Digital Workplaces, Connectivity & Privacy Part II

The case for balance and respect

In Part 1 of this series, we focused on identity formation and the digital workplace. Specifically, we looked at how the digital workplace can affect employees’ identities, and how organizations can make responsible choices with these identities in mind. Today I’d like to going to approach this topic from a more personal perspective — my own. Despite the obvious limitations of a single perspective, hopefully I can provide context, spark discussion, and offer a better sense of the impact this can have on an individual.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a (happily, securely) married lesbian. However, I intentionally didn’t mention it until after I was hired, and this matters. Due to past experience, the impact of mentioning my wife in a professional setting is a consideration I have to make. I shouldn’t have to be reminded of my ‘otherness’ every time I fill in a form, but I am. The smallest tasks in my professional and personal life can often give me unwelcome pause. I’ll describe a few of those experiences to illustrate more concretely those previously stated concerns about eschewing anonymity and breaking down intentionally-set barriers — and the negative effects of it all.

Digital Tools and Gender

Not everyone is comfortable being gay at work. Worrying, “what would people think of me?” is incredibly stressful. Employees may quit as a result of this stress, and technology can bring unwelcome attention to our differences. A simple thing like a ‘gender’ or ‘marital status’ drop-down can cause anxiety if it doesn’t match with our self-concept. The tool we use at Myplanet, BambooHR, asks these questions, and while I don’t have trouble answering them, others might. And while I’m comfortable selecting ‘female,’ I can appear androgynous, so the acknowledgment of a gender binary is sometimes frustrating for me in its irrelevance.

Some of these tools may also require a photo. This raises more questions for me: which photo do I choose for work-related Google Hangouts? One that I feel represents “me”? But wait — is that photo feminine enough? What if it creates confusion for the customer or coworker? Is my hair too short? What if I chose a picture in which it’s longer, even if that doesn’t at all reflect the way I look now? What about the clothes I’m wearing in the picture — are they too masculine? Because of all these questions, the simple act of choosing a photo can become stressful.

These tools ask us to confine an identity to categories, but to what end? For whose benefit? In an article for Deloitte University Press, Sean Kelly and Christie Smith state that “paradoxically, it is because of this categorization [into racial/ethnic minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, veterans, LGBT individuals, etc]…that corporations are now left with programs and initiatives that have segmented the identities of employees in the workplace.”

These frustrations and omissions can occur during the job search, too. Hanna Brooks Olsen lies about her disability in job applications, when confronted with a form field demanding its disclosure. The workplace asks her to compromise her identity boundaries, before she even enters it. This categorization links disability and competence. It shouldn’t.

Communication Considerations

Another concept to consider with respect to identity is communication. Different people prefer or need to communicate in different ways that fit with their self-image, and yet most communication tools don’t account for this. They demand a certain kind of video-based, synchronous discussion that not everyone is enabled to take part in.

It’s been proposed that video-based communication can make certain individuals uncomfortable or anxious. We become hyper-aware of how we are perceived (a concept known as metaperception), without body language and other nonverbal cues to help us out. Lauren Voswinkel vocalizes this concern, asking, “how…does people’s perception of my gender influence their perception of my legitimacy?” In my case, when I risk an aspect of my personal life being tied to my success, I simply choose to perform the identity that makes others more comfortable. But having to constantly make this decision — or, in the case of certain tools which demand certain communication styles, having the decision taken away entirely — can be exhausting.

A useful example of positive experience comes from this past year’s &yetConf. One of the speakers, Aimee Chou, is deaf, and she describes how technology was used to include her in the conference experience:

“Two certified ASL interpreters voice-interpreted for my presentation. [Captions] stereotyped by White Coat Captioning skittered across a giant monitor viewable to nearly 200 people from seven countries. Amazingly, I didn’t need to lift a finger to request this.”

Her needs were anticipated and accommodated, without requiring her to acknowledge them and ask — as deaf people so often do. Technology was used to enable Aimee, not just to give her talk, but to participate in the conference itself. The organizers acknowledged those different communication methods and used technology to create a more cohesive experience for everyone, not just Aimee.

Tools by Majorities for Majorities, and Lack of Consent

Quite often, the decisions of which technologies to use in the digital workplace are made from the top. They are based on discrete considerations such as budget, number of users, and return on investment. They are also often made by the majority identity group, and this is a problem. Veve Jaffa explains this by saying, “assigning leadership roles to white, cis, professionally established and financially privileged individuals… [results in] very little nuance and understanding of intersectional experiences exist[ing] in these spaces.”

It is this understanding of intersectional experiences that is critical, and missing in technology — it means that an employer understands the consequences of asking a question, and considers them before we have to. If the employer understands the consequences, then they can ask consent. However, a lack of understanding places the burden on employees to point out the tools’ shortcomings, thereby making them aware of their ‘otherness’ and defeating the purpose of including them to begin with. The ability to consent (or object) to its use is taken away.

This consent is key; I would be reluctant to speak against a tool used at work which compromised my identity, unless my employer asked me first. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone, and I feel like I’d have to offer a solution in its stead. This is what Kennedy Cooke-Garza calls the ‘cool girl trap.’ I’ve accepted technologies which are at odds with my ideals, simply because colleagues preferred them. I’ve compromised my work-life balance (and my honesty) to avoid standing out. This expectation is often implicitly (and unintentionally) set by the employer, simply because the understanding isn’t there yet.

Technologies ask us to connect digital identities to personal lives, without understanding just how complex and context-dependent those personal lives can be. My one Twitter account, for example, is meant to encompass all of me — Ivana the interaction designer, the daughter, the wife, the lesbian, the writer. All of these facets are expressed on that account in some way at some time, but each one requires context. Someone reading that feed may only know me through work, through family, or through friends, and I am left worrying if the identity picture I’ve painted on Twitter is who I am — and how it will impact my career.

Similarly, I have both work and personal Gmail addresses, but there are profiles attached to both, and maintaining those has become a necessary chore. I am constantly reminded of the division between the two. Sometimes, it can be disconcerting to see the LGBTQinTech Slack channel living right next to a work-related messenger — they live together on the same device, but are expressions of different parts of me.

As these lines blur, self-expression gains consequences. Kelly and Smith state that these demands “[do] not allow for the expression of other, equally important, aspects of one’s identity.” When filling in a form for an app or service and being asked a question related to gender or marriage, I am made aware of this personal aspect of my identity, and I wonder — who needs to know? Why? What decisions will be made based on this?

University of Bristol LGBT+ Society — They know

[Digital workplaces can perhaps take a cue from the bathroom signs at XOXO Conference — don’t ask the question if you don’t need to! Image my own.]

Moving Forward

There are many initiatives at a macro level, but there are few on a personal one, and this needs to change. Molly Brown states that, “while many tech companies are inclusive, there are still many hurdles to overcome to support LGBT tech workers.” Furthermore, Anna Holmes notes that “diversity” has lost its meaning “through a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia and self-serving intentions.” Silicon Valley’s efforts have been hit-and-miss, focusing on categorization over inclusion, early adoption over thoughtful consideration.

But all is not lost. As digital workplaces evolve, they have examples to look to and resources to leverage. We can look to Tim Cook, Megan Smith, Brielle Harrison, Leanne Pitsford, Kara Swisher and Lauren Voswinkel among many individuals. Slack channels such as, Microsoft’s GLEAM, Lesbians Who Tech, the Tech Inclusion Conference, Alterconf, Trans*H4CK and Trans*Code are but a few examples of successful digital communities. Be proactive — employees will notice. I am much more likely to speak up if I am asked my opinion.

An (enforced) code of conduct for the digital workplace wouldn’t go amiss either. Ashe Dryden’s work in this area is of immense help.

In the long run, digital workplaces can be built with diversity, inclusion, and consent in mind. The technologies we use at work can be part of an identity without dominating it. I am lucky to have an employer that is aware of this, and that awareness manifests in the form of proactivity; no, our digital workplace isn’t perfect, but we are constantly evolving it, and I am involved in that process.

Sometimes the ideal tools may not even exist. To that I say: if the opportunity is there, create them! Digital workplaces must engage with the diverse communities they want to include. If the technologies employers want to use can negatively impact their employees, the employees have a right to say so, and to have a say in whether or not they use them. They must give consent. This way, if I want to come out at work, I can. I am empowered, but not expected to by way of a gendered dropdown, a one-size-fits-all communication tool, or pressure from the majority. It is being given the choice that shows understanding. This choice can only be meaningfully given when I am involved in the building of the community.

The technologies which make up our ‘work self’ can co-exist with our personal lives. The relationship is a give and take, and we’re not there yet. But by leveraging personal experiences and making changes at the individual level, we can make some large strides to creating inclusive, safe communities, with the digital workplace right in their midst.

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Written by

Ivana McConnell

Ivana McConnell

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