How I Made It

Melody Ma, City, Culture & Technology Advocate

Vancouver-based Melody Ma is a tech worker by day and advocate by night, running campaigns to raise awareness on civic issues. Here, she tells FLARE how she made it

Melody Ma; @MelodyMa

 How do you describe your job to your family?

I’m a tech worker in product marketing and web development. I am also a city, culture and technology advocate  who runs campaigns on civic issues in Vancouver and B.C., from raising awareness of the practice of artwashing by real estate development companies to bringing coding education into grade schools in B.C. Currently, I run a campaign called #SaveChinatownYVR that aims to inform and activate citizens to take action for Vancouver’s Chinatown, an important historic cultural neighbourhood to me personally and nationally that is undergoing rapid gentrification and cultural erasure. I also run another campaign called Save Our Skyline YVR to prevent Vancouver’s city council from privatizing the city’s protected iconic public mountain views by selling them off to real estate developers.

What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever done solely for money?

I spent a few summers capturing fish on an island, feeding and then dissecting them, so that their DNA can be analyzed to uncover how evolution works. It was a volunteer gig, but it was pretty “weird.”

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

In terms of my advocacy work, my first “big break” was publishing an op-ed in a national newspaper. This was part of an advocacy campaign I started to pressure the premier and the provincial government of B.C. to commit funding to their political announcement of increasing computer science education in grade school. Getting that op-ed published increased my confidence that my opinion, experience and expertise mattered. Since then, I’ve spoken out, created multiple advocacy campaigns and written many more op-eds on various issues.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

If you’re constantly complaining about something in your job, volunteer work or side gig—even if you’re very passionate about what you’re doing—it’s probably time to re-evaluate whether it’s the right environment for you.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

That publishing an op-ed criticizing the premier of my province as a private citizen would lead to professional consequences later on. In reality, the op-ed pushed my advocacy campaign forward by pressuring the government to make a significant investment in grade-school coding education. It also helped establish my voice as a credible advocate.

When you’re feeling low about your work, what’s the one thing you always do/watch/read/listen to bring yourself back up again?

I consume art—whether it’s going a gallery, attending a performance, or even browsing Instagram.

Who is your favourite person to follow on social media from your industry? What do you love about their social feeds?

I’m currently excited about following Arlan Hamilton, a fierce Black gay woman who bootstrapped a tech venture capital fund called Backstage Capital to invest in startups led by underrepresented founders. It’s a powerful example of an initiative that is increasing equity in tech. I’ve only started following her, but I’m excited about hearing from someone who is at the intersection of social equity and tech.

How would you describe your industry in terms of representation and inclusivity?

The tech industry does very poorly in terms of representation and inclusivity, especially for women and people of colour in leadership positions and technical teams. However, many in the private, public and non-profit sectors are aware of the issue and are making steps toward changing the status quo. In fact, I was a beneficiary of one of those initiatives as I got my first taste of coding through a Canadian non-profit called Ladies Learning Code (a.k.a. Canada Learning Code), which creates safe environments for women to try coding for the first time. Governments around the world are also starting to invest into computer science education earlier on in the education journey with initiatives targeted for girls and other underrepresented populations. Despite the recent uptake in “diversity and inclusivity” initiatives, the tech industry still has a long way to go.

As for my advocacy work, I’ve encountered many situations where ourown government, the City of Vancouver, was failing to be inclusive or equitable towards the people they supposedly serve. In public hearings, after accounting for translation, non-English speakers get half the amount of time to speak to the mayor and council compared to English-only speakers. In Chinatown where there are high numbers of monolingual Chinese seniors, notices for development applications are distributed only in English. When over 200 Chinese Canadians and people of colour—young and old—spoke at a public hearing to protest against a controversial development project in Chinatown, we were characterized as a “mob” by city councillors. These are only a few of many examples that illustrate that systemic inequities persist within government.

What’s the most pressing issue facing women in your industry right now? What would fix it?

Here’s a story that illustrates issues facing women in tech: When I was hosting public coding workshops in libraries, in any given class, out of the few dozen kids who attended, a large majority were boys. We knew that the kids weren’t the ones registering themselves for the courses as they were too young, so girls weren’t self-selecting themselves out of the workshop opportunities. In fact, their parents were the ones who opted their girls out at a very early age. If adults are already denying girls the opportunity to try coding early on, what other opportunities are they steered away from as they develop?

Tech has a long way to go in terms of creating inclusive and equitable work environments, and developing equitable products for women. When I started web development, I was the only woman in my immediate software development team. When I attend industry functions, I am usually one of the few women in a sea of men. Most leadership and gatekeepers in the tech industry are men. Further, without gender diversity in teams that actually define and build the tech, gender biases start to percolate through the products and services themselves. For example, did you know that the emoji for “Information help desk person” only has a female version? It shows how implicit biases are built into the technology we use daily.

Ultimately, it starts with each of us breaking down gender biases within individuals and institutions, and supporting other women around us to be successful.

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