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How to ally

Technology reflects the people who make it. Today women make up 52% of the world population; however, most technology is designed by men. Women hold only approximately twenty percent of technology jobs, and earn on average 28% less than what men make. Yet, is is proven that teams with both men and women are more profitable, smarter, faster, more innovative – their collective IQ rises. As technology becomes more pervasive and we move to a more digital society, the impact grows beyond just those in the technology world.

In my role, as Director and Chairperson of the Java Community Process (JCP) Program, I also serve as an international speaker engaging the 12 million+ Java developer community worldwide – and in this space, as in the stats above, it is also primarily men. I love my job, and I love working with all kinds of people, but increasingly, community members ask me what we can do to change the ratio.

There is a pervasive belief that tech is a meritocracy. My experience as a woman working in technology had shown me that just doing your job will not get you anywhere. To survive you must be exceptional – every single day. To thrive, you need to also manage perceptions, build your network, increase your visibility, and expand your influence. In order to do that you need sponsors, mentors, and allies. I am fortunate to have many men ally with me, and I work to seek them out, consciously, on an ongoing basis. Confidence also is key – being a woman in all male meetings and at conferences with primarily male attendees, is not always easy, but it is imperative that we take our place at the (virtual or real) ‘table’…and be heard.

In addition, diversity in technology means going beyond gender and the inclusion of women, to include non-binary people and people of different ethnicities, orientations, ages, and abilities. Creating an inclusive environment, one that includes all people, helps us to attract and keep diverse teams; and, to realize the very real benefits of diverse teams. In this post I will focus on how we, as a community of humans, can be part of a change.

While it is vital to also think about the pipeline bringing more diverse, young women and girls into computing, and I lead specific efforts around that topic, I give a talk titled ‘Top Ten Ways to Ally’ that focuses on specific actions that all people can take to make a difference at conferences, in the workplace, in meetings, online forums, social media, and other events.  

I have given this talk many times all over the world – I developed this talk especially for the men I work with in the Java developer community – in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East. In all of these places there are differences in the experience of the people, but there is also so much that is the same. The fact that so many attendees participated in the conversation all around the world is awesome. Even if you don’t get the credit you think you deserve when you take these actions, we need to keep up the ally work and not be discouraged by mistakes. We are human and we will make mistakes. We can be a part of the change we wish to see by focusing on what brings us together – what we have in common as humans versus what divides us.

I believe that the power of community can bring us to our goal of parity in technology – starting now.  So without further ado, here are my top ten ways to ally. Slides are on my slideshare account.


  1. Think of ally as a verb – something you actually do. Think actions like pay, hire, refer, recommend, promote, champion, sponsor. Sometimes people will tell me they can do this for any person, and this is true, but we only have a limited amount of time and resources, so think about prioritizing actions you can take for underrepresented people.
  2.  Listen – be open, kind, direct. Listen more than you speak. Remember that it is intersectional- every person has a unique set of background and experiences. Relate as individuals.
  3. Be aware of assignment distributions – real work vs housework. Ensure there is equal distribution of tasks and high priority assignments.
  4. Actively create a friendly environment for you and others around you – keep the women we do have in technology (currently over 40% of women leave within 10 years). Make sure to include all people on the team in informal activities as well as formal work tasks. While there are diversity groups that enable people to connect with people similar to each other, it is actually the informal connection times with all people on the team that are key to building strong networks and connections that will help advance careers of all people.
  5. Speak up during meetings, forums, conferences –  when you see interrupting, ‘mansplaining’, or women not being heard say something/amplify what was stated earlier, give credit to the ideas as they are spoken or articulated. Encourage input from all team members.
  6. Intervene in inappropriate conversations and situations – it is not enough to be silent, take some action when this happens. This does not have to be a direct confrontation, although sometimes this is needed, but often redirection can be effective.  
  7. Be aware of assignment of specific character traits to women, e.g. abrasive, bossy, cold, aggressive.  Think about how you would describe the same behavior in a man. Women are often judged on their behavior between being ‘too feminine’ to be effective and ‘too masculine’ to be likable.
  8.  Level the playing field – encourage norms such as self-promotion and salary negotiation that are often unspoken. Normalize and verbalize them. Be aware of tendencies that exist for hiring and promotion – people ofter look for potential in men vs proof in women (this is especially important in hiring and promotions). Look at your job descriptions – the wording should be inclusive and try to eliminate anything that is not absolutely necessary as a requirement.
  9. Educate yourself about unconscious bias – we all have it, it is part of being human. You can learn a tremendous amount from mentoring someone different from you. When you mentor, focus on championing, sponsoring and guiding versus trying to change behavior or focusing on taking additional training.
  10. Suggest diverse speakers – support, follow, include and encourage them. Public speaking is one of the best ways to raise visibility and influence in the community and workplace. An open call for papers is often not enough – specifically invite and include diverse speakers – because you want to hear what they have to say. Social media is also a platform for visibility and influence, so look at who you are following on social media, and add more people who are different from you.

I encourage you to take at least one of these (seemingly) small/micro actions now and continue to do so on a daily basis. I believe it’s the little things that work together to make a big difference and impact, and I look forward to evolving these tips and actions based on feedback and delivering this talk many more times in 2020.

Author: Heather VanCura

Heather is Director and Chairperson of the Java Community Process (JCP) program. She is a leader of the global community driven Java adoption and user group programs. In this role she drives the efforts to transform the JCP program and broaden participation and diversity in the community. She is passionate about Java, women in technology and developer communities, serving as an International speaker and community organizer of developer hack days around the world. Heather enjoys speaking at conferences, such as OSCON, FOSDEM, Devoxx, Wonder Women Tech, and the JavaOne Conferences. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, California USA and enjoys trying new sports and fitness activities in her free time.

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