De-escalation of privileges

There are a great many diversity initiatives in the tech and security community. They make me excited, optimistic and occasionally a bit sceptical about the real intentions of the company organising them. They rarely if ever make me feel uncomfortable.

That is strange. I am a white man to whom you can easily apply half a dozen other adjectives to show I don’t belong to an underrepresented group. In a parallel and more diverse universe there are fewer people like me on company boards, on conference programmes and in your Twitter timeline. And maybe one of these fewer people like me would be me.

I am used to talking about my career in security as one where I have combined hard work and talent to find the right opportunities. But that is only half of the story.

The other half of the story is that to many people I will have looked like the kind of person who could do the job, or give the talk. Research shows that this too makes a different even among people who don’t think they have such biases. (Which, no doubt, includes me.)

And thus I got my first role at a security company as a Perl developer based on three websites I had once built and a few scripts I had written in the decade previously. And thus no one ever questions my credentials as a ‘former academic mathematician’, even though I never finished the PhD thesis I was paid to write. (I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the question how I deal with a big deadline four years into the future. They should have.)

On the contrary, people regularly overestimate my knowledge on technical subjects and confuse an ability to casually discuss a subject with a thorough understanding of it. When I quietly correct them, it is from a position of confidence, not from one where I have to worry I confirm to biases they had about me. I can afford such a position.

Those two paragraphs were surprisingly difficult to write. It is very tempting to think that it wasn’t me but that loud-mouthed CEO or that misogynistic programmer that benefited from the lack of diversity. That I am a neutral outsider in this story. But diversity (and the lack thereof) is far more subtle and complicated than that and I think it is crucial to acknowledge how my privilege has affected me and my career.

So if your diversity initiative doesn’t make me — and people like me — feel at least a little bit uncomfortable, chances are it isn’t very good. And if I don’t use my privilege to actually try to make this community more diverse and more welcoming, even if this would make things comparatively more difficult for future versions of myself, I had better stay out of all the diversity excitement.

So let me do that. And you are welcome to hold me accountable.

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