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Ethics and Equality in Software Engineering

Psychological Safety
Toxic Atmospheres

2 November, 2021

Chris Sellek
Chris Sellek

Staff Software Engineer at WillowTree Apps

Chris Sellek, Staff Software Engineer at WillowTree, details his recommendations for companies to uplift moral practices and start conversations about inequalities.


In February of 2020, before the pandemic hit and companies transitioned to remote workplaces, I was scheduled to deliver a talk about ethics in software engineering at TSQA, a conference local to Durham. I was aware of various scandals, like the Volkswagen emissions one, where engineers consciously lowered emissions data to pass environmental standards. I struggled to understand how engineers were unethically writing code without question. I started researching ethics and found that historically marginalized groups prevalently struggled to succeed and faced blatant discrimination in the software industry.

Actions taken

After I discovered this upsetting data, I started to become a vocal contributor in terms of equality. My company is very aware of discrimination and inequalities within our industry. They value each individual and, from my experience, resolve each situation brought to their attention with integrity. Equality is not only a moral standpoint; vast amounts of research prove that more diverse teams are more successful. On my social media, such as LinkedIn, I work to bring light to discrimination and inequalities; by posting and highlighting my experience as well as my knowledge.

I recommend that companies have unconscious bias training with the entire organization. Everyone has their own bias, but it is impossible to address them without knowing what they are or that they are even there. Secondly, I recommend having microaggression training that depicts small insults that treat historically marginalized groups as stereotypes. Pushing both of these types of training will bring awareness to common intolerances many groups of people face. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that everyone has an unconscious bias, which doesn’t make you a bad individual. Our brains are programmed to take shortcuts, and they do that even when the shortcuts are built off of societal stereotypes.

Before leadership gets to a point where they can listen to diversity issues, they need to make sure individuals are comfortable talking about them. Ensuring psychological safety for team members that want to talk about these issues is critical. Bringing this level of security for people to raise concerns and awareness about these matters is essential to sparking change. I recommend providing ways for team members to bring these concerns to leadership anonymously. As these conversations begin, be willing to listen and understand others’ perspectives. Being open to listening and being empathetic is the foundation of equality.

Companies need to push the importance of equality from the leadership level. As an individual within a company, there is still an opportunity to create change and progress. Be willing to admit that you have an unconscious bias and are open to shifting away from negative stereotypes. Equality isn’t a difficult topic to change individually; it is as simple as treating everyone with respect and kindness.

Lessons learned

  • Research can change minds. Especially in technical departments, team members trust data and metrics. When making others aware of the inequalities in software development, having data that share your viewpoint is vital. And, thankfully, there is PLENTY of data out there to help.
  • There is virtually nothing more important than listening with respect and empathy. Sparking change cannot be done without an understanding of others’ perspectives. In turn, creating a safe place for conversation about ethical issues will uplift the value of these conversations.

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