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The A List Apart Blog Presents:

We (Still) Have Work to Do

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We’re here, and we’re on the record: the web industry has a diversity problem. It’s got a misogyny problem. It’s standing in the way of the web we want, and we are all—every one of us—responsible for changing that.

I wrote these words one year ago today, at the peak of the #yesallwomen discussion. They’re just as true now as they were then. But as Nishant Kothary wrote in his column a couple weeks back:

Even with its hundreds of contributors, columnists, and bloggers, ALA has very little to show for this aspiration in a year (interestingly, what it does have to show was contributed almost entirely by women).

I make this point not to criticize ALA…but to highlight just how difficult it is to talk about difficult things even when you explicitly and publicly set the goal of doing so.

So, what have we done? It’s a fair question, and one that’s worthy of a response. Because the answer is this: everything, and also not nearly enough.

Over the past year, we’ve started discussing inclusivity constantly, across every facet of our work—the authors we encourage, the messaging on our website, the people we invite to events, the way we edit articles, the topics we cover.

And yet, we screw up constantly. We cringe when we notice too late that we published an article with a biased example, or used words that defaulted to male. We struggle to include more people of color and non-native English speakers in our pages. We hear that our submissions copy feels alienating.

We’re trying. But what we haven’t been doing is talking about it publicly—because it takes time, yes, but also because it’s scary to lay bare all our decisions, discussions, half-baked ideas, and partially executed plans. It’s scary to say, “we don’t know all the answers, but here’s where we’ve started.”

That changes today.

What we’re up to

“We have work to do,” I began last year. And we still do. Sometimes, that work feels overwhelming. Mostly it’s exciting, because it reminds us why we’re here, and what we want this industry to look like in another year, in five years, in ten years.

Here’s what we’re working on so far:

More inclusive editing

When we edit, we no longer just look for stuff that violates the style guide: website as one word, or 4g with a lowercase g. We also look for biases and non-inclusive language in the words our authors use, and we challenge them to come up with words that pack power without excluding readers.

It’s not black and white: reasonable people have conflicting opinions on the use of you guys, for example. And some things are so deeply embedded in our culture—like calling things crazy or insane—that’s it’s tough, at first, to even recognize that they’re problematic.

One change you may have noticed, if you’re as nerdy about words as we are, is our move to the singular they. Writing “he” or “she” is fine, if you’re talking about a person who goes by “he” or “she.” But when we talk about a person in general, or someone who doesn’t identify as male or female, they’re now a they.

The most important part of this process is that it’s just that: a process. We haven’t “fixed” our editing style. We’re just having an ongoing conversation that gets more nuanced with time—and that everyone on the team is encouraged to participate in.

Some people might find the prospect of hashing and rehashing language tedious (ugh, do we have to talk about this again?!). But I’ve found it incredibly rewarding, because every discussion forces me to challenge my beliefs and biases—and to be a little more willing to listen.

Recruiting diverse authors

When I joined A List Apart in 2012, every issue was a nail-biter: we were never sure until the last minute whether we’d be able to get the new articles together in time. I wanted to recruit and encourage diverse authors—I think everyone on staff did. But when everyone’s brain is stuck on “do we have something to publish?,” it’s hard to make space for questions like, “are we consistently presenting a realistic view of our industry?”

We should have. It wasn’t until the end of 2014 that I stopped and looked—and I didn’t like what I saw. In 2013, for example, only about 25 percent of our feature articles (that is, not blog posts or columns) were by women. One in four!

Last year’s numbers were more balanced: about 40 percent of our authors were women. But here’s the funny thing about that number: I thought we were publishing lots of women in 2014. Our pages seemed to be full of ’em! Which just goes to show how easy it is to normalize lack of diversity when you’re not paying attention: 4 in 10 feels like “a lot,” instead of “less than half.”

That said, 40 percent is better, and we expect this year will be even more balanced—and more diverse in other ways as well. So what have we done? First, we invested in defining our acquisitions and editing process, making clearer decisions earlier about which articles we were accepting, and developing more specific expectations with both editors and authors about deadlines. This isn’t about diversity directly, but indirectly, it’s made a huge difference—because rushing around pushing articles out the door meant that we were never really building a solid pipeline. We were running ourselves ragged without addressing problems up the chain. Formalizing our acquisitions process and clarifying roles and responsibilities freed us up to spend time on bigger picture issues.

We’re also actively reaching out to more prospective authors, and encouraging them to write—especially people of color and women who are just emerging in their fields. Oftentimes, these folks have viewpoints and ideas we haven’t heard before—but they’re more likely to think they’re not “experienced enough” to submit an article. There is no shortage of articles talking about why this happens. The problem is, many of those articles simply end up telling marginalized groups that they’re responsible for solving the problem: here’s the careful tightrope you need to walk in order to promote your ideas without coming off as “pushy,” they seem to say.

We’re not buying it. Women and people of color—and particularly women of color, who often feel sidelined by the largely white “women in tech” movement—already have enough to deal with in this field. The least we can do is put in some effort to reach out to them, rather than complaining that they don’t come to us.

Another area we’ve focused on is ensuring our ranks of bloggers and columnists—the people who write for us regularly—reflect the range of people in our industry. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we’re working on it—because the more often diverse faces show up on our site, the easier it is for everyone to imagine themselves there.

It’s not easy to recruit diverse authors, and there are still lots of reasons smart, talented people from marginalized groups don’t want to expose themselves to the risks of writing publicly. But here’s the truth: finding diverse authors isn’t that hard, once you’ve started.

Changing our tone

In addition to changing our submissions and editing processes, we also took a look at how we were talking about ourselves, our authors, and the process of contributing to the magazine. Here’s what the copy on the submissions page used to say:

So you want to write for A List Apart Magazine.

What we’re looking for

We want to change the way our readers work, whether that means introducing a revolutionary CSS technique with dozens of potential applications, challenging the design community to ditch bad practices, or refuting common wisdom about, say, screen readers.

If your article can do that, we want to see it.

“So…” So? That tiny word sets a tone of disbelief—like we might as well have added “then prove it” at the end. And don’t get me started on those verbs: challenge, refute, revolutionize. Why are we being so aggressive? What about articles that help our community grow, learn, or improve?

We had good intentions here: we wanted to make readers feel like an ALA article was special—not just a post you whip out in an hour. But it wasn’t working. When I asked people whom I’d like to see submit what they thought, I got responses like, “sending something to ALA sounds scary,” or “that seems like a really big deal.”

Oof.

Writing publicly makes most people feel vulnerable, especially those who are just starting to put their ideas out there for the world—in other words, the very people we’re most interested in hearing from. You might get rejected. People might disagree with you. You might even get harassment or abuse for daring to speak up.

We can’t remove all the risks, but what we can do is offer a more nurturing message to new writers. We started by overhauling our contribute page—in fact, we renamed it Write for Us, with an aim of making the message a little more human. Then we got feedback from a couple prospective authors, which led to another round of tweaks. Here’s what it says right now:

Write for Us

Yes, you. We’re always looking for new authors. If you’ve got an idea that will challenge our readers and move our industry forward, we want to hear about it. But you don’t need to wait for an idea that will redefine web design. Just aim to bring readers a fresh perspective on a topic that’s keeping you up at night.

Rereading it now, I don’t think it’s quite right yet, either. It’s still got more of those aggressive verbs than it needs. But one thing I love about it is this:

Yes, you.

Those two tiny words speaks directly to someone who’s not sure they’re in the right place, not sure we really want to hear from them.

Of course, there’s more to our tone than what’s on the submissions page. We’ve also started making other communications less aloof and a bit more approachable. We’re not some impenetrable entity in the sky, after all. We’re your peers.

It’s funny to admit this, because it sounds so obvious. But one thing we’ve started doing just recently—as in, this spring—is tweeting about accepting new authors. Nothing fancy: just kindly, and regularly, reminding people that we’d love to hear from them.

Why didn’t we do this years ago? The easy answer is that we just never thought about it. We are all busy, working on ALA on the side, and “social media strategy” has never been our top priority. But if we’re being honest with ourselves here, the real answer is this: we didn’t want to admit that incredible, mind-blowing, ready-to-publish content didn’t just come to us.

But getting great articles about a big, changing industry simply isn’t easy, no matter who you are or how long you’ve been publishing. And, admittedly, our editing process isn’t exactly a walk in the park: we have high editorial standards, which means we don’t accept everything that comes our way, and we ask writers lots of tough questions even when we like their work. What that adds up to is that many submissions won’t pan out, and many already established authors aren’t looking for the kind of editorial commitment writing for us entails.

So, now we do a better job of reaching out to the people who do want that commitment, and that opportunity to learn.

All it took was swallowing some pride.

Inclusion is a practice

I wish I could say that all these changes have been easy for me. But wanting to be more inclusive and actually doing what it takes to be inclusive aren’t the same. Along the way, I’ve had to let go of some things I was comfortable with, and embrace things I was profoundly uncomfortable with.

For example: I hated the singular they for years. It just didn’t sound right. That’s not how subject-verb agreement works, dammit. Our columns editor, Rose, suggested we start using it forever ago. I vetoed the idea immediately. I edited it out of articles. I insisted authors rewrite examples to avoid it. I stuck to my she and he like they were divinely prescribed.

Only grammar isn’t gospel. It’s culture. Language changes constantly, adapting endlessly to meet the world’s new needs and norms. And that’s what we have right now: a cultural shift toward less gendered thinking, less binary thinking. I wanted the culture change without the language change.

I was wrong.

If someone has a problem with it, they can complain to me.

What’s next

Our process is evolving constantly, and I can’t tell you exactly where we’ll be this time next year. But I can promise this: we’re going to keep talking about it—inside of ALA, and, more often, publicly, too.

We still have work to do. But our industry—our peers whose paths are more difficult than ours—deserve it. We hope you’ll join us.

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