Putting a Spotlight on Diversity in Tech Burnout
As our initial community survey shows, burnout in the diversity in tech movement represents a state of crisis.
The past several years have marked a new era of tech activism, with notable gains: the release of diversity data from major tech companies, widespread code of conduct implementation, and the start of many new initiatives, from those focused on trans people in software [Hypatia Software Organization, Trans*H4CK, TransTech Social] to Black technologists [Revision Path, PoC in Tech, Good for POC], to women of color across the industry [#WoCinTech Chat, digitalundivided, Black Girls Code], and many other groups.
The vast majority of this activism is being led by underrepresented people — some working at tech companies, some starting their own, and many working outside of traditional structures as independent activists or as part of new collectives. In addition to managing the daily toll of existing as a marginalized person in technology, they are also taking on the challenging, taxing and often thankless work of culture change… and it doesn’t come without a cost. Diversity in tech work is having a profound, negative impact on advocates’ happiness, mental and physical health and work/life balance, as well as their safety, relationships, careers and security.
Activist burnout is something more widely documented in other social justice communities, yet less understood and discussed in tech itself. In fact, it remains a highly taboo topic: in our recent informal survey on tech activism and burnout, we found that the vast majority of respondents chose to remain anonymous. Still, their responses made one thing absolutely clear: burnout is one of the #1 challenges facing the movement.
In this post, we present results from the ~30 respondents to our survey, as well as pre-existing work and our own experiences publishing hundreds of activists, to explore the impact of burnout, its causes, and how our community can better support diversity in tech advocates to prevent burnout, and/or help them recover from burnout more effectively. While neither comprehensive nor scientific, we hope this will help open and broaden the discussion on activist burnout in tech, and ultimately lead to more writing, research, projects, tools, and other efforts in this area.
The Impact of Burnout
In our survey, we asked people who have experienced burnout related to tech activism and diversity in tech work to talk to us about how burnout affects their lives.
One of the major themes we see is that the impact of activist burnout compounds existing industry and workplace pressures faced by marginalized tech workers. Activism burnout is usually happening while advocates are also facing demanding schedules, hostile work environments, and a tech culture where abuse, discrimination, microaggressions, and psychological effects like imposter syndrome and stereotype threat are widespread. This echoes what Keidra Chaney wrote in Invisible: Burnout and Tech: “For marginalized workers in tech — women, people of color, queer/trans people, people with disabilities — [tech] burnout comes quicker and harder. It comes from existing and being pressured to thrive in a space where your presence is seen as an aberration, and your skills are perceived as suspect. It’s a burnout not easily solved by quick fixes, or even a new job; it’s triggered by your own life, the very body you inhabit” [Model View Culture, 2015 Quarterly #3.] The realities of a marginalized existence in tech, layered with activist burnout are profound; as one respondent noted: “It’s alienating and exhausting during the workday and after the workday;” another acknowledged that, despite the rewards of the work, “it gets tiring to have people only see me as an activist and not as a deeply technical person who is also an activist… it makes me question whether I’m really as deeply technical as I think I am. It gives my impostor syndrome yet another thing to play with.”
Advocates struggle to balance the pressures and demands of activism work with the rest of their professional lives: “It’s difficult to keep my technical skills current and work on the projects I want to when I spend so much free time doing tech activism.” This reflects the reality an anonymous author describes in Diversity for Sale: “Participation in diversity activities often falls on volunteers from [tech companies’] own employee base — free labor in the form of a second shift.” Burnout also emerges from the reality that independently-carried activist work often invokes massive responsibilities with little infrastructure; as CK Oliver wrote for Model View Culture, “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.”
Of the ~30 respondents to our survey, mental health problems were one of the most heavily referenced effects of diversity in tech work, with numerous mentions of anxiety, depression and insomnia, as well as difficulty managing frustration and anger. In some cases, respondents reported that burnout triggered new mental illness symptoms; in other cases, it exacerbated, worsened or brought back pre-existing mental illnesses and related symptoms — as one activist noted: “I had been having mental health issues before already. Before my first burnout from tech activism, I was recovering from depression and eating disorders, and my recovery was going well. A short time into this burnout, my depression and eating disorders came back.”
Many respondents cited significant increases in feeling of anxiety, alienation, isolation and depression, as well as a significantly impacted emotional state; as one explained: “I find myself becoming angry far more quickly and with less provocation than I’d like.” For many, far from short-term consequences, the reported effects of activist-related burnout have caused deep and lasting harm: “It has led to long-term constant stress for me. This stress has ruined my immune system, which means that I’m almost permanently ill.” Yet others reported that the effects of burnout persist even after taking steps back from the work; as Julie Pagano stated: “Even now, after pulling back because of burnout, I still feel a significant emotional strain. The cumulative emotional weight of this work is a load that doesn’t disappear even after you stop. The mix of PTSD, secondary trauma, and survivor’s guilt will probably follow me for decades.”
Another major theme we see in tech activist burnout is the profound impact across individual’s lives outside work, especially on their social lives and relationships. A survey participant reported experiencing “Panic attacks, insomnia and struggling to get ‘normal’ tasks done due to no energy left such as washing dishes/clothes and going for walks or socialising.” Another noted that “when people you are close to don’t understand the level of frustration you feel, it can feel completely isolating from them.” Multiple respondents noted that it was at times difficult to get support from interpersonal relationships, as friends and partners grow weary: “My friends are sick of hearing about it, and I’ve been dropped by several. I can’t concentrate on work because I’m too focused on injustice in tech;” another stated “My (now ex) husband is very aware, but sick of hearing about it. Same with my current partner. “
For many people doing tech activism, the often intensive tax on their time, plus the emotional toll of the work, has had devastating effects on personal and romantic relationships. As one respondent stated: “It has harmed my relationships. For a long time, I was unable to maintain friendships because of it. And it pushed my relationship with my partner to its limits, because I was emotionally shut down.” Another confided: “It’s a strain on my marriage and day job and requires me to sacrifice evenings and weekends.” The accounts continue: “I have worried about ruining my life, my child’s life, my marriage;” “I am exhausted and my marriage may be ending.”
Causes of Burnout
The survey results — taken alongside the personal stories of dozens of other tech activists — indicate that diversity in tech work is producing severe and lasting mental and physical consequences, as well as deeply affecting the friendships, relationships, support structures and social lives of advocates. We see clearly how diversity in tech activism is harming the people most needed by the movement… but what is causing these effects?
One major theme we see is that diversity in tech advocates suffer immensely from having to deal with the same microaggressions, demands for labor, basic educational work, and general community ignorance on an ongoing basis. As one respondent detailed: “everyone comes at me with the same question when they find out i’m a dev – ‘How is it being a black woman at your company?’ or something similar”. Another referenced the frustrations of “answering the same questions over and over and over again, with exactly the same responses. I’m tired of tech activism 101.”
Another constant is the “lack of resources, particularly financial resources” that are available in the community, requiring most diversity in tech work be done for free, and in spare time left outside of other, paid work engagements. One advocate emphasized the “lack of financial support for activist work, leading to the need to support activist work through other work, leading to too much work in sum;” another noted how this creates an environment where people also have to deal with “having to chase funding” on top of the activist work itself, and in addition to any other paid work.
As Julie Pagano detailed, people working in diversity in tech also face heavy demands on their time: “Once you get known for this stuff, you’re constantly being asked to do even more and more free labor, and it’s hard to say ‘no.’” Another explained that a leading cause of their burnout is “being expected to do everything even when you have said you can’t”; yet another cited a taxing feeling of “Not being able to be ‘off’, feeling like you always have to comment or engage with everything.” (Ironically, claims that diversity in tech work shouldn’t be paid are belied by constant and extreme demands for activist labor.)
Another cause of burnout? The high incidence of harassment, hostility and abuse that activists in the industry face. As we’ve extensively documented, harassment constitutes one of the top threats to political organization in the field, disproportionately targeting politically active, marginalized people. Respondents to our survey noted the serious effects that accompany this constant atmosphere of threat; one spoke to a “Permanent state and mindset of hyper-awareness and permanent feeling of insecurity (because no matter where I am or how I behave – harassment, threats or attacks can happen anywhere anytime), leading to constantly high stress levels.” Another referenced “The need to be constantly vigilant about my safety and my privacy. Trolling is in here somewhere, too. I have to be careful about everything I say and do, and I have to accept that every time I say or do something (no matter how careful I am), someone is going to decide that a perfectly acceptable response to it is to tell me that I should be raped or killed.” The severe impact of harassment is consistent with the accountants of others in the space, and particularly affects people experiencing multiple systems of oppression; as Riley H. stated in an interview on Building Games at the Intersection of Race, Trans Life and Mental Illness: “I have to spend extra time avoiding and blocking people, which takes away from my working hours, on top of just emotionally and mentally dealing with the harassment as a disabled autistic person.”
Unfortunately, the hostile environment for marginalized activists dovetails with another major contributing factor to burnout: an overall lack of community support. Michelle Glauser, who ran the #ILookLikeAnEngineer ad campaign, leads multiple women-in-engineering groups, curates a list of learning-to-code resources, and organizes free technical workshops for low-income women and genderqueer adults, cited a “lack of appreciation and a never-ending expectation” that she can “help anyone at any time for free.” As one respondent noted, the lack of support for marginalized activists is a sharp contrast to how “Corporations and white men are praised a lot more for doing a lot less”… while advocates from underrepresented groups are “punished career-wise.”
While harassment, “a lack of funding, safe spaces, and support” were all top-of-mind causes of activist burnout, another sentiment overrode even these: despite so many dedicating their lives to this work, there’s been little change. The often-times glacial pace of change in the industry creates an overwhelming feeling of “lack of tenable progress;” frustrations over advancement which is “slow (sometimes non-existent).” As one respondent noted, “feeling like people would rather provide lip service than actual action” is a huge contributor to burnout.
When so many people are sacrificing so much, and yet seeing so little improvement in the state of industry, is it any wonder they’re all burning out?
As our final survey question, we asked participants: “At a community level, what would need to change for you to experience less burnout, or to recover better from burnout?” Here are a few discrete areas we saw identified as sites of intervention:
A significant increase in financial support:
In response to lack of financial support being a direct cause of activist burnout, many called for more direct funding, emphasizing “getting paid to do tech activism work” as a primary concern; as Michelle Glauser noted, this requires that “More people and especially companies… put their money/more money where their mouths are and support the ones carrying the communities.” Ashe Dryden, founder of AlterConf, spoke to how making more resources available can help to relieve the strain and workload facing activists in the field: “Reduce the burden from the small population of us doing this work by providing financial, professional, and network resources.” As a respondent summarized: “Communities need to find ways to provide financial support for tech activists. Tech activism comes with huge cost: the financial, physical, and emotional state of us as activists. And we’re the ones who pay this cost right now.”
More help and support from the community:
Beyond simply financial support, many respondents cited a desire for more substantial, tangible commitments from the community, particularly “More and better support from allies, and overall better ally work. I need allies to stop calling themselves allies, while still either overriding my work, or pushing me to do all the work that they should be doing.” Activists also want “more recognition,” as despite the hyper-visibility of some activists, many people working in the space are never recognized or celebrated for their work. Beyond that, activists noted a need for help and more equitable distribution of work across the field, specifically looking to “more people doing the work,” and more people in the community “replying to requests for help with tasks and support in discussions rather than silence.” As another solution, one survey respondent highlighted the need for higher levels of collaboration and support between collectives working towards similar goals; another emphasized the need for “collaboration and real support. We need to stop trying to out do each other and just fucking work together.”
For yet others, stopping or preventing burnout isn’t just about the big things. As Rebecca Miller-Webster of Write/Speak/Code highlighted, while “more financial support is probably the biggest & the easiest” solution to burnout, “the less obvious is just more compassion from the community for efforts,” especially in a climate of “the constant, thankless requests” that tech activists face. As another stated “I get energy from others. I want/need to see diversity, embracing ‘weird’, empathy…and heaven forbid, let’s smile and say ‘good morning’ sometimes?!”
But perhaps more than any other thing, activists are looking for one thing: “Visible changes.” As one respondent said: “Honestly, real progress. Real action. There’s too much lip service and too many companies that are pushing for diversity efforts simply because it makes them look good and not because it’s the right thing to do. People would need to believe others when we say what is going on.” Another emphasized that stopping burnout requires “ACTUAL NUMBERS changing. They’re not. We’ve just been getting lip serviced and silenced by meetups, ‘initiatives’, etc. But the numbers aren’t moving. I want black DEVS (not marketers, not support, not all the other positions they use to pad the numbers) working alongside me.”
Importantly, the change people are looking for isn’t just OUTSIDE the diversity in tech movement itself, but within it as well; several advocates cited the need for more intersectional inclusion in the movement itself. As one said, “Feeling included” would help to address burnout: “people assume I am a woman when I am genderqueer and I feel invisible, but I still try and help out.” Another echoed this sentiment, calling for: “better support for people who experience intersecting levels of oppression.”
Many in tech know, at a high level, that burnout is a huge problem in our field. But it’s less discussed how burnout is different and worse for people from underrepresented groups, and even less how burnout affects the marginalized people leading the movement for diversity in tech. It’s one thing to “know” that burnout is affecting the movement; it’s another thing to see the stories of dozens and dozens of activists whose mental and physical health, quality of life, and ability to sustain the work is being destroyed by burnout.
As our initial community survey shows, the widespread, severe incidence and impact of burnout in the diversity in tech movement represents a state of crisis. As a first step, we must work to increase our focus on burnout as a central crisis facing the diversity in tech movement. For example, we’d love to see a more substantial and organized survey of diversity in tech advocates – one that explored in more depth the impact on activists, how they are responding to the condition, and how it affects people at different intersections and in different areas of activism. Beyond that, we must heed activist calls for more funding, support, participation and collaboration, as well as reduce the level of violence, harassment and threats that diversity in tech advocates face on a daily basis.
Most importantly, as our initial survey indicates, burnout in diversity in tech is a systemic issue, and it will require systemic solutions. As an anonymous writer wrote for Model View Culture: “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.”