Dear MVPs

The MVP site says that the “Microsoft MVP Award recognizes exceptional community leadership”. Now I don’t have much of an idea about what gets classified as ‘exceptional’, and ‘leadership’ is a whole nother matter again, and while I wince a little at the ‘zee’ in ‘recognizes’, I do feel comfortable with what we mean by ‘community’. So I’m going to write about that for a bit.

To me, the community that we MVPs are involved in caters for anyone who is interested in similar technologies to us. We’re generally involved in a number of communities – online, local in-person, the people gathered at an event that we’re at, as well as non-technical communities such as the people who live near us. Quite possibly we don’t even know many of the people in our communities but that doesn’t stop them being a community. The people that find blog posts of mine are part of a community that I continue to reach, even if that blog post is more than ten years old. The people that sit on the bus with you in the morning form a kind of community even though you may never have even spoken to them.

Community suggests we have something in common with these people – a common interest or common culture or common behaviour – and the differences start to matter somewhat less. Hopefully it doesn’t matter to the people in my user group that I’m 6’4” with glasses and a beard, because that doesn’t describe any of them. It shouldn’t matter that none of them are part of the community of parents from my daughter’s school. We celebrate what we have in common, not our differences.

In fact, it’s the differences within a community that make it stronger. If everyone in my user group were 6’4” with glasses and a beard, it would probably mean that a new attendee with 20/20 vision might feel out of place. As much as I’d say “No, please, you’re more than welcome to stay”, they would probably count the number of eyes in the room and feel like they weren’t contributing enough. If you don’t feel like you have anything in common with anyone, it’s harder to establish community, and we have a great starting place in technology – but we have to understand that the differences matter.

Diversity matters.

I’m not going to pretend I have the faintest clue about discrimination. I’m a tall, straight, white, English-speaking male. The few occasions when I’ve been different to those around me don’t even begin to compare to people who face unjust discrimination on a daily basis. I think back to being the only dad doing the school pickup, not knowing whether I was welcome in that little community of mums. Some seemed overly friendly, some made me feel like I was being defined purely by my gender, and I didn’t always appreciate the kind of attention that some of them seemed like they were interested in giving me. What I wanted was to feel accepted (normal) and to focus on the commonality of the group. I didn’t want to feel different. But this group was hardly a significant part of my life. It wasn’t a daily battle.

When I worked as a “checkout chick” at Ringwood Coles nearly thirty years ago, I was the only male checkout person there. On the late shifts, my colleagues would gather at the service desk and chat about boys and clothes and whatever else, and I definitely wasn’t made to feel welcome. They had a community. I was not part of it. But this glimpse doesn’t help me understand what it must be like long-term, in the same way that someone who’s had a slipped disc doesn’t understand exhausting chronic back pain. This wasn’t a lifelong career I was fighting my way through. I really have no stories.

I have no idea about the people that come to my blog. I figure that they’re a pretty diverse crowd. The only barrier to entry I can think of would be that it’s in English. I don’t think my words alienate any of the readers. There’s certainly no aggressive atmosphere when someone finds an article about SQL query tuning or about developing a culture around data, no matter who the reader is.

And yet when it’s a crowd of people, there are those that are put off by what’s in the room.

When a group is almost entirely female, the men might feel out of place unless there is an effort to make them feel like they’re not out of place. Like they’re normal. The same. In our male-dominated technical communities, it’s the women who will feel out of place. We know this, and hopefully we’re even used to spotting it and making an effort to be inclusive of women.

But perhaps we’re not as used to people who look noticeably different. The person who belongs to a very different culture, perhaps very obviously because of the hijab they’re wearing, or because of the colour of their skin. Perhaps it’s someone whose personality is just a bit too ‘out-there’. Perhaps it’s a transgender person, identifying as a different gender to the last time they visited the group.

The way that we make these people feel welcome is to respect who they are. To remember that our community is stronger because of the differences, but that we have similarities with these people.

The SQL Server community recently got it wrong at some events. Jennifer Jones wrote about how unwelcome she was feeling at some events and that she had decided to leave the community. Because of the way that people refused to accept her, she has opted out. None of us want this. The voices making her feel welcome needed to be stronger than those that made her feel unwelcome.

We needed to do better. And still do.

As community ‘leaders’, we need to be champions of diversity. We need to stand up against harassment. We need to make sure that people understand we will not tolerate harassment at our events. We need to make sure that we help anyone who feels like the victim of harassment. Never devalue what they’re going through. Understand that they’re going through stuff that many of us have never experienced.

I don’t care what kind of harassment it is. It could be a woman finding that she’s drawn the attention of an amorous man. It could be that someone is being insulted because of a speech impediment. We need it to stop.

We need to educate our communities. We need to make everyone feel truly welcome. That’s what exceptional leadership is.


Shortcuts – good and bad

This month, Jess Pomfret (@jpomfret) challenges us to write about shortcuts, and I’m going to write about something I used to do back in the late 1980s in French class when I still lived in England.

One of the worst things about French was verb conjugation. If you said “We do something” as opposed to “They do something” or “You do something”, then it’s not enough to just use the word “Nous” for “we”, you need to conjugate the verb (typically to –ons, like “Nous mangeons” for “We eat”). It was annoying to have to think about, and at that stage in my life (feeling a little unenthusiastic about an upcoming move to Australia, and big on shortcuts) I was happy to learn about an alternative.

The alternative was to use “On” instead of “Nous”. A quick internet search shows and that it’s valid to say “Olivier et moi, on est contents” (Olivier and me, we are happy), where “on” is swapped in for “nous”, and (the important bit) conjugates the same as the singular third person. It’s not “nous sommes contents” (we are happy), it’s “on est contents” (we are happy). I was definitely happy when I worked this out, and (almost as a bonus) my teachers would be a little frustrated. It was part of my mission to try to get an ‘A’ but with unsatisfactory effort – a trait I hope my kids didn’t inherit and which I promise I grew out of. I managed to avoid heaps of conjugation effort, even if I may have done myself a disservice in the process.

The other day I was watching a sci-fi show (maybe Picard) and I got to wondering whether gender-related pronouns would still be a thing, or whether English will evolve them out over the next few hundred years. I remember in C. S. Lewis’ books about Narnia, when asked what kind of creature she is, Lucy replies that she’s a girl. I see that the first chapter of the Bible says “male and female he created them”, and I consider this to imply that God created *them*, and the fact that Adam was male and Eve was female didn’t suggest that they weren’t fully equal. Eve was no less of a person than Adam – Adam was simply male, while Eve was female. I would almost rather Lucy had identified herself as a human, but maybe she was describing herself in comparison to her siblings. One of the girls as opposed to one of the boys.

I say all this because ‘on’ seems very much like a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s even number-neutral and person-neutral. It seems ideal. When we don’t know someone’s gender, we refer to them as ‘they/them’, and only adopt a gender-specific pronoun once we know someone’s gender. If we could stick to my French lesson’s ‘on’ that could work nicely, but even then I feel like using an ambiguous pronoun (another way which ‘on’ is used) is tricky.

Not everyone wants to be referred to by a gender-neutral pronoun. Narnia’s Lucy was proud to be a girl, and plenty of other people are also proud to be their particular gender. Others prefer to be known as ‘they/them’, and I hope they’re proud to identify that way too, but few want to be assumed to be the gender that they’re not, or identified as ‘gender-unknown’ once they’ve been identified. If I refer to a male person as a non-gender pronoun, am I suggesting that they’re not masculine?

To me it must be that person’s choice. At least until society drops gender-specific pronouns completely.

And pronouns should never be used as a weapon.

If I *refuse* to use the correct pronoun for someone, I’m insulting them. No question here. It’s antagonistic. It’s harassment. It’s hate-speech. It’s suggesting that they’re not exhibiting the gender that they’re trying to, and that’s insulting. Sticks and stones hurt far less than names, and this is just as bad.

If it’s done accidentally, then it should be corrected and the person who made the mistake should try harder. I’ve done this. I apologised, and still managed to do it again. But I wasn’t trying to hurt them. They know this, and I’ve talked to them about it. It takes practice, but it’s about the sentiment.

What’s not acceptable is what Jennifer Jones wrote about here. Deliberately referring to a woman as a guy, refusing to be corrected, and making someone feel like there is no one is in their corner is all bad behaviour. No one should have to put up with that. Jenn says she’s not planning to attend any more SQL Saturday events, and I feel like we’ve failed her as a community.

So despite the fact that I used a French-pronoun shortcut to make life easier for myself as a kid, I now think that this is a shortcut to be avoided. I’ll use a gender-neutral pronoun if I don’t know someone’s gender, and will probably continue to make assumptions, but if I’m corrected that someone prefers a different (including gender-neutral) one, I will try to do better.

We should all try to do better.