Women in Tech and White Supremacy

How being complicit with racism at Girl Develop It didn’t earn my innocence.

Mo McElaney
7 min readMay 22, 2019

I became involved with Girl Develop It | GDI in early 2012 as a class participant in Philadelphia. I was looking to make a career change into tech and started going to meetups to network and learn about what I needed to learn to make this career change. I heard about GDI Philly from a friend or two and started taking classes. After a lifetime of only seeing technical skills performed by men this was the first time I was taught these skills by women. Having successful women as role models was inspiring and motivating. As a white woman, it didn’t occur to me that while attending these events in a city as racially diverse as Philadelphia, I was surrounded predominantly by white people. More on that realization soon…

Me there on the left in a picture from a Girl Develop It class that was published in the NY Times in March 2012 which featured GDI as a resource for learning to code.

Fast forward to later that year, I moved to Vermont and decided that I couldn't bear to lose this community of women so I decided to found my own chapter of GDI. I interviewed with the founders of the national non-profit, Vanessa Hurst and Sara Chipps, and after a few months of planning and back and forth I held my first event. It was a huge hit! The community loved what I was doing and soon enough I built a vibrant community of mostly white cis able bodied women who were excited about learning to code. You’ll notice a pattern forming here.

Meanwhile, my frustration with the national organization grew. Leadership changed frequently but the pervading culture was one of dismissive behavior and ever changing policy. I held a personal policy of doing what I felt was best for my community and asking forgiveness later and this is how I navigated my work with them. While my local community continued to grow, I became ever more invested in the national organization in an attempt to help fix it. I lead a working group to write the code of conduct. I advised the board and participated in voting on organizational decisions. I trained new chapter leaders and authored documentation. I applied for grants and organized our participation in tech conferences. I went so far as to interview to become the first executive director before realizing that would take me right off the career path I had been building for myself. I even contracted with the national organization to help hire the first full time employees, and both subsequent hires from this effort were Black women. I was so proud of that fact!

In the midst of all this work, I held a full time job, planned a few conferences, and continued to run my local chapter, Girl Develop It Burlington. I kept myself busy. When I should have been increasingly alarmed at the toxic culture that was growing before my eyes, I just worked harder to make it work for me. In hindsight I now see that this was to the detriment of the marginalized people in the community.

Girl Develop It Burlington’s 1-Year Anniversary, April 2014

Now this is where I could tell you what happened at the national organization, but that is not what I’m here to discuss. You can look here, here, and here to learn about that. What you need to know to understand this story is that a bunch of racist stuff happened and some brave Black women went public to share their stories.

In my initial horror of learning about the racism that pervaded the national organization, my first inclination was to hem and haw about whether or not to participate in the backlash against the (then) executive director of Girl Develop It, Corinne. We had been friends for a few years at that point. I admired her and didn’t want to believe that she had done what she was accused of doing. I also had a hard time coming to terms with whether or not Girl Develop It as an organization was worth saving. What I should have worried about was the the safety and well being of the Black women in our community who were abused, ostracized, harmed, and ignored. I now understand that was an act of white privilege, to be able to waffle back and forth between what I thought was the right thing to do. Meanwhile the Black women in my community had to do what they needed to do to save themselves, which was to recoil from a toxic community and put their lives and livelihood in danger by going public with their stories to save themselves and each other.

In my efforts to increase “diversity” in tech, I contributed heavily to a culture that not only actively harms black women but also alienated many other marginalized groups, including people who are trans and/or non-binary. My privilege and ambition blinded me to the many people we as an organization were excluding and in fact actively harming.

I am proud of my skills as a community organizer but now I realize that there was a thick veil of white supremacy covering my eyes, and I’m still working to remove it. It’s going to be a process. Moving forward it is imperative that I do better. The first thing I need to do is to listen to Black women when they put themselves in danger by telling me about their pain. Every. Time. To ensure that I fight for equality in an industry that pays Black women 89 cents on the dollar compared to white and asian men, that is if they get in the door at all. Only 3.1% of professional developers are Black according to Stack Overflow, but they don’t indicate how much of that percentage are Black women. I need to do the work to uncover my biases, so that when I see toxic behavior as a white woman I consider the fact that what I see is only a fraction of what marginalized people are experiencing.

But that is not enough. Listening to Black women is not enough in our work as White women in turning away from white supremacy. As White people we need to actively seek out ways to alleviate the work of dismantling white supremacy from Black people whenever possible. This means doing your research instead of burdening the Black people in your life. For a deeper understanding of the efforts already underway, I very much recommend you read Feminista Jones’ book, Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets to gain a deeper knowledge about the activism Black Feminists are doing to advance themselves and their communities. Twitter is a great place to follow the work that Black women are doing and makes it easy to amplify their voices whenever possible. KimCrayton1 🏢 💻🎙’s podcast, #causeascene, features vital interviews and discussions about disrupting the status quo in technical organizations, communities, and events. There might even be a #causeascene Conference near you! If you want to build an inclusive tech community in your city, I encourage you to check out We Pivot. They are an organization that seeks to provide opportunities, support, and education to traditionally marginalized populations in the tech industry. Lastly, I suggest you join your local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). SURJ is a national network working to undermine white supremacy through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, moving white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.

The moral of this story is that as a community organizers, it’s on us to do better for our communities. We MUST work harder to ensure we don’t just serve one demographic in our population. Most of all, as White women, we need to ask hard questions, not only of those around us but of ourselves.

Questions like:

  • Are the people attending our events representative of our whole community? What about the leaders and organizers?
  • Are the venues we are using accessible? Do they offer gender neutral restrooms?
  • Are we highlighting our code of conduct to ensure we create a safe space for everyone?

We can’t stop at helping women in tech, because study after study has shown that women in tech initiatives end up helping WHITE women in tech. We need to notice when we are in a room that is filled with only White people and we need to wonder why. We need to reach out into Black communities to see what we can do to help sustain them. And we need to continuously work to make our communities safe places for marginalized people. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I’m going to be honest and admit that I’m still figuring this out. If you have feedback about this article or about how to get this right, I’d love to hear from you!

As for Girl Develop It | GDI, I’ve given up hope that the organization is worth saving. Since signing the open letter to the board on December 7, 2018, this update was shared on the open letter site on May 10, 2019.

The GDI Board and HQ have yet to appropriately respond to this open letter and have demonstrated that salvaging what is left of the brand is the top priority. There is no coming back from almost a year of inaction and refusal to be held accountable for the harm that was caused within the organization. There is no path forward at this point. GDI must come to an end.

I support those in the community who have been harmed by the actions (and inaction) of this organization and moving forward will seek to place my efforts toward supporting communities and organizations that loudly and actively seek to minimize harm.



Mo McElaney

OSS DevRel at @IBM . board @vtTechAlliance . my words don’t represent my employer. (http://pronoun.is/she/:or/they)