From TechWoman to TechEnbie - the impact of being non-binary in a binary world

Cal Brown
Lead Security Storyteller
Automatic Summary

Breaking Tech Barriers: My Journey as a Non-Binary Individual in Cybersecurity

Hello, my name is K, a non-binary individual currently working in the cybersecurity industry in the UK. In the tech world, I've held various roles, such as a network director and software developer, and even had a stint working on fibre optics for my PhD degree. Over the years, I've faced many challenges and learned many valuable lessons, key among them being the importance of breaking down gender stereotypes in the tech world. Here, I’ll share my personal journey and perspectives on inclusion and diversity in the tech industry.

My Tech Journey: Navigating As a Non-Binary Individual

My journey through technology has been similar to that of many tech women, vehemently encouraged to explore STEM subjects and enter the engineering realm. This advice came 35 years ago, with promises of a tech industry soon to boast a gender ratio of 50:50. However, despite slight improvements over the years, the tech industry today remains disproportionately male.

Starting the Conversation on Inclusion and Diversity

Over the years, I have come to identify as a non-binary individual, essentially meaning I do not identify as either male or female. This realization was a long time coming, and it wasn't something I felt comfortable voicing in the rather polarized culture I grew up in.

A frequently asked question is, “What is being non-binary?” The formal definition cites non-binary as having a gender identity that does not conform to traditional binary beliefs about gender, i.e., that you're either male or female.

It's important to remember that being non-binary is not necessarily a step toward transitioning to another gender. For many, including myself, being non-binary is not a transitory state but a definitive identity in and of itself. Some common misconceptions include the assumption that an increase in the non-binary population is a passing trend or 'woke nonsense.' This couldn’t be further from the truth; there have always been non-binary individuals throughout history.

The Importance of Inclusive Language

In today's digital world, more individuals are confident in exploring their gender identity, with an increasing number saying they're not comfortable with the gender binary. This rise in visibility poses a challenge to tech communities in figuring out how to include those who might not be part of dominant groups in tech.

Let's start with inclusive language. Simple gestures like acknowledging preferred pronouns and using gender-neutral language can go a long way. Moreover, standing up against transphobic views in public forums plays a key role in creating safer spaces.

Beyond this, consider the companies and products you invest in and avoid supporting those which fund transphobia. And remember, it's about taking steps at your own pace, assessing the bandwidth you have in your journey to being an ally.

Moving Forward: How Can Tech Communities Do Better?

The tech community needs to reflect on how intersectional they want to be. The challenges faced by tech women are shared by other marginalized groups as well. The question we need to ask ourselves is, "what are we here for?" Are we aiming only to support women, or do we extend our support to those who are non-binary and face similar challenges? A simple acknowledgment in support of non-binary individuals is a start, albeit a small one, but every bit counts on this journey towards inclusivity.


The strides towards inclusivity might seem daunting, but remember, every step taken is a move in the right direction. We need to continue carving out inclusive spaces in the tech world, enabling individuals to explore their identity freely and openly. So let's keep the conversation going because the more we talk about it, the less alien it becomes. Let's be the change we wish to see – in the tech industry and beyond.

“Be brave as often as you can but be gentle with ourselves when we can’t be and finding ourselves a non-binary community that we can go back into when we need that support and understand us properly.”

Video Transcription

Um start by introducing myself. Um So my name is K. Um I live and work in the UK. I work in cybersecurity at the moment. Um I've done a lot of different roles in technology over the years. I've been a, a networks director, a software developer.I've done a phd in fiber optics which involved working down in a lab. Um I'm unquestionably AAA techie person. Um I've got two Children. Um and I am non-binary, which is partly the point of this talk that I don't identify as either male or female. This is something that I had recognized at some level for a long time. But because certainly the, the culture that I grew up in is very polarized. It wasn't something that I ever felt comfortable voicing. Um So I can, I did my, my route through tech has been very similar to that of many tech women. I was heartily encouraged to take stem subjects at uh at school, I was encouraged to go into engineering. This was 35 years ago and I was told, you know, within 1020 years, the the ratios will be 5050 male, female. It'll be amazing but go now and it, it, it strike a blow for women. Um I'm not seeing that there's any particular difference in the ratios of, of men to women and technology to what there were 35 years ago. But perhaps I made a difference, we're starting to see a bit more diversity.

But um one of the things that I think we need to talk about as a community or as the tech women community, which I still to some extent feel part of. And certainly my local tech women have been super supportive of, of me saying actually I'm not a woman, I'm non-binary is that we need to think how we want to include people who are not part of the obvious big visible minority, the oppressed majority. So I, I don't have any answers on this. I've just got more questions, which is why I, I want, I want the debate to begin. I don't think it's an easy thing to answer. But by starting the debate, we can, we can hopefully move it forward. It's one of the things I get asked quite often. Um What, what is being non binary? There's a, there's a formal definition um having a gender identity that does not conform to traditional binary beliefs about gender ie that you're either male or you are a female, you cannot be one or the other. Um Your, your gender identity is different to any biology that you have from a in in when my doctor needs to know what plumbing I have for the necessary appropriate plumbing. Um I'm happy to discuss the, uh, the biology that I possess my doctor.

But for practical day to day working, there is no reason why I cannot have the, um, the gender identity which I see. Um I am very confident that I'm neither male nor female assumptions that, you know, it's a step on the way to, to transitioning. It's not for me and for the people I know who identifies as non binary, they are for some people, for sure, it's a step towards transitioning between genders completely and assuming an entire different binary gender identity. But for a lot of the, the, the enemies that I know to be non-binary is, is way, well, it's, it's your thing in and of itself. Uh I don't feel particularly male, I don't feel particularly female. I made dresses either. I made dresses neither. Although our culture is very much either you are dressed female or by default, you're male, which is a bit exhausting sometimes. But there we go. Another thing that I get asked fairly often is, um why suddenly do we have so many non-binary people kicking around? You know, is this, this is this just a trend is just a fashion. It's all woke nonsense. My hair b um and there have been throughout recorded history. There have been people who have presented one way and acted another. It's So the, the, and, and there are cultures that have a tradition of a third gender which, which balances masculinity and femininity. So to refute the, is this suddenly just a thing? Is it just a fashion? Is it a trend?

I I would offer the pharaoh had shepherd from 1479 BC when their rain began, they were um the recorded views of, of them or that they are female in shape. They, they possess some of the female biological characteristics, all of their pronouncements or written text about them describes them as male or as generalists, they balanced masculinity and femininity. There are in, for example, the the Polynesian cultures um the concept of mau um my third gender.

Uh there's a still I've shown from a film about, you know, Le Moana Won Kalu. No Maa for short, who is a mau. Uh their stories is very powerful but very modern, but that is a culture which has extended for thousands of years. Um There is also the, the hijra of South Asia again, uh for gender which balances masculinity and femininity. It's nothing new. Why are so many Western cultures suddenly feeling able to say this partly it's the rise of the internet. You know, the the internet is responsible for a great many things both good and bad, but for not feeling isolated for being able to talk to people outside of your own local area. It's been tremendously powerful for those of us who are not conforming in some way to standard. I've been able to find words for how I feel and I've had the confidence that, you know, how I feel is as valid as how other people feel and that I can start talking about it. And I think it's really important that we talk about it more because with each generation, it's becoming more common for, for people to say I'm not comfortable with gender binary.

One of the reasons that that the tech women communities need to start engaging with this is that increasingly the people who we are reaching out to and working with are going to have the genders as well as male or female. And we need to be thinking how we are going to deal with that. So if we're looking at what individuals can do, there's, there's different things. If you, if if you feel that you want to, to engage, to help support, I'm going to talk about what individuals can do and then what the the the tech women community can do. So and there are different levels of engagement because the first thing you have to do is consider how much bandwidth you have. Uh But we cannot fight all battles simultaneously. I can be indignant and recognize the injustice of things that are happening to people in other spaces without having the ee enough bandwidth to, to support them vigorously as well as supporting my own agenda, which is clearly the non binding one. So first of all consider how, how much bandwidth you have for helping and being in our line. There are very simple things you can do.

The very the most basic one is to recognize that if somebody is saying I am not male or female, I am gender neutral, then please use gender neutral pronouns. They will have pronouns that they prefer. Yes, it's difficult because it doesn't flow naturally or it's not as hard as it feels. But yes, it does take a change of thinking and that's something that's, that's a courtesy that any human who asks you to, to, to talk to them in a particular way. I think that's the basic human courtesy. If you want to go that little step further, then if you're in any sort of public forum, any sort of meeting place anywhere where there are, there are people talking and someone expresses transphobic views or, or views which are opposed to non-binary people. And if you feel brave and if you feel safe and confident enough to speak out, say, look at the basics, you know, this is not cool, this is not how we respect other people. It's not up to you to change the mind of the person speaking. What you're actually doing is making it clear to everybody else who's listening because there'll be one speaker, but lots of listeners, you're taking a stand on the other side of that point and the listeners will hear and recognize that.

And in any reasonable size public forum, at least one of those listeners will be so grateful that you have stood up for them when they didn't feel safe to themselves. And several others will know people who are trans in one binary and they too will be grateful that you've spoken up. You may find that other people speak up alongside you. But what's most important is that people who are, are saying things which are transphobic, who are opposed to other people expressing their own gender identity, people who are behaving like that need to recognize that this is wrong, that this is not acceptable. And so a good next step beyond recognizing an individual's pronouns and personal choice is to stand up for them, whether they are present or not present, whether they feel confident to stand up themselves or not. The next thing you can do and this gets increasingly more challenging.

Um do your research on who you buy from way buy, what products, what films, what stories you endorse don't give trans to money. This is harder for a lot of people. It's, it's, it means investigating a little behind the companies you invest in the the books, you buy the films, you watch the music you listen to just to check, you know, all these people, although you know, they may make great products. But are they using that money to fund trans phobia? And if they are. Do you want to be giving them the validity that they get? There? There are own transphobes who say, well, I'm clearly right because people keep giving me money and the fact that people are giving them money to the product that they're creating rather than their views, they basically is, is irrelevant. So, but as I say, these are increasing steps and there are things beyond this beyond this that people can do as individuals to help and support people who are on non binary, who are exploring their gender identity. And I'd be happy to talk about that in the, in the questions. But these are the first three steps that any, any ally can consider taking. But my talk was really about um what can we as a as a community do?

Um And the first is to think about inclusive language. I am going to be the first to say that calling this not C White Men Tech rather than um women Tech is the most lousy title I can think of. Um I don't think anybody wants to be defined by being not something. I also think it's a hell of a mouthful. Um And it doesn't summarize what we're for. Um Women Tech is very good title. Um All of the, all of the tech, women, women in tech, whatever it is, they're all good, clear things that stand up and say this is primarily what we're about what the community needs to think about is how intersectional they want to be. And by intersectional, I mean, a lot of the challenges that, that women face in technology are shared by other um low power groups in our culture. So people of color, people of different races, ethnicities, people of different religions, people with, with physical and mental handicaps, um people of different class even. Um I'm, I'm not sure around where you're from but in the UK, there is still quite a prevalent class structure that means that I with my reasonably middle class accent, get on much better than people with working class accents.

So there are all sorts of ways in which the, the communities which are not part of the ruling. They, I'm trying to find words which are polite to it because I, I love my husband's a to say white man. Um But there are a lot of people who are not part of the, the obvious hegemony uh who need the same, same sort of support as, as women. And really, and this is why I have a picture of the universe. The question is to the, the, the tech women community. Why are we here? What are we trying to achieve here? Are we simply focused on people who identify as women? And then can we double check that we are recognizing people who identify women as women? We're not starting to gatekeep. Are you a woman or not? That's the first step. And then is there a way to um oh I'm sorry about the microphone. I've just seen the messages pop up. Um It's, it's the best I can do with this microphone. I'm afraid. Um The whereas, so the, the, the, the final question is why are we here? Why are we here as a community? How do we want to support people? And then just as a note, you know, it's something that even if there's just like a little note in the small print to say that tech women recognize people who are non binary and who may experience a lot of the same challenges as tech women as part of their community.

Just stick it in the small print. It's a start and it might be all that's needed. So I deliberately timed this to be 15 minutes. So we had a bit of time for questions at the end. Uh There's a question which I always get asked, which I'm happy to roll with because I prepared a slide. Um But are there any other, I, I can see questions coming in, in the chat or comments coming in in the, in the chat and, and thank you for that. Um I'd be happy to talk about more, more inc inclusivity. But are there any specific questions or shall I roll with the thing I was gonna have? So I always get asked, do we really have to use them? Them? Isn't part of the then means plural in English. Um, and actually before I, before I tackled that I want to talk about something that happened to me. We had a bank holiday a couple of weekends back in the UK. And I went all the way across the country on the train to Port Maddock. Um, I got to Port Maddock and I realized I'd left my wallet on the train, which was like almost a bigger disaster as if I'd left my phone on the train.

Um, and I called the, I called the station and they told me there that someone had found it and they dropped it off for me. Um, uh, they not left a name or anything. So I couldn't thank them. I couldn't leave them a note or say, oh, thank you. Um, but I was so grateful to them and I told all of that story and it sounded perfectly natural about somebody in a singular person whose gender. I didn't know. And if you think about that for a moment, it's really, um, it can be really powerful. Yeah, being one of the boys can be beneficial, but that means that I have to pretend to be a man all the time and it feels like lying. How do we manage a situation of coming from a non binary community? And how can we face it? We try when we can, I can see a raised hand as well. Um I will answer Kavita S question first. And then Oh yes, sorry, I can see it. Thank you. Yeah, so a lot of the time I'm educating people which is hard work. Um I am in a company which is super supportive of, of my gender identity. Um I cannot be appreciative enough for how much support I get from the majority of my company on this, I think. Yeah, two minutes left.

Um I think for each of us who comes from non-binary community, it's a question again of how much bandwidth we have to both carve out the space that we need in the world and to carve a bit of extra space. So that siblings who would like to, to say yes, me too. Um Feel that they've got safe spaces and I think managing that bandwidth every day is something that you have to do. But for those of us who are to some extent first in this race at the moment, I think where possible we should be doing things like I'm doing. The reason that I'm I'm giving this talk now is, is to try and forward the debate. I think a lot of people in the world are very open, very relaxed about the idea of somebody being non-binary. Once they've got over the pronouns, they're pretty good about it and it makes life a lot easier and a lot more comfortable for us. So being brave, I think is how we manage and brave as often as we can but being gentle with ourselves when we can't be and finding ourselves a non-binary community that we can go back into when we need that support and we need to be with people who understand us properly right to the end of my time.

Thank you all for listening. If you want to get in touch privately, that's absolutely fine. Um I'm on linkedin, I'm Cal Brown on linkedin. Thank you. Goodbye.