Interview: Ashe Dryden – programmer, diversity advocate, White House fellow for LGBT tech

"A man asked me where he could get in line to have sex with me and I was floored."

Ashe Dryden is a programmer, writer, speaker and White House fellow who’s setting out to make the tech industry all about diversity. Passionate about helping others open doors – no matter their gender, race or sexual orientation – Dryden coaches companies to make diversity their number one priority.

As a White House fellow for LGBTQ tech, her expertise have garnered attention across the board, with the programmer also running, organising and creating AlterConf – an event that aims to shine a light on critical culture discussions in tech and gaming.

Here, Ashe talks of her first steps into the diversity limelight and how others in the industry can help with the cause.

Hi Ashe! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’ve been a programmer for about 15 years, mostly in open source spaces. Over the past 4 or 5 I’ve focused much of my attention on the issues around diversity and inclusion, speaking at conferences, writing, working with open source communities, organising AlterConf, and co-founding Fund Club. This past year I was also a White House LGBTQ Tech & Innovation Fellow.

Apart from that, I read a lot, play board games, pet cats, and explore the Pacific Northwest on my bike while looking for the best taro bubble tea.

How did you first get into programming?

Completely by accident! I had my first blog on this site, Diaryland, and wanted to change the way it looked. I ended up teaching myself HTML, CSS, and Javascript along the way and it evolved from there.

You’re incredibly passionate about diversity in the tech and gaming industries – did you become aware of prejudices through personal experiences?

Partially, yes. I was in the industry for a number of years before I realised being the only woman in the room was weird. Then at a tech conference I’d organised, a man asked me where he could get in line to have sex with me and I was floored. The following years have been a blur of reading, researching, talking to people, and educating myself around social justice issues.

AlterConf looks great – can you tell me about that set up? And how it’s developed?

Over the past few years I’ve spoken at a ton of conferences and was getting bored having to say the same thing over and over again. It felt like the industry was artificially limiting the depth of the discussion while we were still suffering from discrimination, limited access, harassment, and violent assaults.

White women, mostly living in San Francisco, became the faces and voices of diversity in the industry, which worried me. I wanted to use my privilege of the platform I was given to change the conversation.

I set out to create a truly inclusive event, removing as many barriers as possible. The travelling format has allowed us to bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel due to familial arrangements, cost, inability to get time off of work, or the complications around traveling due to illness, restrictive laws, etc.

By providing sliding scale tickets starting at $0, free childcare, live captioning and sign language interpreters, serving healthy meals inclusive of religious and dietary restrictions, and being hosted in ADA accessible buildings on accessible public transit, we remove even more barriers. All of our speakers and freelancers are local marginalised people and we don’t require they have professional experience to get the gig. Plus we pay them, which is practically unheard of in the tech industry.

I started organising AlterConfs in the summer of 2014 and here we are, 12 conferences down and more to come in the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. It’s been an amazing ride and I’m looking forward to the 2016 season!

How can tech industries diversify? What steps can others take?

There are so many different reasons that we see a lack of diversity and it’ll take as many different approaches to truly tackle the issues. There are some really smart, driven people working on the pipeline issue – that is, getting people interested in technology in early education. There are programs working on attracting people to the industry – showing them how they can take their current skillsets in art or the sciences or music or community organising or social work and pair them with technology to be more effective at meeting their goals.

I’m personally looking at stemming attrition – aiding those already in the industry to get better jobs, be afforded their fair share of opportunities, and creating communities of enthusiastic, empathetic support.

Other industries can step up to the plate by investigating their own biases, educating themselves about historical and cultural issues of access and behaviour, and listening to what marginalised people around them are saying. Of course, none of this is a substitute for going out and doing the work of actually hiring marginalised people and treating them fairly.

Can you tell me a bit about The Diverse Team? Do a good number of companies come forward for your help?

The Diverse Team is a toolset for employers to begin breaking down the issues of the lack of diversity in their organisations and improving inclusion. The book takes a holistic view and breaks things down into bite-size pieces. It’s informed by my personal experience in the industry, my research, and the consulting I’ve done with tech companies from 3 employees up to 800. I do quite a lot of consulting through my consultancy, Programming Diversity.

Have you noticed a shift in companies putting more weight behind diversity initiatives? Is there still a long way to go?

I have noticed a shift, yes, but I can’t say I’ve seen many companies being very effective. The tech industry has so many companies with near-limitless resources that are failing to make any real progress toward actually hiring and retaining marginalised people. The root issue being that many are only looking for short-term, quick return solutions – it’s like painting the outside of your house while the kitchen’s on fire. It might look okay outside, but who is gonna stick around in that kind of environment? To make lasting change, this work has to be something that you build into the DNA of your company and are constantly working on.

What can we expect from you for the rest of 2016? What are you getting up to?

I’m excited to be bringing AlterConf to Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe, that’s huge for me. In the next month we’re likely to break $10k per month in funding with Fund Club. I’ve got a few more surprises in the works for mid-to-late 2016, so you’ll have to keep an eye out!

Want to hear more from Ashe? Follow her on Twitter: @AsheDryden. You’ll find more of our interviews with inspirational women here

Main image: Ashe Dryden