I’ve been at Pinterest just over 4 months and 2 months ago I sent out this email to all the women in my new workplace.
I was torn about whether to write this or not when I first joined Pinterest but today I need to say something because I just had someone be scared to come out of their stall when they saw me washing my hands. I’m not a fan of scaring people so here’s what I probably should have sent 2 months ago:
Hi! My name is Lukas and I’m a masculine woman (genderqueer/butch) and I use women‘s washrooms when there is not a unisex or gender-neutral option available.
It’s not easy to use a women‘s washroom when you’re constantly afraid of scaring/confusing/angering someone and so I’m hoping that letting you know about me will help decrease the likelihood of this happening when we happen to run into each other in that space.
That email generated 65 replies – all positive – from women throughout the company. I was blown away by the kind (and often hilarious) responses from my co-workers regarding an issue that has been a lifelong struggle. It also helped lessen (though not eliminate) much of the stress around using the women’s bathroom, which was the point.
Queer/outsider coping skills vs. Taking risks
At least for this (white, able-bodied, class-jumping) queer, the way to get by as someone who doesn’t conform to gender norms has been to lock down with a group of people where I feel seen. This has been the case at every paid gig I’ve ever had. Get foot in the door, find ways to connect with co-workers, create a tight-knit cabal of ‘my people’, and then hang in there. However I have some kind of restlessness gene and so I’m always trying to push myself to get more out of life than hiding in a particular group. I’m petrified of ‘groupthink’. I crave more experiences, learning, and opportunities to develop increased skills & resources that I can bring back to my communities to lift others. I’m constantly pushing myself out of the nest every time I start feeling comfortable. Examples include going back at 30 years of age to do a 4 year degree in Software Development with 19/20 year olds, moving to San Francisco to work in tech with a majority of young men while leaving behind my Toronto community of queers & artists, and moving away from Mozilla where I had spent 8 years establishing myself as a contributor in many areas of the project to work at Pinterest where I knew just two people. Those are just recent examples. If I dug further back, I know the pattern would still hold.
Pinterest has a commitment to diversity
Every tech company is chasing its tail right now to prove how committed they are to “Diversity”. Head of Diversity positions are abounding in the want ads, articles and data every day espouse how each company is going to try and take on this hard problem (hint, it’s not as hard when it’s authentically driven).
Pinterest has made statements and posted goals. They also have done things that show their commitment including Unconscious Bias training for everyone, changing interview methods (laptop instead of whiteboard for coding in interviews), creating measurable standards for what our culture fit interviews should be checking for so that we aren’t unconsciously moving the goal posts or building a homogenous environment.
On top of these ever-improving system-wide changes, in our new building down the street there are going to be gender neutral washrooms. I noticed this on the plans when we had a launch party and asked the Workplace team about it. They confirmed, yes, we would. I was excited and pleased to think that in 2016 I’ll be in that building and able to relax a bit about a thing that so many people do without a second though several times a day, and take for granted. It’s not something you can understand if you’ve never felt it but the best I can explain it is like you’re getting the side-eye from people you want to feel on the same team with and while you’ve built up the “thick skin” to handle 100 instances of being on edge, the 101th time in a week, it wrecks your day. That sucks for productivity, for team-building, and it’s one of the millions of paper cuts that can build up into feeling you’re in a ‘toxic’ workplace that doesn’t try to openly and honestly tackle true diversity. The objective of working on increased diversity in workplaces isn’t only to end up with a pretty-looking set of numbers for large umbrella groups, it’s also to take on tiny things that quietly shift the status quo by making it possible for more people to have less friction in their workday.
Yesterday Pinterest’s Workplace team sent out a note regarding our current building:
The 1st floor women’s restroom has now been converted to a unisex restroom and is now in service ready for use! Thanks for your patience during construction.
They might as well have said: From now on, Lukas will be 150% more productive because she’ll always be able to comfortably go to the bathroom.
Thank you, Workplace:
p.s. Don’t worry, I’m not so comfortable that I’m ready to leave this nest
I’m trying to bring the second pilot of the Ascend Project http://ascendproject.org to New Orleans in February and am looking for a space to hold the program. We have a small budget to rent space but would prefer to find a partnership and/or sponsor if possible to help keep costs low.
The program takes 20 adults who are typically marginalized in technology/open source and offers them a 6 week accelerated learning environment where they build technical skills by contributing to open source – specifically, Mozilla. Ascend provides the laptops, breakfast, lunch, transit & childcare reimbursement, and a daily stipend in order to lift many of the barriers to participation.
Our first pilot completed 6 weeks ago in Portland, OR and it was a great success with 18 participants completing the 6 week course and fixing many bugs in a wide range of Mozilla projects. They have now continued on to internships both inside and outside of Mozilla as well as seeking job opportunities in the tech industry.
To do this again, in New Orleans, Ascend needs a space to hold the classes!
Space requirements are simple:
* Room for 25 people to comfortably work on laptops * Strong & reliable internet connectivity * Ability to bring in our own food & beverages
Bonus if the space helps network participants with other tech workers, has projector/whiteboards (though we can bring our own in), or video capability.
Please let me know if you have a connection who can help with getting a space booked for this project and if you have any other leads I can look into, I’d love to hear about them.
Part 1: Start In Person
Ascend had very few ‘rules’ but there was one which was non-negotiable: it’s an in-person program. We didn’t do distance learning, online coursework, or video-based classes. We did bring in a couple of speakers virtually to speak to the room of 20 participants but the opposite was never true.
This was super important in how we were going to build a strong cohort. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of remote work and global contribution as well as with people working from wherever they are. This was a 6 week intensive program though and in order to build the inter-dependent cohort I was hoping to1, it had to be in person at first. Those cruicial early stages where someone is more likely to ‘disappear’ if things were hard, confusing, or if they couldn’t get someone’s attention to ask a question.
It’s been over 5 years since I graduated from my software development program and over 8 years since I started lurking in IRC channels2 and getting to know Mozillians in digital space first. I wouldn’t have stuck with it, or gotten so deeply involved without my coursework with Dave Humphrey though. That was a once a week class, but it meant the world to be in the same room as other people who were learning and struggling with the same or similar problems. It was an all-important thread connecting what I was trying to do in my self-directed time with actual people who could show more caring about me and my ability to participate.
Even as an experienced open source contributor I can jump into IRC channels for projects I’m trying to work on – most recently dd-wrt for my home server setup – and when I ask a question (with lots of evidence for what I’ve already tried and an awareness of what the manual has to say) I get no response, aka: Crickets. There are a host of reasons, and I know more than a beginner might about what those could be: timezones, family comitments, no one with the expertise currently in the channel, and more. None of that matters when you’re new to this type of environment. Silence is interpreted as a big “GO AWAY YOU DON’T BELONG HERE” despite the best intentions of any community.
In person learning is the best way to counter that. Being able to turn to a colleague or a mentor and say what’s happening helps get you both reassurance that it’s not you, but also someone who can help you get unstuck on what to do next. While you wait for a response, check out this other topic we’re studying. Perhaps you can try other methods of communication too, like in a bug or an email.
Over the course of our first pilot I also discovered that removing myself from the primary workroom the Ascend participants were in helped the cohort to rapidly built up strengths in helping each other first3. The workflow looked more like: have a question/problem, ask a cohort member (or several), if you still can’t figure it out ask on IRC, and if then if you’re still stuck find your course leader. This put me at the end of the escalation path4 and meant that people were learning to rely both on in-person communications as well as IRC but more importantly were building up the muscle of “don’t stop asking for help until you get it” which is really where open source becomes such a great space to work in.
Back to my recent dd-wrt experience, I didn’t hear anything back in IRC and I felt I had exhausted the forums & wikis their community provided. I started asking in other IRC channels where tech-minded people hung out (thanks womenwhohack!) and then I tried yet another search with slightly different terms. In the end I found what I needed in a YouTube tutorial. I hope that sufficiently demonstrates that a combination of tactics are what culminate in an ability to be persistent when learning in open source projects.
Never underestimate the importance of removing isolation for new contributors to a project. In person help, even just at first, can be huge.
- Because the ultimate goal of Ascend was to give people skills for long-term contribution and participation and a local cohort of support and fellow learners seemed like a good bet for that to be possible once the barrier-removing help of the 6 week intensive was no longer in place. ↩
- By the way, I’m such a huge fan of IRC that I wrote the tutorial for it at Mozilla in order to help get more non-engineering folks using it, in my perfect world everyone is in IRC all the time with scrollback options and logging. ↩
- Only after the first three weeks when we moved to the more independent work, working on bugs, stage. ↩
- Which is awesome because I was always struggling to keep up with the course creation as we were running it, I didn’t realize that teaching 9-5 was asking for disaster and next time we’ll do 10-4 for the participants to give the mentors pre and post prep time. ↩