“You cannot be what you cannot see.”
When I joined Twitter approximately two years ago, I remember this being a popular phrase, shared by many. I don’t know what had sparked its popularity, but I guessed the idea was that children with different qualities and upbringings are unable to grow up to do all kinds of awesome, amazing things unless they see someone like them doing it too. A woman, a Chinese person, a Sikh, a disabled person.
I didn’t really agree with this sentiment, as it didn’t resonate with how I’d felt as a child, or how I came into a field of work that I love, or how I aspired to become a respected speaker within my industry. Still, the phrase stuck in my mind.
“You cannot be what you cannot see.”
I’ve thought about this several times over the last two years, and at the same time, I’ve become more and more aware of the fact that I don’t see a great number of people like me doing awesome, amazing things. Things like being successful in technology, being an actor, being an international speaker, writing books. I thought about the people (children and adults) who could relate to this statement, and how the absence of role models might affect them.
I decided to do something about this; I decided to fly the flag for diversity and try to become one of those role models myself.
Who I Am and What I Represent
I’m not in a hiring position, and I’m not on any conference committees where I could recruit or select a diverse range of people. That doesn’t mean that I can’t contribute to making our industry and community more diverse.
I am someone who identifies with many underrepresented groups. I could try to be a role model for people like me; people who identify as:
- A woman
- Having fewer years of workplace experience than other prominent testers
- A university drop-out
- Someone with mental health issues
- Or someone who survived an abusive childhood
This list is not extensive, but some of those identities might come as a surprise, either because they are invisible or because I don’t talk about them as much as others. That’s why I thought it important to include them here. For people to be what they can see and take inspiration from others, these things need to be visible; we need to talk about them and not be ashamed of them.
The idea is this: If I can do it, so can you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
I say that knowing that I’ve been privileged enough to have had access to education, to have lived in places free from war, and to have been free from the responsibility of being a carer for another person, to name a few. I have been lucky to have less obstacles than others. However, none of my identities or characteristics have made me inherently unable to succeed or do the things I want to do, and that’s the message I want to send to people who share any of these identities with me, and even those who don’t.
You Can Be a Role Model
You can be a role model too, even if the underrepresented group(s) you identify with aren’t obvious. Look around you. If you identify with any of these groups or characteristics, but find few (or even zero) people who represent them, then you could be a role model for:
- People with dyslexia
- Single parents
- Transgender people
- People who have gone through redundancy
- People with a chronic illness
- Or any other underrepresented, or inspiring group of people
What Do Role Models Do?
It’s reasonable to hear the words “role model” and assume that the person being referred to must be doing something extra special or awe-worthy. The truth is, it’s more about being seen; being visible. Remember: “You cannot be what you cannot see.”
You’re more than likely already doing all kinds of great things. Just do them in a way that allows other people to see them too, and be inspired by them.
Do what you do, publicly:
- Write about your experiences and share them online
- Submit to speak at conferences or events
- Teach people how to do things you’re good at, through workshops, meet ups, or courses
- Contribute to interesting discussions on social media, group chats or forums
- Be proud of who you are and what you represent
- Put yourself forward as a guest on podcasts
- Speak about what it’s like to be in a minority or underrepresented group
- Talk about the challenges you’ve overcome, especially when those challenges are part of what makes you great and inspiring
How Do Role Models Support Others?
As well as flying your own flag for diversity, it’s important to lift up others around you and help them succeed. There are several reasons why some groups are underrepresented in the first place (including social and historical), so we need to do our bit to make things less difficult for them and level the playing field. You can do this even if you don’t consider yourself a role model.
Here are some ideas for how to support others in minority or underrepresented groups:
- Give frequent, encouraging feedback to people you see working hard, improving, or finding their voice
- Challenge the events, organisations and companies you’re part of to diversify their speakers, attendees and workforce
- Call out discrimination when you see it and ask questions when you suspect it
- Offer to mentor or sponsor someone
- Share details about good initiatives you’ve seen
- Make an effort to include people and show that you care about what they have to say
- Share and celebrate the achievements and success of others
- Invite someone to be interviewed on your podcast or blog
- When giving examples or referencing fictional characters, diversify for the sake of diversity and inclusion, and not because it has a specific impact on the story / example
- Use different cultures and demographics in your user personas
- Encourage others to be role models too
You Can Make a Difference
No matter what background you have, and even if you’re not in a formal position of power, you can still make a difference. You can fly the flag for diversity and encourage others to do so too by being a visible, positive role model and supporting others.
These are just some of the many ways in which we can do great things together, inspiring both those around us and those who might follow in our footsteps. If you have any other ideas, please let me know about them in the comments. I’d also love to know who your role models are; who inspires you and why? Who have been your biggest supporters over the years? Let me know on Twitter and give them a well-deserved shout-out.
I’d also like to recognise some of the people who have supported me from the very start of my testing journey, and who continue to encourage and inspire me, and many others. I could name quite a few, but I’ll mention just a handful here. Patrick Prill, Bill Matthews, Danny Dainton, Rich Rogers, Marcel Gehlen, Katrina Clokie, Angie Jones: Thank you.