I made a mistake. Even worse, it hurt someone that I like, admire, and respect.
I was at a conference, and one of the attendees tweeted a picture captioned “Bros everywhere”. The implication was that the ratio of women to men was seriously imbalanced. I replied that another conference had better diversity, and they should ask how they did it.
One big problem — I was wrong. There were definitely more people from underrepresented groups than the other conference.
The organizer called me out. He pulled me aside and let me know that he did not appreciate my comment. I was confused at first, not understanding what I had done wrong. But I listened, and could clearly understand that he was hurt. So I tried to engage my listening and empathy skills. (I’m not sure how well I did, but I think I did OK.)
I apologized and asked what I could do to fix my mistake. I deleted the offending tweet, and replaced it with a tweet more in line with what I meant — that the community has a lot more work to do to get more women involved.
Why It Happened
I made several mistakes actually. The first was using the term “diversity” when thinking only about gender diversity. But “diversity” also includes racial diversity and other forms of inclusivity. Many of the talks at the previous conference were about diversity and inclusion. I think this colored my perception of that conference as being more diverse — as an exemplar.
Another interesting problem with my perception was that underrepresented people tend to cluster. (To make them feel safer — this makes sense.) From my vantage point, I didn’t see many of them.
But the biggest mistake was not thinking about how my words would be taken. I should have known better. The organizer happens to be a black man. I know him well enough that I should have known that he’s worked hard to improve diversity. I wish I knew why I didn’t think about that.
What I Learned
Being an ally/advocate can be hard. But this had nothing to do with that. (Other than the fact that you’ll make mistakes.) This was just stupidity.
My initial perceptions were wrong — very wrong. It was a mistake to trust my perceptions without taking some time to verify them.
Good intentions don’t count. If you hurt someone, they’re hurt. If you do damage to your cause, then you’ve set back that cause. If your intentions are truly good, then you need to own your mistake and fix what you messed up.
I felt really bad about my mistake. I still feel bad. But I think that’s a good thing — the strong emotions will have a bigger impact on me, to help me remember to not make this kind of mistake in the future. It’s weird to embrace feeling bad, but I think it’s important.
I think my biggest take-away from the situation was that my efforts at working on empathy helped me. It was easier to own up to my mistake by considering how the other person was feeling. And owning up to my mistake allowed me to fix my mistake, instead of trying to avoid responsibility. This isn’t easy for me, but I’m working on it.