Mental Health and Diversity Work

Recognize that, while extremely beneficial, diversity-in-tech work exacts an emotional and mental toll on the well-being of the people who do it.

by Anonymous Author on August 12th, 2015

In the span of a week last fall, a number of events happened that made me question, for the first time, whether or not I wanted to stay in tech. Kathy Sierra left Twitter after continued harassment, Brianna Wu was doxxed after openly speaking out against the Gamergate movement, and Julie Pagano penned a post about leaving the tech community.

At the time, I was beginning to see myself as a developer and as someone who could help others get access to what I now had. I remember feeling pretty somber for a day or two and I shared my thoughts with a few trusted friends in the tech industry. Being a woman in tech, we all agreed, had its sucky parts. One good friend even told me he’d be upset to see me leave the industry before I even had a chance to make my mark.

I thought so, too, and the pendulum slowly swung in the other direction; I was in love with tech again. But it was only a short time later I found my mental health deteriorating as a result of heavy involvement with diversity in tech activism.

Julie’s post came immediately to mind.

“So how did I get here? I didn’t start here. I wasn’t even a feminist when I started tech. I thought women’s groups were stupid. I was frustrated with the few women classmates I had in the engineering department, not because of their low numbers, but because of my perception of their incompetence. I was what some refer to as a “Fuck You Got Mine” (FYGM). Something so common we have a name for it. Most of the tech feminist killjoys I know have a similar origin story. We were not born this way. We didn’t enter tech this way.”

– from “You Can’t Go Back & There’s No End in Sight” by Julie Pagano

Diversity Work Is Its Own Reward?

Photo of a woman clutching her head in her hands, depicted in black and white.

Photo CC-BY Porsche Brosseau, filtered.

I didn’t enter tech to talk about social justice. No, I didn’t even think discussing social issues in the tech industry was a thing. In all of my previous jobs, I did my utmost to separate my professional and personal interests and inclinations. I wasn’t open about my suspicions about being underpaid for being a member of a marginalized group. I didn’t call out microaggressions, didn’t know how to even if I wanted to. When I started learning to code, I didn’t go in aware about the lack of diversity plaguing the industry… until I noticed it.

You can’t help but notice, really. Certain groups stick out like sore thumbs because of their low numbers at tech events. Interviews for jobs are usually with the same white guy you could’ve sworn interviewed you yesterday for a different position at another startup. And now that you see it, especially if you’re already in a marginalized group, you can never unsee it. The sheer sight of someone else who is also a member of a marginalized group is enough to fill you with a sense of relief, if not secret joy.

At that point, I needed a space to just talk about my truths, even if said space was the ether. It became cathartic to discuss all the while working on a few side projects aimed at helping other marginalized people. I was getting good feedback from friends in the tech industry, and figured that I’d had a low enough profile that I could just continue with my work and be fine.

As I started to connect with more people in tech through online communities, one of the most touching but unexpected things was people sharing their stories with me. I didn’t expect my story to touch people or resonate. You can only hope to hear that someone will be affected in a positive way, but that’s never guaranteed. The stories of growth and change inspired me to continue with my work; I started amplifying others’ voices, and this desire to connect carried over into my day-to-day. I was attending more tech conferences, I worked on side projects, I started connecting with people I admired in the industry offline, and my work started circulating in different tech circles. On one occasion, I was interviewed by the press and soon came to be followed by highly visible people in tech.

In the beginning, it was exciting and also shocking. There were few people in my immediate social circle who understood how participating in online spaces could get me such visibility, so it became hard to talk about with people outside of tech. I found myself leaning on friends I’d made online for everything from sharing excitement to asking for advice on how to deal with trolling and harassment. Choosing to engage anyone and everyone who entered my mentions quickly devolved into an exercise of frustration, and with time, increased levels of anxiety. Whenever I’d get retweeted, I grew anxious.

I had a friend who told me that I shouldn’t be too worried because I wasn’t as loud or as reputable as other feminists in the space, and I wouldn’t be targeted. But for me, it wasn’t the possibility of being doxxed — which, might I add, does scare me — as much as it was having something snowball out of control. All it took was one person on Twitter who I didn’t know to send me into a downward spiral. Positive or negative, attention became a source of increased mental strain. There were times that it became difficult to sleep or to not obsessively refresh my timeline to see what was being being said. On one hand, I felt troubled by the attention; on the other, I held fast to the notion that it was just Twitter and it wasn’t to be taken seriously. For someone who had built meaningful connections online and had become visible for their work in tech, this was extremely naive and erroneous.

Out of Reach

A person with long, curly hair on a stage all alone, facing a bright light.

Photo CC-BY Martin Fisch, filtered.

Initially, it was easy to be approachable and available and stay under the radar. After I’d blogged a bit, the requests to meet and connect in person became more and more frequent. At one point, a woman found me on another social media platform and sent me a message to tell me that she wanted to discuss her experiences being a woman in tech with me. She said she wasn’t able to tell her psychotherapist much about her experiences and wanted to discuss those issues with me. I let this person know that I wasn’t a mental health professional, yet they persisted in wanting to talk to me anyway. It was frustrating to deal with a sense of entitlement to my time even after I politely declined, and the lack of consideration for how this could be triggering for me.

The missing compassion around how taxing our requests on others can be is, by far, the one thing that I didn’t expect to come out of my work in the tech community. I wasn’t making money from my diversity work: I was content to see it benefit others and see that it was well-received by the larger community. But whenever I openly discussed feeling exhausted, tired, or otherwise unsure if I was on the right path, I was met with people expressing how they cared, but that my work was important. I began to feel like I was being advised to “ignore the haters” and “just keep going” only because the fruits of my labor were beneficial to others. I began to feel that the results I produced were valued above me and my mental health.

I got in touch with a few friends to explain what was going on. A few suggested I completely drop my side projects. Some suggested that I continue, but scale back significantly. I had intense mood swings, I wasn’t sleeping and utterly exhausted, and I felt extremely isolated. Momentary distractions weren’t helping.

My relationship with my mental health and owning depression has been very difficult for me. There were periods in my life that I became depressed due to major life events, and I was once in therapy in college. Struggling again with my work in tech, I started seeing a psychotherapist for the first time in almost ten years. It was difficult for me to admit that I needed therapy, but once I started my sessions, it became an important part of my routine. I’d not been going as frequently in recent weeks, but my recent depressive episode warranted a visit. It was a difficult session; I was crying, I wasn’t happy, and the very thing that made me so happy weeks before – tech work – was now making me feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and miserable.

Looking Ahead

A hand sheltering smoke and a flame.

Photo CC-BY Dhilung Kirat, filtered.

I made the executive decision to completely switch direction. I’ve started scaling back on tech-related side projects to avoid any one project taking up most of my time. I’m starting to say “no” to requests, even the ones that I really want to say yes to. I’m accepting that things have also changed for me online. Setting boundaries for myself, freeing up the mental space that engaging with people was taking up, and not beholding myself to unspoken expectations are new for me. I suffer from depression, but I’m choosing to back away from work that makes me suffer needlessly. I’m giving myself permission to do something that I didn’t think I could do: take a step back.

As a community, we need to come to an understanding that diversity in tech work is work like other work. Activists in the space deserve to be compensated for their work, and they also deserve to be supported. We need to manage our own expectations of activists and we need to acknowledge their humanity. I’m an activist but I’m far from perfect, and there’s always so much to learn. But being given the space and permission to take breaks as needed is important because the work that I create is produced by me, a person.

Recognize that, while extremely beneficial, diversity-in-tech work exacts an emotional and mental toll on the well-being of the people who do it. We need to value people; people must always come first. For without them, there would be no work at all.