Push Me Until I Break: The Effects of Unrealistic Expectations on Marginalized Workers in Tech

One must consider if this pressure is put on creators specifically to see them fail.

by CK Oliver on August 12th, 2015

As time goes on, more and more tech spaces are opening to LGBTQAP, PoC, and people who have disabilities which make learning programming difficult. In some cases, an individual may be all of these things, two, or one. These marginalized tech workers are often subject to special and unequal expectations by well-meaning (or not) allies in the community. This can take many forms, from demanding we educate allies on industry issues, to expecting that we are constant paragons of virtue, always kind and considerate toward others just because we are aware of social justice issues.

Expecting people to consistently behave in patterns that privileged people deem acceptable sets a dangerous tone that those who are marginalized must always be approachable, kind, and willing to entertain questions. Exacerbating this problem, tech micro-communities often make people hyper-visible and put them on pedestals as an ideal to aspire to, whether that be in terms of activism, professional goals, or social awareness. This is not something which is healthy or beneficial to those in tech (or any field, really) whom are on multiple axes of oppression, ultimately leading to depression, anxiety, burnout and other negative experiences that compromise their work in the field.

Long Way to Fall — Pedestals of Perfection

Treacherous-looking set of cliffs.

Photo CC-BY Joe Lewis, filtered.

Pedestalling is the act, either by oneself or through others — of being seen as the go-to voice on an issue. Being on a pedestal in social justice circles means that others view you as an authority on these things, trusting your judgement, voice, and opinions on social justice issues, for example. One can be hyper-visible without having a massive amount of followers on social media, depending on what particular micro-communities they happen to be a part of. Hypervisibility means receiving a disproportionate amount of attention, surveillance, and abuse, either by being RTed by popular accounts, or having what is viewed as a popular/pedestal account on social media.

Hypervisibility can lead to anxiety, panic attacks and social media blackouts to avoid a barrage of notifications. For those on multiple axes of oppression, hyper-visibility tends to occur more often and in greater amounts. Putting people on a pedestal or making them hyper-visible without their consent can be a dangerous thing to do. Many marginalized community members don’t want to be seen as ‘experts,’. For some, the idea of constantly having to answer to others due to existing on multiple axes of oppression, thus being seen as an ‘expert’ or even as being ‘in the know’ can trigger anxiety or panic. When people are seen as chosen designees for social awareness issues, they often begin to self-censor their thoughts or opinions to prevent harassment from random users on the internet whom may stumble across their channels. Often, there are privileged groups which take interest in derailing conversations or harassing people in these positions. The targets of this may be using their social media accounts for professional purposes, thus they cannot lock it or hide it from view without risking their livelihood, such as in the case of developers, writers, or programmers who may just be starting out in their field.

Those with larger networks and who have privilege over marginalized individuals must be aware that people may not want to be ‘signal boosted’ to tens of thousands of people without their consent, as constant notifications may also trigger anxiety. If one has been gaslit before, one RT or share from an account with many followers may be enough to trigger a panic reaction as one wonders if they are experiencing a pile-on.

When in doubt, ask if you can share something before blindly hitting ‘RT’ or ‘Reblog.’ If you have privilege (eg: cis, white, able-bodied, nuerotypical) over someone, bear in mind that you must do your best to interact without using marginalized people as your own personal google, or RTing them without their consent. Being aware of how you interact with others, especially marginalized community members–is important.

Working for Pennies, If We’re Lucky

Pennies and other coins in a mason jar.

Photo CC-BY nicoleleec, filtered.

These pressures don’t extend just to individuals: micro-communities also put undue amounts of pressure on smaller development teams made up of marginalized people to constantly be the pinnacle of social justice, social awareness, and perfection in tech. This can result in these creators not only self-censoring, but quickly burning out due to having to become inauthentic versions of themselves.

I’m not saying to excuse anyone’s behavior if they are being offensive or problematic, but to keep in mind that development teams are human, too. They aren’t likely to have perfect anti-harassment laws in place for their project at the first pass, create a stunningly well-rounded CoC at the first try, or have every privacy feature you could ever possibly want at a launch. These things come from community feedback, and aren’t accomplished by forcing marginalized creators to be perfect specimens of social awareness 24/7.

In comparison to large (often overwhelmingly white and cisgender heterosexual male) companies, tech and gaming teams made up of marginalized teams are often subject to massive amounts of scrutiny not only from within their communities, but the outside world. Within their micro-communities there is an unprecedented amount of pressure placed on creators to be the paragons of social justice/awareness, never misstepping and always being seen as experts on their particular axes of oppression. These creators are pressured from within their community to have perfect codes of conduct, product features, terms of use policies, and signup rules–just to name a few. Implementing certain features may require hours upon hours of programming, while writing an all-inclusive code of conduct can take many hours of revisions and must be constantly maintained and updated to reflect the needs of many micro-communities.

What people don’t realize is that these teams are often made up of less than ten people. In some cases, these ambitious projects may be undertaken by three or four team members — tasked with doing an impossible amount of work for very little money. There are multi-million dollar companies doing far less for more money, with more staff to work on tasks or issues as they arise.

Many marginalized people live below or at the poverty line. To work on projects for 20-40 hours a week for a rate that often works out to mere pennies an hour, or $3-4/hr. is a sad reality of many smaller teams. In some cases, one must consider if this pressure is put on creators specifically to see them fail.

Learning to Recognize Burnout

A birthday candle burning from both ends.

Photo CC-BY frankieleon, filtered.

Placing unrealistic expectations on unaffiliated marginalized individuals and smaller teams leads quickly to burnout, with people working on these projects becoming overwhelmed, and in many cases depressed or anxious as a result of the expectations placed upon them. Burnout for some looks similar to depression, while others can experience burnout and depression at the same time. It is important to realize that burnout takes different forms for different people. If someone you know is also autistic, you would do well to recognize the symptoms of autistic burnout. If you’re working in an open/shared space with an autistic friend, try to find somewhere quiet for them to work if they seem to be burning out or over-stimulated. Constantly pushing autistic individuals to be indistinguishable from their neurotypical peers is one major contributor to burnout. Respect that your autistic friends/coworkers aren’t ‘just like’ everyone else in a lot of ways.

To combat burnout, we must first shift our expectations. This comes with understanding that projects may not launch on time if they are staffed by smaller teams. If you absolutely must have a project at a specific time and you have the skills to contribute your time (such as through helping with a project’s GitHub/GitLab issues, if you can program) if you can, you should help out. Doing even a small section of coding can ease the stress on project maintainers that may already be overworked or burnt out. For writers, if you have the time to help write an article or blog post highlighting a cause, do this. If you are a gaming blogger looking to help a marginalized team with their game, write a post if they need QA testers, get involved however you can to try to make their lives easier.

Unfortunately, it’s harder to combat pedestalling. This is a common thing that occurs online, especially in the case of social media such as Twitter. Those with massive followings are often seen as social justice experts, while they themselves may engage in transphobic, ableist, racist, or homophobic behavior. Be wary of those that put themselves on a pedestal and speak over/for others, as this is often a mark of those with privilege attempting to gain access to/influence micro-communities to which they do not belong.

If you are hiring marginalized individuals, be aware that some of us are masters when it comes to hiding our burnout symptoms until we are deep in the trenches of exhaustion, anxiety, and panic. I cannot stress this enough–if you aren’t on good/friendly terms with people, don’t ask about their mental health. It’s rude and invasive. Being able to ask, “Are you doing okay?” comes with a lot of potential issues, as many marginalized people have learned to avoid/deflect the question.

Let people know that they can discuss if they are feeling burnt out, either through a safe channel of communication or in person. Also, above all else, don’t ask people how they are if you don’t actually want to stick around to hear the answer. If a person has no filter due to autism or another mental health issue, respect that you could hear things you might not have intended to. Again, don’t ask unless you want the answer. If someone decides to open up to you, you should at least grant them the respect of listening to their answer.

Save Yourself First

Hand-written sign reading 'It's okay if you just save yourself.'

Photo CC-BY bobbi vie, cropped.

That might sound a little selfish. I’m not saying that you can’t champion causes. By all means, do that. But if you’re a marginalized community member, save yourself before anybody else. Of course, also save your partners, friends, etc — but take care of yourself. Be your own savior, whatever that takes. Set guidelines so that people respect your boundaries, don’t take advantage of you, and respect your mental health and personal time.

If you’re bad with setting boundaries, have a trusted friend/partner try to help you with it. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to make themselves a priority. For those on multiple axes of oppression, especially those that may have experienced online abuse, gaslighting, or people misusing their time–setting personal self-care and awareness goals may be difficult or near impossible to do. It is not selfish, nor does it make you unworthy to declare your mental health, time, and boundaries worthy of basic respect.

For people in a position of privilege–don’t try to talk over people experiencing oppression or abuse online. Signal boost, use your voice to amplify, but don’t talk over people. It’s not about you.

It’s up to all of us to understand the harmful effects of pedestalling, re-arrange the expectations we put on marginalized teams everywhere, and to recognize burnout hopefully before it happens. Together, we can create amazing things — but only with better understanding of the time and resources it takes to create them.