order effects for companies with user bases the size of nations.

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Intersectionality is essential

For Corey, his company’s global reach is about more than its technical infrastructure or audience size. It’s about the different cultures the company reaches and ensuring they are represented.

He mentioned changes to the company’s games to expand past “the typical western fantasy tropes” by incorporating the cultural backgrounds of a worldwide player base.

The company is also focused on understanding and preventing abuse within its platform.

“We put a lot of thought towards player dynamics and preventing toxic environments, with an awareness that the definition of toxicity may differ from person to person,” Corey said.

Building a more inclusive game also involves building a more inclusive culture. Corey’s company was able to do this by placing marginalized people into leadership roles on the team to bring broader perspectives and producing content that players of all backgrounds can find themselves within.

It also means creating space for people to flag and speak to systemic issues.

“​​While I struggle to speak up, I see how others feel empowered,” he said. “From Slack channels, to the weekly all-hands, everyone makes their opinions known.”

“​​While I struggle to speak up, I see how others feel empowered,” Aaron said. “From Slack channels, to the weekly all-hands, everyone makes their opinions known.”

Normalizing intersectionality with a culture of learning

Aaron’s company prides itself on making intersectionality a top concern.

“We’re very thoughtful about trying to be as good as possible, and if I had to informally rank us, I’d probably put us in the top 5 percent of companies,” he said.

In addition to diverse hiring practices and an open company culture, he mentions continuous education and awareness as a way of baking intersectional concerns into the product.

“It’s ramped up over the years since I started here,” Aaron added. “Employee resource groups have been growing and getting more official recognition.”

His company has several activities to build awareness around issues members of the team might not face. Some knowledge sharing makes it directly into the product. Other activities focus on building awareness on a personal level.

“We do Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Learning Circles, which are sessions where we have an opportunity to learn about different aspects of intersectionality,” he said. “Our most recent section was on neurodiversity. The lessons we get from these have a bit of an interpersonal focus, but given that we’re a software company building for a wide audience, I think they’re a great cultural seed to plant.”

A culture of learning isn’t something that can come as a company mandate from the top down, however.

“Supporting different points of intersectionality shouldn’t be checkboxes; they should instead be a constant conversation and you are best off with a team that is mindful of that sort of thing,” Aaron said.

“Supporting different points of intersectionality shouldn’t be checkboxes; they should instead be a constant conversation and you are best off with a team that is mindful of that sort of thing.”

Changing deeply embedded systems and ideas about who gets to build and use software isn’t something that can be solved in a single feature release. It’s an ongoing process, Aaron said, and ongoing processes take more than buy-in — they take enthusiasm.

“You have to build up enthusiasm and affinity for it, because if you don’t, people will talk about intersectionality the same way companies like to unenthusiastically talk about ‘compliance,’” he concluded.

Addressing systemic bias isn’t easy

The identification of the initial problem can often be where the challenge lies. At Corey’s company, once a problem is identified, the company “dogpiles” on it, allocating resources to fix it. But sometimes the problems are so deeply ingrained in large systems they’re hard to see clearly.

“The biggest tech companies are bigger than many countries. Some of these companies, such as Facebook, are de facto governments in terms of how they control their own communities. But they aren’t accountable to their users,” Aaron pointed out.

“Even when rules get created to protect the most vulnerable, these rules often get used against the people they were intended to protect,” he added. “This applies to a lot of things like laws, but when applied in the context of tech companies’ opaque policies, it’s a real issue.”

Corey’s company has experienced problems like these firsthand.

“Some cultures are not as open or inclusive as others,” he said. “For example, [one of our games] introduced LGBTQ+ characters, with canonical relationships between them. However, when rolled out in Russia, the government confronted us and said the content was not acceptable. Furthermore, the local office staff were threatened with arrest.”

Both respondents pointed to cultural and development norms as having huge potential to escalate systemic issues. As mentioned in our post about Intersectionality and Software Engineering, Aaron is concerned about adopting AI and machine learning without examining the inputs that shape them.

“There’s incredible evidence that [AI and machine learning] can serve as a vehicle for laundering bias,” he pointed out.

Company culture, no matter how engaged, is also not monolithic. Corey ran into this on his team when his team lead proposed a ban on talking about emotions in retros — team members could only propose solutions.

“Without the ability to tie a problem to how it makes us feel, when the inevitable ‘why’ is asked, an emotional answer may be dismissed as not having ‘hard data,’” he said. This focus can limit the scope of problems that can be named and addressed.

Intersectionality is still a challenge at smaller companies

Another respondent named Jake suggested that the emphasis on intersectionality may be a distraction from releasing good work in a timely manner: “We are a small team focused on building a product,” he said.

His perspective mirrors recent policy announcements at Basecamp and Coinbase forbidding “societal and political discussions” at work in order to more effectively focus on the company’s mission.

Full disclosure: I wouldn’t have co-written a five part series about challenges and opportunities in bringing intersectionality to Carbon Five if I agreed with this perspective. But it’s worth discussing.

We wrote this series with a core assumption that may not be universally true: that you, the reader, see your role at work as internalizing and trying to achieve the business interests of the company you work for. However, some employees don’t consider that to be their job—they prefer to focus on technical problem-solving or aren’t in leadership positions within their organization. Whether or not their product is exclusionary or difficult to use is out of their purview.

To Jake, advocacy is an emotional expenditure that distracts from the product focus and makes drawing boundaries around work more difficult.

“I do less of it,” he said. “I also try to read less news and consume less social media and focus more on work and family.”

Are speed and intersectionality mutually exclusive?

To Jake, the secret to building good products quickly is to “leave politics out of work.” While I respect the need to create boundaries at work and to disentangle your own needs from what your company hopes to achieve, I don’t agree that this is the way to do it.

There are plenty of reasons to want to build more inclusive products and not offend, ignore, or disparage a diverse user base. You can build with an intersectional focus to avoid lawsuits, or to increase your market cap. There’s also substantial research supporting the Curb Cut Effect — the idea that accommodations made for one group can make a product more accessible to other groups.

Gintel Gee put it concisely during a panel discussion Carbon Five hosted about Intersectionality and Design for SF Design Week: “When it comes to edge cases, I think that we all have either been one or will become one.”

“When it comes to edge cases, I think that we all have either been one or will become one.”

But the fact remains — smaller teams with a more rarified audience (say, developer to developer) may not be convinced that features focused on increasing access are a worthwhile addition to their roadmap. That’s why work around accessibility and diversifying tech in the hiring phase and in early development is key. If we start by educating ourselves on issues facing marginalized communities and start projects with accessibility best practices we can stay focused on building products without amplifying systemic bias once the feature work starts.

With a strong foundation to start from, a company can have regular, nuanced discussions without slowing velocity.

In the case of Corey’s team, “The discussion of each ticket should not only include asking ‘do we understand the value?’ or ‘how shall we do this?’ but also ‘who may be impacted by this decision?’”

Will it last?

There’s a sense among some respondents that support for intersectionality at a company level isn’t about ethics – it’s about taking advantage of a market opportunity. We’ve already seen companies whose commitment to diversifying tech and building for a wider audience ends abruptly when it threatens to cut into profit.

Aaron predicts that this newfound consideration of intersectionality by some tech companies may not last long.

“Eventually executives will start to realize that intersectionality is at odds with capitalism and then they’ll start trying to walk things back,” he said.

“Eventually executives will start to realize that intersectionality is at odds with capitalism and then they’ll start trying to walk things back,” Aaron said.

It’s a demoralizing trend for tech workers who believe in increasing access and diversity, and for users who struggle to use products that weren’t made for them.

Final thoughts

The original impetus for the post series was about examining the inherent contradictions between scalability and intersectionality. Scalability focuses on growing as fast as you can using whatever means you can and meeting the needs of a small and easy-to-please subset of users. We wanted to discuss ways to address the systemic bias that emerges as a result of this in growth stage companies.

It’s not an easy thing to fix and it’s not something that can change overnight. But a few key changes are coming into focus:

Start with accessibility. There are tools and best practices out there to build accessible products from the very beginning rather than adding them as features later. A few discussions  up front can save loads of accessibility debt down the line.

Always be learning. A few employees at Carbon Five recently spun up an accessibility workgroup aimed at gathering best practices, testing accessibility solutions on active projects, and sharing their findings with the rest of the company. Folks who are passionate about increasing access can have amazing effects on the culture of a company. (Passionate advocates can burn out quickly, too — if you have an advocate within your company, please stand alongside them and take care of them).

Diverse products come from diverse teams. There’s lots of writing around creating diverse teams during the hiring stage, but less about the day-to-day work it takes to reward and encourage divergent thinking. Like learning, fostering diversity is a constant push and not a one-time investment. But it’s worth it. Monolithic teams are maximized to reach the same audience over and over. Will that be your audience forever?

Agile methodology and ruthless prioritization doesn’t have to mean serving the same people over and over again. As Aaron put it, “I assume your team already wants to build an incredible product; you need your team to now internalize the idea that a product can’t be incredible without paying mind to intersectionality.”

 


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