In the past I’ve written and spoken about non-binary inclusion in tech, specifically around existing women in tech groups. I know lots of nb folks have ideas and feelings around this, and having read a lot of them, I have realised that I have misspoken. I have advocated for women’s group to include nb folks but I don’t think I’ve been clear on what this means or how I think it should work. I’ve done the thing of coming up with a solution without understanding the problem, even from my own perspective. So here we go, let’s define the problem and then see where we get.

Terms! (Simplified for ease of reading)

  • nb: non-binary, people who do not identify wholly as a man or a woman
  • amab/afab: assigned male/female at birth, currently sex and gender are assigned based on the genitalia at birth
  • cis: people who are the same gender they were assigned at birth
  • trans: people who are not the same gender they were assigned at birth

I’ve been non-binary since I was a teenager (although that wasn’t really a word then) but I’ve only been “out” since 2014. That was the year I started talking about trans and non-binary users, asking about gender, at conferences. The talk has changed a lot as my understanding of my own gender has changed. My understanding of my gender changes all the time. Sometimes it’s through meeting someone with a similar experience, somethings it’s through meeting someone with a very different one. I learn new words, some of them resonate and some of them repel. Thing is, I can’t really say “I won’t talk until I’m sure” because I’m never sure and never will be.

Back to the women in tech thing then. I’m not that into women in tech groups with the main exception of Ladies that UX. I wanna give them a shout out here, because the Manchester group is fantastic and I always feel so welcomed when I get the chance to go. I have also run Djangogirls events because I love Django and I like getting new people into tech. However the last time I ran Djangogirls I felt frustrated that while I was welcome as a volunteer, I would not be welcome as a attendee if I’d wanted to. For the last event I ran, I added “women and non-binary people” to our about section because it’s all I could think of at the time. I was invited to advertise the event in an interview with BBC Radio Sheffield, and although I mentioned “this is for women and non-binary people” a lot, the “and non-binary people” parts were edited out. (The piece was pre-recorded) I felt that my efforts were wasted. The week before the Sheffield event I volunteered at the Manchester event, and one of my learners was another non-binary person who said they’d come because of my mention of non-binary people on the Sheffield event page. I was super pleased, and so figured “women and non-binary people” was a good idea.

This feeling of exclusion from places that were previously welcoming is the first problem I’m trying to solve. In our simplified binary system, men have privilege that women do not, therefore in order to exist in a male system women need support, and this support comes from inclusion efforts, such as women in tech groups. (The trust is infinitely more complex, but this is the model I’m using for this post). Privilege vs inclusion. As a non-binary person, I do not have gender privilege, in fact I have less now than I did when I was identifying as a woman. I am subject to all the problems of being a woman (sexism, misogyny etc) with the added problems of my gender being called into question. However, I am also not covered by inclusion, because the words “women in tech” and “gender diversity in tech” are used to mean the same thing. Too many gender diversity events use the phrase “open to both men and women!” which excludes me.

First problem: gender diversity and measures to improve it are non-binary exclusive.

“Women and non-binary people” is a poorly loaded phrase for several reasons. Mainly, it excludes amab nb folks who feel it is a shorthand for “women, and non-binary people who can pass for being a woman”. I do come under this label, nobody is going to mistake me for a man and I’m not the right body shape to come across as stereotypically androgynous. This is probably why I thought it was ok. Other issues with this phrase is that non-binary is not an umbrella that covers everyone who is not male or female. As far as I’m aware, we don’t have a great umbrella word. “Gender minorities” is perhaps the closest, but that could be read to include women as well, same with “underrepresented genders/groups” (I could argue that as there are so few non-binary people, anytime there are 2 or more of us at an event, we are in fact overrepresented compared to our percentage of the population). “Not-men” is accurate, but frames us in relation to men as opposed to who we actually are. It’s a good shorthand but is clunky in the framing of an event. “Women and non-binary people” is also unhelpful if your event or group is called “Women who code” or “women in tech” or “ladies that ux” or “djangogirls”. We don’t want to be afterthoughts.

Second problem: Non-binary is not a good enough umbrella word, and in conjunction with the word “woman”, it is exclusionary of amab or male-presenting non-binary folks.

Possible solutions then. Firstly I think we need to be more strict when using phrases like gender diversity or gender equality. Events or organisations using these words need to be welcoming all genders and avoid using “woman” in the title. This is not to say “women in tech” events shouldn’t exist, I think they should and there is space and a need for them, but organisers need to be clear on the difference between “this is for women” and “this is for everyone (who is not a man)”. The name of the group needs to reflect this also. People running diversity and inclusion initiatives need to have a better awareness and understanding of nb folks and their needs. As an aside, a pet peeve of mine is women in tech groups that say men are welcome if coming with a female friend. So am I the man, or am I the female friend?

Secondly, I think the non-binary and related communities should try and agree on a good umbrella word. I think this would help cis people out a lot (how much you want to help cis people is up to you). This might not be all that possible as we are all very different and have different ideas. For example, I saw a tweet from someone saying they dislike “trans and non-binary people” as they feel it reinforces the idea that nb people are “not trans enough”, however as someone who does not identify as trans, if an event said “this is for trans people” I probably wouldn’t go. I have also seen trans people complaining about the abundance of afab non-binary people at trans meetups. I also don’t identify with the trans-masculine or trans-feminine labels that are popular.

This is a complex topic, and views change all the time. I can barely keep up myself and I have some sympathy with cis people who can’t keep up at all. My ideas about gender change all the time, and the things I need change all the time. We just don’t have the language for this and so shared understanding is incredibly hard. The main call to action here is just to stop, and think, and consider who you want to include and who you want to exclude. When you have that, be clear and don’t confuse with conflicting names and messaging. Tech is for everyone.