A Response to "Universal Design IRL" (and ensuing commentary)

Earlier this week, Sara Wachter-Boettcher (editor-in-chief of industry darling A List Apart) wrote a poignant article about the importance of diversity in our industry and the challenges we still face to achieve that ideal. There was a lot of debate surrounding her assertions, and I'd contend that a large chunk of it completely sidestepped her real points.

The Clash

I was lured into a Twitter debate by this statement from Andy Rutledge (who seems to have blocked me in some way since our banter is now "protected;" luckily I took a screenshot of the conversation prior to the block so I can accurately quote both of us):

Newsflash: It's not 1830. Women and minorities are fully capable of fending for themselves. Apologists expose themselves as today's bigots.

I responded with a tweet that, in retrospect, could be construed as snarky but actually wasn't mean to be:

So thousands of years of power imbalance doesn't affect the present?

The point I was trying to make was that while yes, we are privileged to now live in a time and place that doesn't automatically discount people's abilities based on race or gender a majority of the time, the reality is that our culture at large hasn't entirely caught up with this ideal (and it won't for a while because change takes time).

The world we live in was, for most of history, built by and for white men.

I'm a fiercely independent woman, and I've done nothing but fight to support myself without help (particularly government help) since high school. So I wanted to hit him when he gave this ad hominem response to my question about the impact of history:

No. Welcome to the present. Walk on your own two legs. No one can do it for you. If they try, hit them.


Common Ground?

Here's a confession: not that long ago, I would've agreed with Mr. Rutledge's perspective.

I was raised by parents who didn't teach me that people often explicitly or implicitly look at women differently when it comes to abilities (that was fun to deal with first-hand working in a small Texas town). I grew up believing that if you work hard, your efforts are rewarded.

The reality is, I've discovered from experience, the world doesn't work that way all the time. I wish it was a simple/straightforward as Mr. Rutledge makes it out to be, I really do. I've just experienced too much evidence to the contrary. And personally I'd rather be part of creating a solution than part of feeding the problem.

Instead of focusing on points of disagreement, let's pull out where we probably ultimately agree: women are just as capable as men. Take a moment to appreciate that agreement.

Done? Great.


The Resolution

I think the first step to getting closer to our shared ideal is acknowledging that we're not there yet. It is okay to not be there yet because we are moving in the right direction and we've got to give up being so defensive about our faults.

Here's where I think my opinions and experiences clash with those like Mr. Rutledge. For some reason (and this is an assumption of course), it feels like some readers took the article as some kind of admonition for diversity to be obligatory or even government-imposed (leftover political angst?). I can see how that would spark a lot of resentful feelings. In general, I'm not often in favor of forcing behaviors.

But I don't think that was Ms. Wachter-Boettcher's point. I think she intended to offer a more organic reflection on values and how we express those values to push us to get the most out of industry events.

In fact, when you return to the original article, that seems to be precisely what she's getting at (and what the discussion has sadly gotten away from). I'd contend that her calls to action boil down to two things:

  • Be a decent human being and don't tolerate inappropriate behavior by your peers, especially toward those who aren't traditionally part of your group.
  • Find ways to welcome people who can bring fresh insight into the industry because it will make us better.

What she's not saying? She's not saying white men are the enemy or aren't valuable. She's not saying to include minority groups out of obligation or pity. She's not saying that she always gets it right.

Instead of getting caught up in political philosophy, why can't we dig into the meat of what she's challenging us to accomplish in order to make our industry stronger? Personally, I'm growing leaps and bounds as an individual with the efforts of groups like Girl Develop It (women teaching women how to code). And guess what? I don't have to argue with anyone about it.