Celebrating Pride at Automattic: “Living My Life Freely and Authentically”

Throughout June, we’re exploring identity, diversity in tech and the workplace, and what it means to participate in Pride Month. Meet Mel Choyce-Dwan, a product designer who works on the Automattic theme team. She talks about her journey as a designer, inclusive design, and how she got involved with the WordPress community.

How do you identify?

The easiest and broadest identification I’ve landed on is “queer.” Every time I try to get more specific than that, nothing quite fits. Queer is like a warm, cozy sweater that always fits nice and loose. It encompasses my sexuality and gender in one nice package. The next closest label that feels comfortable is “soft butch.” I’m masculine-of-center, but “butch” on its own seems too aspirational — something I’m not cool or tough enough to take on. Soft butch is a nice compromise.

How did you first get involved with WordPress?

I first learned about WordPress while working as a contract web designer for local agencies about 12 years ago. I’d used WordPress a couple times in college, and started to build my skills as a designer and front-end developer. 

Around that time, organizers for WordCamp NYC were looking for volunteer designers to help create graphics. I got in touch and collaborated with a few designers on that year’s WordCamp branding, which was used across the website and on swag. It was amazing to see it everywhere at WordCamp NYC that year. Though I didn’t get “props” for this, I still consider it my first contribution to WordPress.

I left with a desire to get more involved. I browsed through WordPress.org, I joined a couple of the core channels on IRC — including the design channel (#wordpress-ui) — and slowly started chiming in and volunteering for design tasks for the WordPress community. 

Later, at WordCamp Philly in 2012, I got a chance to commit code into WordPress core, working on a CSS issue. After creating my first patch, contributing to WordPress became easier and easier. My confidence grew, and I spent more time participating in IRC, P2s, and Trac discussions.

What attracted you to Automattic and what made you apply?

I’d had my eye on Automattic for most of my time contributing to WordPress. A couple of the designers I worked with in the community were Automatticians, and it was an absolute joy to collaborate with them. At this point I’d spent so much of my career as either a lone designer or in a competitive environment that having a supportive, collaborative group of people helping me improve my work was a revelation.

So really, why did I want to work at Automattic? The people.

What are some of your observations on events in tech and design, through the lens of diversity?

I have a distinct memory of being absolutely thrilled there was a line for the women’s bathroom at my first An Event Apart conference. Still, I find that events in the industry trend toward white men, and moreso, white men and straight white women. Every time I see someone who looks vaguely queer at a tech event, I get really excited.

A lot of the local diversity-focused events I’ve attended include mostly centered straight women of particular backgrounds, and I always feel a little bit othered. I hear a lot of comments of the “let’s go, ladies!” variety, which makes me personally uncomfortable. 

But it’s not like there are a ton of queer spaces in tech. That’s why I love attending Lesbians Who Tech — it’s the only tech conference where I regularly feel like I fit in. The feeling of loneliness goes away for a little bit when I’m there.

Can you talk more about inclusion in design in practical terms?

If we’re looking at something like gender or sexuality, inclusion might look like:

  • Using a mix of pronouns in your copy, instead of defaulting to “he,” or trying to exclude gender entirely;
  • Representing a variety of gender expressions within your imagery;
  • When you need to collect gendered data, allowing people to write in their own genders and pronouns, and then allowing people to change their information in the future;
  • And not making assumptions around what a person might do with your product based on their gender.

Similar ideas apply for race and ethnicity, disabilities, and different neurotypes. Show a lot of different kinds of people in your writing and your imagery, and don’t make assumptions. Talk to people from the communities you’re representing if you can, or read about their own experiences from their perspectives. Don’t assume you know better than someone else’s lived experience. When in doubt, talk to people.

And don’t just talk to people about how your product should work, talk about how it shouldn’t work. Talk about how people think others could hurt them using your product. People of marginalized identities often have stories of being harassed, stalked, or abused on the web. We need to think about how our products can be used for harm before — not after — the harassment.

Is there a specific issue that you want to build awareness around and share with readers?

Trans folk, especially Black transgender women, are subject to incredibly high levels of homelessness, unemployment, and violence. Their lives matter, and they can’t be left behind in the fight for racial justice.

To help support Black transgender folk, here are some funds you can donate to:

What does celebrating Pride Month look like to you?

Living my life freely and authentically. Saying “eff you” to the status quo. Also probably rewatching She-Ra a hundred times since I can’t celebrate with people in person!

Interested in the work Mel does? Apply to be a Senior Product DesignerYou can also read our interviews with Human Resources Wrangler Gina Gowins and Jetpack Developer Echo Gregor.

June 15, 2020Diversity, Identity, Interviews, LGBTQ, Work, ,