DevOps, diversity, and the lens of intersectionality

One of the core principles of DevOps is to build a supportive culture, one based on collaboration and empathy. This is often overlooked in the rush to build, deploy and continuously run applications.

Empathic, collaborative environments equip DevOps teams to better understand the unique challenges they face as individuals, enhancing their ability to resolve issues together in a way that promotes a culture of blamelessness. This can help pave the route to a greater sense of psychological safety (the belief that you’re safe to take interpersonal risks, such as sharing ideas or soliciting feedback).

Over time, teams that successfully adopt such a culture often deliver higher-quality applications at a faster rate. The challenge that many organizations have yet to address is that empathy needs to reach beyond any given set of technical tasks. No one person is an island, nor are they defined by the scope of their job.

Leaders must be prepared to account for the needs of the diverse teams they manage, and in many instances, this means developing a deeper understanding of the characteristics that make the team members who they are. These characteristics, whether it’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or any number of social and political identities, combine to create systems of advantage and disadvantage. This dynamic is known as intersectionality*.

For example, individuals with more than one minority identity may experience multiple layers of discrimination -- while a gay white man might be exposed to homophobia, a gay Black woman might experience homophobia, racism, and sexism. The way we identify has a profound impact on our lived experience, and in turn, our journey through the working world.

The Value of Intersectionality

Over the years, studies have repeatedly shown that diverse teams lead to improved outcomes, but how do we get to that point? It requires a proactive approach to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. No lip service, no arbitrary policies, just a thoughtful, relevant, people-centered approach underpinned by intersectionality.

Looking through the intersectional lens can help raise awareness for the stigma that individuals might face at work (and life in general) as a result of their identity, enabling us to identify and mitigate harmful bias before it has a chance to negatively impact our decision-making.

If not acknowledged and addressed, unconscious and ingrained biases can be especially problematic in DevOps teams, largely down to their ability to comprise the quality and reliability of processes, tool selection, and practices. For example, if team members are unaware of their biases, they may inadvertently dismiss the input of select colleagues, perpetuating an exclusionary culture.

When given the space and tools to flourish, people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences can provide invaluable perspectives that introduce new ideas, ultimately making DevOps teams more innovative, communicative, and collaborative. Moreover, a greater number of perspectives makes it less likely that ingrained biases will lead to a sub-par outcome.

After all, a key objective of DevOps is to ensure seamless collaboration between the two primary aspects of software engineering: operations and development. This goal is naturally intersectional -- achieving it demands a diverse range of skillsets from an equally diverse range of individuals.

To create a diverse, inclusive, and psychologically safe culture that allows for this level of collaboration, decision-makers need to enhance their capacity to learn from those around them, invite curiosity, and encourage conversations, even when they appear difficult to broach.

Diversity and the Tokenism Conundrum

Tick-box diversity, sometimes referred to as tokenism, only hinders the growth of company culture. Organizations will need to ensure that their approach to diversity is authentic if they hope to make meaningful cultural progress.

Nobody wants to get placed in a position because they tick a diversity compliance box. Individuals must feel respected, supported, and appreciated within their assigned roles, otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before they move on to take a more fulfilling position elsewhere (in a company that’s got their diversity figured out), and the organization finds itself, from a diversity and inclusion perspective, back at square one.

Getting people through the door is one thing, but actively supporting their unique needs once they’re a part of the workforce is another feat entirely. DevOps is diverse by design -- failing to account for this is sacrificing a key part of what makes it so effective in the first place.

There is no blanket approach to diversity, other than to make sure every investment needed to promote intersectionality is made in a way that empowers each member of the team. What might this entail?

  • Developing Employee-led Engagement Groups (EEGs) -- For the people, by the people. EEGs are a great way to drive visibility for underrepresented communities, amplify the voices of the unheard, and create a safe, supportive space at work.
  • Providing Unconscious Bias Training -- Targeted training can help people understand their prejudices and provides them with tools to prevent it stifling their growth.
  • The Value of Feedback -- Listening might be the world’s most underrated skill. Employees are essential, and active listening from leadership makes it clear that the organization recognizes this.
  • Mutual Mentorship -- A mentoring initiative can enable employees to strengthen their understanding of diversity and inclusion through the sharing of experiences. It’s also an effective way to connect junior-level employees with senior leadership, increasing buy-in from decision-makers in the process.

Flexible Solutions

Workforce diversification can lead to friction when the right measures aren’t put in place. It’s important to recognize that our collective understanding of diversity, inclusion, equity, belonging, identity and intersectionality is always evolving -- organizations must evolve alongside it to continue providing value to the clients and communities they serve.

Flexibility is crucial in an era where the pace of change (both inside and outside of a DevOps environment) is only going to accelerate. As DevOps teams become more distributed around the globe, new processes are required to remove the friction that inhibits this flexibility.

No matter what the root cause of any issue, the one thing every DevOps engineer knows for certain is the less friction there is, the faster the meantime to resolution becomes.

Want to learn more about intersectionality and DevOps culture? Join the Women in DevOps community at DevOps World 2023 for an expert-led panel discussion on the transformative power of the intersectional approach to DevOps and beyond.

Image credit: depositphotos

*As the Center for Intersectional Justice explains, "The concept of intersectionality describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination 'intersect' to create unique dynamics and effects."

Lauren Langdell is Associate Director, SODA; Founder, Women in DevOps.

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