When inclusion doesn’t look like inclusion: An ally’s guide

“Aren’t you offended that you aren’t included in women’s events that are supposed to be ‘inclusive’?”

Someone asked me this question recently at an event when I mentioned a women’s event that my female friends had attended the night before. On the surface, it’s a legitimate question to ask; we are told that inclusion means everyone and yet here I was being specifically not included in an event that purported to be inclusive.

However, I think this person asked me the wrong question.

Instead of asking me if I was offended that I wasn’t included, I think the better question to ask me (and anyone, really) is “How is you not going to that event supporting inclusive environments?”.

This question, I believe, changes the dynamic of the conversation. When we expect to be included in things under the name of “inclusion”, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes not everyone needs to be present for progress to be made. When we talk about how we can be supportive in other ways (or how our actions, broadly, support inclusion), it not only engages everyone but also pushes towards our goals.

Step Up, Step Back

I call this the “Step Up, Step Back” principle. In this principle, you are responsible for making your voice heard. This doesn’t mean talking for the sake of talking, but if you have something to add to the conversation, you have a responsibility to make it heard. Sometimes this will be a yell of support, a cautious piece of advice, or a downright disagreement. As long your statements are given with respect and due diligence (i.e. no inflammatory comments for the sake of being inflammatory), then step up and make your voice heard.

That being said, everyone also has the responsibility to step back, listen to other people, and actively encourage others to speak that have yet to “step up”. Part of being inclusive is letting other voices be heard and that requires that yours be silent. Silence and listening are often overlooked parts of being a supportive ally, as we want to let everyone know our ideas on how to help out. It’s natural to want to help in this way, but sometimes the best way to help is to listen and learn.

Assume Best Intent

When talking about diversity and inclusion, it can be so easy (and sometimes it feels good) to vindicate our hurt feelings by throwing nasty words – “feminazi”, for instance, is a common term that is applied to feminists that say and do things mainstream society doesn’t like (often regardless of the impact, positive or negative, that the words/actions had).

Assuming best intent reverses the notion that when someone is doing something you don’t like or don’t understand, it’s inherently wrong or done to anger you. In the context of that women’s event, assuming best intent means that I assume those women did not dis-invite me (and other men) because they hate me/us, but because they needed space to talk through women’s issues with other women. That seems fair to me; I’m not a woman. While I can add some academic knowledge, I don’t have much in the way of lived experiences and thus it was an opportunity for me to “step back” in a space that I couldn’t contribute a lot to.

This doesn’t mean I’m never invited and never go to “women’s” events and can’t contribute to the conversation just because I don’t share their identity. In fact, I went to a well known “women-centered” coding boot-camp just a few weeks ago and was welcomed with open arms. In that moment, I stepped up to be known as an ally through my presence. At the same time, I stepped back and listened to the experiences these women faced looking for, and being welcomed in, coding and development jobs. Overall, I was able to be an ally in a space “not meant for me” because of the two principles I explained above. I also learned how to code (a little bit) in Python.