How concepts of feminism makes me a better tester – Part 2

Link to Part 1 of this article – https://www.womentesters.com/how-concepts-of-feminism-makes-me-a-better-tester-part-1/

Introduction

This article is based on Eeva Pursula’s talk at the Agile Testing Days (Potsdam, Nov. 13. 2018). It sums up her realizations on how feminist mindset supports the testers mindset, and how feminist concepts and feminist thinking can help us identify problems in the work environment and fix them to make our teams work better. At the end she will also share about what feminism can teach us about defining a testers role.

Target audience: Anyone

Cherish diversity

True collaboration requires some tolerance on people being different. We can have mutual goals and respect for one another even if there are issues where we do not share same views. You don’t have to win every argument, sometimes it’s enough just to listen, ask questions, and maybe tell why you disagree. It’s beneficial to learn why does the other think the way they think even if you never would agree with them. New ideas only emerge in environments where conflicting thoughts get to encounter, and new ideas are needed if we want to build better products and test better.  

The more diverse  are the backgrounds  and interests and views of people we design new features with  or have lunch with, the easier it is for us  to expand our thinking to areas we did not know  were not yet included in our plans.

But diversity does not come by itself. We have to actively work on it, realizing that some of the obstacles are invisible for the privileged. [4]

For example, democracy is good, but it does not guarantee that minorities get heard.

Have you ever been in a retro where the team gets to share their concerns and then they vote which problems will be discussed and solved? Imagine a team of let’s say three people, who’ve worked together for years and got to build their processes and tools as they like.

Suppose they need to hire  more people, and they manage to select two people who view things very differently than they do. These two will start figuring out how to adapt to the company culture and how to promote things they feel should be done differently. Then comes retro. Everyone gets to share their ideas, but when it comes the time to vote, the trio will pretty much agree on things and vote for each others ideas.  

The newbies don’t see things the same way, they probably don’t even understand each others struggles. The only way for them to get their unique ideas heard is if someone decides to unite with them on an issue. But who would do that, as the trio already feels that the most important issues are getting attention, and the other newbie is worried about their own issues?

Amplify small voices – actively find ways to promote minority thoughts

Some years ago women in Obama’s administration got tired of the common situation of their ideas being ignored unless a man would later present them as his own ideas. They discovered that they can change this by amplifying  each others voices. The idea is basically to repeat the message giving credits to the one who first introduced it and thus forcing others to notice it too. [5]

Similarly, we can amplify minority thoughts, if we just recognize that some voices are not heard,  and are willing to give some of our own space for their ideas. It just doesn’t happen if we don’t do it deliberately.

Of course retros are not the only ways to promote change within a team. You can have an impact through training, informal discussions, code reviews, pairing etc. But as we start in a new job, we already carry burdens of the role expectations from our previous jobs and gender stereotypes and so on. People often need active encouraging to become aware of these roles and to overcome their limitations to what they are. And sometimes the whole team needs to work together to achieve this.

For example, we intuitively expect men to be leaders and women to be followers, and that affects how we feel about a person when he or she makes a suggestion [6]. One way this is seen is that men interrupt more often than women do, and both men and women interrupt women more often than men [7] [8], and men are more easily forgiven that kind of behavior [9] [10].

So these kind of unconscious attitudes can form a barrier that blocks some of us from taking their ideas forward. That’s why we need to work together with these issues, because for an individual bumping into these obstacles, it can be a choice between wearing yourself out in never ending battles, or adapting yourself to the views of majority, or simply leaving.  

Psychological safety

When organizations go through changes, people generally don’t feel safe. Change often means that someone will be out of job. Now when we go through a change from a waterfall model into agile, many people will fear for their jobs. The roles offered in agile teams are quite different than in waterfall teams, and there may be no ready made job descriptions for people who do not identify themselves as programmers even though their work may still be very much needed. This is one reason why so many organizations ended up in a situation where the developers are allowed to “do agile” as long as it looks like waterfall for all others. If you want the whole organization to be agile you may need to help waterfall people find agile roles.

So sort of the starting point for people to feel safe at work, is that they can feel that they are useful. Some of us work on continuing to be useful by constantly trying to learn new things. Others hang on to an illusion of being irreplaceable. It is easier to believe that you are irreplaceable, and make it look like that for others too, if you concentrate on knowing things, not on learning things. So lack of safety blocks learning. We need safety to be able to do things that may fail, or to say out loud that we do not have all the answers that are needed. To do anything new.

And we need a sense of being listened to, to share our most precious thoughts.  

If we don’t feel safe, problems make us focus in covering up instead of speaking openly about the problems to get them solved.

Are we all really welcome here?

For decades already, there’s been discussion about how to get more women on male dominated fields of the society. We’ve seen many campaigns that encourage girls to study math and even computer sciences. Unfortunately the gender ratio in technology does not only suffer from young women not understanding that they could actually aim here, but also from experienced women leaving the field [11] [12].

Women leave because they don’t see that they had career prospects. They don’t feel appreciated nor supported. They are labeled emotional or difficult for demanding equal treatment compared to their male colleagues, and too many also report having been harassed in work environment.

But this does not concern just women. Ratio of women is rather easy to measure, ratio of people from oppressed subcultures is not, and they most probably experience similar difficulties.

So it seems that in tech we need to do something to our work culture to make it a less hostile environment.

There is no silver bullet for this. We need many changes, and we may not be able to do them all at once.

If we look at the problem strictly from the point of view of modern feminist discourse, it offers a couple of tools for creating a safer space for us.

Listen to understand

The problem with many normal conversation environments is that there is sort of a pecking order that allows the privileged to hijack every conversation and start explaining what the underprivileged actually think and why they think so, and how they should be thinking instead. Or what kind of problems they have and how they should be solved. Some forms of this behavior have been named as manterrupting, mansplaining and whitesplaining, but there are other forms as well, and you don’t have to be white nor male to end up doing that.

The problem is that we interpret the world from the point of view of our own emotions, attitudes and opinions, and they may block us from allowing space for minority thoughts. We should learn to concentrate more on listening than on giving our own interpretations. Asking questions more than giving answers. Let people tell themselves what they need.

But we should not listen politely just anything another person says. We should notice when the discussion is about defining “the others” and try to make it clear that it’s generally not ok. Some people seem to think that drawing lines between us and them brings us closer to each other. But we can never be sure that discriminating language would not hurt anyone who we consider to be one of us. You might not know if someone in your team is gay or has children with different skin color or ethnic background than you expect. And even if you do know your team well, if our culture encourages discriminating language, it forces us to seek for conformity, making it more difficult for people to stand out by expressing new thoughts or asking questions. That’s why we should not tolerate intolerance.

Choose your words wisely

Notice trigger words and avoid them. A trigger word means a word that gets someones attention more easily than others. In feminist context it means especially words that provoke strong negative feelings, making a person so upset and overwhelmed by emotions that it kind of overrides being rational. When someone is triggered, it will be really difficult for them to express themselves clearly, let alone understand opposing views. That’s why using language containing trigger words is not a way to promote freedom of speech, instead it’s an effective way to prevent discussion by creating hierarchies of power play and teasing.

It can be difficult to understand why another person is being triggered, but in the end, that is none of our business. Triggering can be caused by a word that reminds someone from lifelong experiences of constant fear and abuse, and most of us don’t really want to hear those kind of things explained. So we can be kind to others as well as towards ourselves by simply not using a word we know to be triggering for someone.

Words we choose to use also have a huge impact on what conclusions we are able to make, and often a word that triggers someone is also a word that will narrow your thoughts and contain some unconscious assumptions, so being aware of them is not just a question of being nice, it’s also a question of critical thinking.

When you realize what are the trigger words, you can also understand that nearly any subject can be discussed in a civilized manner as long as you avoid these words. If you can’t find a way for that, then you will need to do some more listening and learning before you can contribute to a conversation.

Admit failures and apologize

These rules are surprisingly difficult to follow. So apologize if you accidentally hurt someone. Show empathy and never undermine another person’s feelings. Learn from your mistakes instead of just trying to justify them.

This can feel strange, as many of us are used to some sort of a macho culture that promotes just the opposite behavior.

Feminism breaks limits forced from outside

The revolution of feminism started when women got tired of being defined by male opinions. Often the female views were dismissed as emotional and irrational, in contrast to the rational and science based views of the white male. Too bad that having balls and a position is not enough to make a person view the world correctly. Thanks to male doctors countless women have suffered unnecessary pain and agony as they’ve been forced to give birth laying down on their backs. There was a long period when small children did not get pain killers during anesthesia in surgery because male doctors had concluded that small children are not capable of feeling pain.

I’m not saying that women would not have done similar mistakes if they had been given similar positions in the society. We are humans,  and as we seek for new information and try new things, we often fail, and at times we don’t know that we are failing. And when in this insecure world we find a piece of authoritative truth to hold on to, it’s very tempting for us to build on it instead of questioning it, and that’s how harmful misunderstandings can become the cornerstones in the foundations of the systems we are building.  

Feminism fights for a world where the impression of an outsider does not define who we are.

Define your own role

I hear that at least in Finland, there is a constant demand on visionary talks that would reveal the future role of a tester. Many seem to have fear for the future, as they don’t feel that their work is understood nor appreciated. They hear ideas about replacing testers with cheaper people or automation.

I will tell you a secret. There is no future role of a tester. Well yes, there are trends that affect many of us, but the great testers I’ve met have all very different backgrounds and none of them have identical work roles. When a tester changes a team or changes a company, in many cases their role changes.

So nobody is ever going to be able to tell, what is a testers role. There are various roles for a tester, and it’s up to you to create your own. You are the only one who can define who you are and what you want to become.

We are not getting useless. Our tasks will become more complex, and with that it will be more and more important to understand your limitations and what kind of people we need around so that together we can conquer the quests. And this openness to admit that you are not perfect and still go proudly ahead,  is something we can learn from the feminist discourse.

More about feminism?

In case you got interested in feminism, there’s one last disclaimer. Don’t learn your feminism from white CIS-people. I’m not saying that our voices are not worth listening, I’m just saying that we should have stopped being in the spotlight at latest around the change of the millennium. There are other voices that are more relevant. Just remember that feminism is not supposed to be easy or consistent, it’s supposed to be thought provoking. It’s not supposed to be nice, but making pain visible and sharing it. And these things make it worth studying for us testers.

References

[4] Emerald Insight: A cultural feminist approach towards managing diversity in top management teams (Jawad Syed & Peter A. Murray, vol 27 issue 5) https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/02610150810882288

[5] The Washington Post: White House women want to be in the room where it happens (Juliet Eilperin, Sep 13 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/13/white-house-women-are-now-in-the-room-where-it-happens/?utm_term=.04093738b462

[6] Forbes: The Price All Women Pay For Gender Bias (Kim Scott, Jan 31 2018) https://www.forbes.com/sites/break-the-future/2018/01/31/why-gender-bias-holds-us-all-back/#60d533174c5f

[7] aeon: How men continue to interrupt even the most powerful women (Tonja Jacobi, Dylan Schweers, May 26 2017) https://aeon.co/ideas/how-men-continue-to-interrupt-even-the-most-powerful-women

[8] Bustle: Research Confirms That — Excuse Me — Women Are Interrupted Way More Than Men (Morgan Brinlee, Jun 16 2017) https://www.bustle.com/p/research-confirms-that-excuse-me-women-are-interrupted-way-more-than-men-64732

[9] Pew Research Center: On Gender Differences, No Consensus on Nature vs. Nurture – Americans say society places a higher premium on masculinity than on femininity (Kim Parker, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Renee Stepler, Dec 5 2017) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/12/05/on-gender-differences-no-consensus-on-nature-vs-nurture/

[10] A shorter read e.g. Forbes: New Research Reveals Society’s Attitude About Gender Differences (Bonnie Marcus, Dec 5 2017) https://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2017/12/05/new-research-reveals-societys-attitude-about-gender-differences/#7c5bf6fc67c5

[11] Kapor Center: The 2017 Tech Leavers Study – A first-of-its-kind analysis on why people voluntarily left jobs in tech (Allison Scott, Freada Kapor Klein, Uriridiakoghene Onovakpuri, Apr 27 2017) http://www.kaporcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/TechLeavers2017.pdf

[12] A shorter read e.g. CIO opinion: Why are women leaving technology jobs? – A look at the possible reasons why women are moving away from STEM careers (Jamie Mercer, Sep 29 2017) https://www.cio.com/article/3229355/it-industry/why-are-women-leaving-technology-jobs.html

Author’s bio

Author's photo

Eeva Pursula has been in the software industry for 8 years, mostly doing exploratory testing. She has worked with many development teams practicing different blends of waterfall and agile, testing many kinds of browser-based solutions.

Eeva has a wide range of interests that have taken her to study topics from physics to philosophy to arts and social psychology. For her testing at its best is about questioning and opening eyes to avoided subjects. She is a storyteller who likes building collaboration instead of confrontation.

Twitter @EevaPursula

LinkedIn – https://bit.ly/2SgtRnz

One thought on “How concepts of feminism makes me a better tester – Part 2”

  1. When other people (usually, sad to say, from my peer group – older white males) moan about diversity – and yes, I’m afraid ‘moan’ is still the right word – I say this to them: in IT in particular, we are designing, building and marketing products and applications that could be used by anyone, from any background, anywhere in the world. So we need the widest possible range of backgrounds, knowledge and experience in designing, building and testing those products.

    The things that have failed most spectacularly in the past fifty years have been things designed and build by white males, for white males. The global banking system since 2008 springs to mind. When you look more closely, you find that the things that have worked best have drawn on the widest possible knowledge base (even if that wasn’t recognised at the time).

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