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Making Stack Overflow More Welcoming

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Jay Hanlon, EVP of Culture and Experience for Stack Overflow, posted a blog entry titled Stack Overflow Isn't Very Welcoming. It's Time for That to Change. In the post he explains the problems Stack Overflow has which make it an unwelcoming amd intimidating place. He explains the commitment to addressing the issues, provides specific steps they are taking and invites readers to participate in a survey to give honest feedback on their own experiences.

Hanlon states that many people new to Stack Overflow experience it as an unwelcoming, intimidating place, where people are attacked for not knowing what they don't know, for poorly worded questions and for answering questions that "encourage low quality questioning".

He opens with what he calls the ugly truth:

  • Too many people experience Stack Overflow as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.
  • Our employees and community have cared about this for a long time, but we've struggled to talk about it publicly or to sufficiently prioritize it in recent years. And results matter more than intentions.

He acknowledges that there is a genuine problem and that the problem has been underplayed in the past. Stack Overflow is taking the issue seriously now and is devoting time, money and people to addressing the problems, initiating user research to hear what the real issues are and revisiting the site norms. Some explicit changes he highlights include:

  • Let's shift from "don't be an asshole" to "be welcoming"
  • Let's do something about comments – no longer tolerating sarcasm and condescension
  • Let's make it easier for new users to succeed
  • Let's stop judging users for not knowing things (we're a Q&A site!)
  • Let's reject the false dichotomy between quality and kindness

He refers to the site's code of conduct and acknowledges that many people don't know that they have one – they want to change this and make the code of conduct visible and have the site's users actively enforce it.

He ends the post with a call to action:

We're looking for volunteers to share their experiences in chat with us and help us prioritize what to work on first. Whether you're an active user, or someone who isn't comfortable participating, if you'd like to help, please fill out this one-minute survey.

Stack Overflow is far from the only organisation looking to address problems in their culture, and with tech culture in general.

In November 2017 Reid Hoffman spoke about the need to change the culture in the tech industry, addressing the inequalities in the workforce, sexual harassment and discrimination. He spoke at the EmTech MIT 2017 conference and his talk can be found here .

Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd posted a Medium article titled Tech Culture Can Change in which she says that:

Fundamentally, the problem with systemic sexism is that it's not the individual people who are the problem. It's the culture.

She explains the experience of discrimination and sexism from a woman's perspective and her own experiences. She then says:

I want to see the change that most women in tech long for. At its core, the tech industry is idealistic and dreamy, imagining innovations that could change the world. Yet, when it comes to self-reflexivity, tech is just as regressive as many other male-dominated sectors. Still, I fully admit that I hold it to a higher standard in no small part because of the widespread commitment in tech to change the world for the better, however flawed that fantastical idealism is.

She points out four things that she wants from men in tech: Recognition. Repentance. Respect. Reparation.

Recognition. I want to see everyone — men and women — recognize how contributing to a culture of sexism takes us down an unhealthy path, not only making tech inhospitable for women but also undermining the quality of innovation and enabling the creation of tech that does societal harm.
Repentance. I want guys in tech — and especially those founders and funders who hold the keys to others' opportunity — to take a moment and think about those that they've hurt in their path to success and actively, intentionally, and voluntarily apologize and ask for forgiveness. I want them to reach out to someone they said something inappropriate to, someone whose life they made difficult, and say "I'm sorry."
Respect. I want to see a culture of respect actively nurtured and encouraged alongside a culture of competition. Respect requires acknowledging others' struggles, appreciating each others' strengths and weaknesses, and helping each other through hard times.
Reparation. Every guy out there who wants to see tech thrive owes it to the field to actively seek out and mentor, support, fund, open doors for, and otherwise empower women and people of color.

She ends with a strong call to action:

I strongly believe that changing the norms is the only path forward. So while I want to see people held accountable, I especially want to see the industry work towards encouraging and supporting behavior change. At the end of the day, we will not solve the systemic culture of sexism by trying to weed out bad people, but we can work towards rendering bad behavior permanently unacceptable.

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