Being a member of an under-represented group in a technical field can be very isolating. There is often pressure to be the best possible representative of your group, so that others like you are given a chance down the line. And when networking occurs through channels you aren’t privy to, discussions include background you don’t share, and other people’s best-intentioned advice assumes you are just like them, it can get very lonely very quickly.
But there’s a weird corollary to this, which is once a workplace, department, or project realizes it doesn’t have as many women/minorities/outsiders as it perhaps ought to, there is often a push to make the under-represented groups more visible. This might be for recruitment purposes, when a workplace reasons that maybe if they show that there are women already present, they will be able to attract more. Or, to create more inclusive management practices, maybe if an executive committee makes decisions for a department, its racial makeup should reflect that of the department. And the intention—to give the under-represented group more sway or more face time—is laudable; while it’s not the only needed step, it can help significantly. However, if most group members are white and male, these efforts mean that women and minorities may be tapped disproportionately to do outreach and governance work.
On the one hand, this can be great if outreach and governance are things you, the individual group member, are interested in doing. There certainly is a kind of soft power there, to shape your project environment, or to affect the sort of people attracted to it. But often, those tasks aren’t directly rewarded as much as the same time spent doing the actual project work would be. This means that the people asked to do more of what is effectively volunteer work are at a disadvantage for actual job advancement. Even if you want one woman on every governance committee, asking the same one or two women to shoulder that burden when it outstrips the burdens of their male colleagues is unfair. In fact, it’s especially unfair considering that women are already pressured to set fewer boundaries on their time and be more available to volunteer work for free than men are.
What’s more, there is a peculiar disparity in being the only minority in the room for most meetings, while being almost omnipresent in publicity videos and images. If the makeup of an organization is 90% white men, but they tune their outreach to imply otherwise, what does that say? Is it likely to help draw under-represented groups into technical fields, even though it does nothing to address the pipeline or the experiences of those who are already there? Is it misleading, since it doesn’t represent the actual state of the organization or the environment that new recruits enter into? Or is it an acceptable deception to tweak the numbers so that people realize that white men are not the only scientists, programmers, or engineers out there?
It’s good when an organization is aware of representation issues and cares enough to make efforts to address them. However, these efforts sometimes cause issues for the individual members of under-represented groups, by placing extra demands on their time and by asking them to be more visible than everyone else. And not everyone wants to be visible in the first place! But for those who do, the key is to give the time you have to spare while guarding the rest. And if you know of other women or minorities who may be willing to contribute to outreach or governance, you can see if they’ll help split the load. It can be isolating in technical fields when you are thrust into the spotlight, but you aren’t necessarily alone.