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.

25 Reader Comments

  1. Education is very important in helping these cultural changes happen. I’ve worked in enough places where sexism, homophobia/transphobia, etc all existed and were met with great resistance at any opportunity to discuss the dialogue that was being used. I think that it is really hard for people to be open and admit when they were doing something oppressive.

    Just like you said, we have words ingrained into our vocabulary that we use all the time, word such as dumb, stupid, etc are all excellent examples of dialect we use on a day to day basis. It is difficult to drop them immediately but that is why it is so critical that we hold ourselves accountable anytime we use such language, and make an effort to improve ourselves.

    I’m really excited about the effort to look for that language while proofing and it is something I would like to see everyone start to do more and more within the industry. It will obviously be hard to do when working with clients that are very close minded but it is still important nonetheless.

    As long as everyone is working to be inclusive towards all groups of people then the future for our industry will look very bright and I look forward to all walks of life being represented in the work of the future.

  2. “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

    The great thing about not caring a pixel about any of the left side’s socio-political concoctions and quotas is that I can concentrate more on actually making websites, and making them better. Kind of like what ALA used to be about before the invasion.

    I suggest to anyone that if they value their sanity, that they follow in similar fashion. Attempting to placate those who can always find a way to ask for more and more is a fool’s errand.

  3. Jay: What you call an invasion, we call an evolution—and one we’re quite delighted about. We love making websites better, and, as we’ve explained extensively, a diverse industry is needed to make that possible.

    You’re welcome to read something else, and we wish you well.

    Luke: Thank you for the thoughtful words! One reason we wanted to write about what we’re working on is that we want to be open about the reality of change: that it’s sometimes slow and always imperfect.

  4. All right, maybe it’s because I’m part of the “lucky élite” of white male developers, and probably the fact that English isn’t my mother language makes it more difficult for me to understand the cultural issues of (mainly) the Anglo-Saxon world, but I’ve always felt that trying so hard to “make it even”, without caring about the reasons why it’s uneven, is the wrong way to look at things.

    So, in 2013, ALA had 25% of its articles written by women. And what emerges from this blog post is that it’s a problem, but we’re given no clue about why that’s a problem.
    You might answer that it is because it shows a bias, but… Does it really? What are the numbers of women in the web development industry? And how many of them want to write an article about their own job?

    Why is 40% “better”? Would 60% be as bad? Should 75% be worrysome?
    Why do you need to “recruit diverse authors”? What’s “diverse” again?
    What parameters should you consider? What about their age? If I suggest “their weight”, would you answer: “Heavens, no!”? And why?

    I work with women every day. I care about their opinions and their efforts, like they do (I hope) about mine. And I always felt that this industry has the admirable feature to look almost exclusively at the results rather than at who made them. It’s caring about substance, and leave the form.
    Your gender doesn’t matter. Your skin color doesn’t matter. Your religion, your views on politics. We just want this industry to go on, we want the results.

    I hardly read the name of the author when I start reading an article. I literally had to scroll this one up to remember that Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote this. Because the author’s gender doesn’t make a reading any more or less valuable to me, and it shouldn’t for anyone. Do you think I’m following John Resig on Twitter because he’s male, among the other things? Please, give me some credit. That’s why I also follow Lea, and not Leon Verou.

    What I want to say with all these words is that all you have to ask yourself is: “Did we leave behind something valuable?” rather than “Do our authors accurately represent the gender/race/religion/whatever distribution in the world?”
    Because if you don’t, chances are that you’re willing to sacrifice your quality for the sake of a “cultural evolution” that… what’s the purpose again? Allow the readers to empathize with the author’s gender? Why should they?
    Would that really help you offering “a realistic view of our industry”? How?

    You have to deal with the fact that you can’t embrace everyone. Some will like a certain tone, others won’t.

    But don’t take me as a fool, I know that women have problems in their workplaces, even in this web development. Harassment, mobbing, underestimation and such. Racism is also present. But sadly, if that happens, having ALA to publish half of its articles written by women won’t change a thing. That’s a cultural change that should start from very, very far.

    If I can leave you with a question, what do you think it will change moving the author’s name at the bottom of the article?

  5. I’ve always felt that trying so hard to “make it even”, without caring about the reasons why it’s uneven, is the wrong way to look at things.

    Massimo, I’d gently offer that this is a misreading of this blog entry specifically, and of ALA’s inclusivity intentions in general. If you have time, I’d suggest rereading our editor-in-chief’s original article in its entirety, which outlines not just what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it.

    It’s wonderful you believe strongly in assessing work based on merit, and merit alone. However, one’s personal experiences don’t scale: our industry isn’t on a level playing field, and large portions of our readership feel that more keenly than others might.

    Speaking as a longtime reader of ALA, I want to read a design magazine that’s benefiting from the broadest number of perspectives: that features as many people who make websites from as many backgrounds possible. If a reader has a brilliant new CSS technique, or is thinking about a revolutionary new approach to UX, I want to read it here. But if they’re not comfortable submitting that article, then ALA loses out—and that’s a problem we can (and should) address.

    In other words, a diversity of perspectives will benefit A List Apart and, by extension, you, our readers. And the changes we’ve been transparently describing here will help. Of course, if you disagree with our attempts, you’re most welcome to read something else, and we wish you well. But otherwise, I’d urge you to stick around. Because I can tell you, ALA’s about to enter its best years yet.

  6. Massimo, we’re with you in wanting the industry to go on. And get stronger and more resilient—just as the internet was designed from the start to survive dropped packets and blocked routes: it finds a way around those obstacles.

    We can’t tell where we stand without quantifying, so we talk about the category women, and also male tech workers of color, and tech workers whose mother language isn’t English, and tech workers who use assistive technology, and beginners who might choose to work in tech if it looks like the best career choice.

    Taking a cue from the concept of genetic diversity, we’re betting that our industry will be more resilient if it includes individuals with a wide range of knowledge, experiences, and approaches to problem-solving and creativity. We need to be proactive right now to grow the category called “we.”

  7. Sara, thanks so much for writing this. Subtle changes like the language on the submissions page can make a huge difference to a sense of openness and inclusion, but those kinds of nitty-gritty tactics don’t get a lot of play in larger conversations about pipelines and systemic discrimination. I love that ALA is sharing this information for all of us to chew on.

  8. It’s so heartening that ALA is making these changes. Thinking about these important topics. Talking about them.

    This stuff matters.

  9. Ethan, Rose, thank you for your replies.
    I understand, and ultimately agree with, the final goal of this action, which is to achieve a “wide range of knowledge, experiences, and approaches”. That’s remarkable.

    Maybe what I’m just missing is the link between the goal above and the consequent objective to include more “diverse” authors. Because, if it’s “diverse experiences” that ALA is looking for, then implying that they’re somehow related to the gender or the race paradoxically sounds… uh, sexist/racist?

    Of course that’s not the case, allow me to explain. I also firmly believe that voicing new perspectives is something absolutely valuable for our industry. I, for one, am part of one of the perspectives you mentioned, as a non-native English speaker (and I apologize for the mistakes I made and will make), and I’m happy when there’s someone willing to understand, for example, how uncomfortable I am with contents filled with Imperial units and jarring date formats.

    Even better, a contribution from a visually impaired reader would be dramatically valuable on the matter of web accessibility. Or from a designer that underlines how rare black people in “hero images” are, leading to a dimished captivating effect on a rather large user base. And so on.

    On the other hand, these are single problems that could be tackled by authors who have faced them on a daily basis. If you’re looking for this kind of diversity, this is definitely good.

    But if you’re aiming at 50% of female authors, or other percentages in other categories of any kind, hoping that this will actually lead to more experience diversity, well… I’m sure you’ll get the logic fallacy here.

    Or maybe I just misunderstood the sense of this blog post and I’m making a fuss over nothing. I’m sorry if it sounds like that, but that’s the feeling I got.

  10. Wonderful post. I did a fist-pump at my desk upon reading this:

    Women and people of color…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.

    That willingness to reach out speaks volumes to the spirit of your efforts.

    As I see it, there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ point of view or an ‘unbiased’ conclusion. We’re all biased in our own way. Of course we are. Everything we’ve experienced – and the things we haven’t – all show up in what we write. Who wrote what isn’t just a data point.

    That’s one of the reasons why having diverse set of contributors matters so much. 25% versus 40% versus 60% – it most certainly does make a difference.

    Thanks again for being open about the process. It’s hard. We’ll get there together.

  11. Thank you for exposing the process of diversity and inclusion. In many smaller publications and organizations (and, often, larger ones too), diversity is a nice-to-have, orthogonal to the mission, whether that mission is sticking with the editorial calendar, hitting the next release cycle, or hustling to launch. When diversity is a big thing, it’s daunting. But as our industry evolves to embrace techniques like iteration and thinking like Agile methodologies, we realize the value in doing small things and testing them. There’s value in the small steps trying, testing, learning, and improving. I appreciate learning how ALA is working to improve and hone its process toward greater inclusion, because these are steps many organizations can adopt. Improvement is more accessible than a faraway endpoint, and sharing your process of improvement is exactly the kind of leadership by example ALA should share.

    Though wow, I hear you on the issues of subject-verb agreement. It is so easy to preach evolution but dig in our claws to the pedantic primordial ooze.

  12. Why are you involving politics in a tech blog in the first place?

    The perceived issues this author is referring to are irrelevant outside a small vocal minority in the Anglosphere. If you want to run an inclusive website on tech matters, pick contributions based on technical merit, and only that. Right now you’re doing the complete opposite by stuffing your ideological fetishes in the faces of people who aren’t interested in them in the slightest.

  13. I think the White Male Defense League can stand down. As a regular white dude that no one has heard of, I encountered absolutely no resistance when publishing on ALA, other than rigorous assaults on my grammar, spelling, and logic.

  14. I’m going to admit that I don’t understand why anyone would object to having a more diverse pool of ALA authors. The only reason I can come up with is fear. Which makes me ask, what are they(!) afraid of?

    I’ve never heard or read a compelling argument *against* diversity. Nor do I expect to.

    What I expect is that those who fear it will complain about the methods used to achieve it, rather than applauding the very process that might allow *them* to share their own knowledge as an ALA author.

    Diversity means *you*.

  15. I love this article—every precise yet passionate word of it. Talking about trying to do better is awkward and embarrassing. You have to climb down off your pedestal, admit to mistakes, and be willing to have the same internal conversations over and over again. I so value our editor-in-chief for having the courage to share our process and our evolving thinking.

  16. The argument that “Tech is tech, so why does a political issue like diversity matter?” doesn’t respect the inherent humanity that comes with designing and building products for users.

    Think on the last time someone asked you a question like How should I design an ecommerce website? or How do I make my app accessible? or What makes a good responsive website?. What was your answer? We probably all have said the phrase hundreds of times in our careers: It depends.. It depends, because a multitude of variables exist that determine effectiveness—users, content, devices, context, available resources, business goals, browser versions, agency type, team skills, location, and so much more.

    We cannot continue to think of the tech industry as an entity above issues of gender, race, ability, and its very human end users. I appreciate that ALA rises above being more than a “tech blog” and addresses what it means to work within the industry and our responsibilities as designers building products for people.

  17. This is an awesome article. I especially liked this, “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.” That paragraph changed my attitude while reading it from, “I’m gonna complain about the grammar” to, “Oh, I see,” which is the hallmark of great writing. But it’s also a great point. We all need to be encouraged. Networking works best for all not just when someone who needs/wants something (their first professional writing opportunity, a new job, a new career, advice on taking their career to the next level etc.) to reaching out and saying, “Hey, I saw what you did there, have you considered this?” Or even just, “Hey, Can you help us out?”
    I will, though, briefly defend, “you guys”, as I think this REALLY is an example of Regional American English, and thus misunderstood – especially, perhaps, by people from either coast who haven’t really heard it before. “You Guys” means ” you – group of people” (since English does not have a plural form of “you”) said people can be a group of men, a group of men and women, or a group of women. It doesn’t refer to gender but more than one person. I once had a fellow employee (who was under the impression he was of a higher rank than I, he wasn’t – we held the same job title) suggest at a meeting, “no one should say, ‘you guys’, you should say y’all”. My admittedly somewhat kneejerk first response was (a) no, (b) like I want to sound like an “ignorant Southern buffoon” – so I completely ignored his advice. At no point did anyone say someone was offended by it. Anyway, it’s a common term in the Midwest. It’s not meant to be offensive to anyone. I’m a woman and I don’t find it offensive. (Though in FORMAL writing, “you guys” is much, much too informal. It’s like saying that new programming language is “totes meboats” or that free web design tool is “adorbs”.)

  18. Jennifer – YES! I agree completely. Again, I was a bit distracted by grammar and localized slang in my first post (my background, among other things is in Anthropological Linguistics, including gender and language) but over-all the second half of this article is just perfect. It isn’t enough to say, “we don’t have enough women or people of color or whatever” in an industry or even represented on a website (this is my first time here – thank you Twitter) it’s important to REACH OUT to those whose opinions we want to know, because reading another positive POVs (point of views) can usually only help not hurt. In other words, *how can you know what it’s like being a black woman in tech if you never ask*? I’m not a black woman, so I don’t know. I’m only on the peripherery of the tech field because I find modern tech fun, and I enjoy learning about it. I also do think reaching out needs to include teens and 20-somethings. Women and girls who are all over the Internet, learning things, but who also, honestly, still have *no idea* they can make a career for themselves doing what they love to do.

  19. Love this so much:

    I think the White Male Defense League can stand down. As a regular white dude that no one has heard of, I encountered absolutely no resistance when publishing on ALA, other than rigorous assaults on my grammar, spelling, and logic.

    Thank you, Scott Fennell.

    Also, all kidding about “WMDL” aside, sincere thanks to all who shared. Conversation is healthy, even when we disagree.

  20. Love this so much:

    I think the White Male Defense League can stand down. As a regular white dude that no one has heard of, I encountered absolutely no resistance when publishing on ALA, other than rigorous assaults on my grammar, spelling, and logic.

    Thank you, Scott Fennell.

    Also, all kidding about “WMDL” aside, sincere thanks to all who shared. Conversation is healthy, even when we disagree.

  21. Really nice article…. Quite knowledgeable … Thanks for sharing information. I have become habitual to read your knowledgeable articles. Keep it up.

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