If Every Tech Conference Were Like Lesbians Who Tech, Tech Would Be A Much Better Place
Hula hoops and good hair at the most diverse conference in tech.
It took exactly 26 seconds from the time the lights dimmed for the organizers of this weekend's Lesbians Who Tech summit to stake out their ambitions, in three-foot-tall bold type: "BRACE YOURSELF," the projector screen read, as the early strains of "Trumpets," Jason Derulo's top-forty paean to the female form, blared. "THIS IS NOT YOUR TYPICAL TECH CONFERENCE. Not a lot of this"—here, the screen cut to a series of shots of white tech dudes in various poses of white tech dudeness, before showing us what we were in for, namely "great hair," "hula hoop contests," "lesbians who look like Bieber," "high-fives," "geeking out," and "more hugs than business cards."
Also: "very long restroom lines." Fair enough.
Of course, every tech conference claims to be different and novel and #disruptive in some way, often with the aid of A/V bells and whistles. But LWT is genuinely different, if for no other reason than the makeup of its attendees. One of the most insidious things about the overwhelming maleness and straightness of tech is how unremarkable it becomes after awhile, and how revolutionary it feels when an event like this actually manages to pass the Bechdel test. Here were 1,200 women, nearly all of them queer tech workers, gathered here in the Castro, the heart of San Francisco's gay life, for three days of workshops, lectures, and lunches (representative titles: "Breaking the Bro Code," "Why Ida B. Wells Is My Favorite Data Scientist," the delightfully promissory "Meet Tech Power Lesbians). Plus happy hours and bike rides and keynotes from the likes of Re/code co-editor Kara Swisher, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. Organized by Leanne Pittsford, a social-enterprise CEO, and sponsored by a slew of heavies including Facebook, Etsy, and Google, the conference is now in its second year after a series of local meetups. Pittsford now runs the Lesbians Who Tech organization full-time; already, she has planned a media- and finance-focused spinoff summit in New York and grown the attendance of the summit by 50 percent.
"Lesbians who Tech came out of, basically, I was going to a lot of tech events," Pittsford explained to me over the phone a few days after the conference ended, "and it would be 70 to 90 percent men. And queer women? I would be lucky if I found one." So she decided to bring them together herself.
She succeeded, hugely so—as one of the emcees joked, "when was the last time you saw this many lesbians in one place that didn't involve a pool or a bar?"
At the Thursday-night kickoff happy hour, held at an aggressively neon-lit Castro nightclub called Beaux, a fiftysomething startup founder from Montana and a transgender mechanical engineer talked about Bay Area real estate; a few feet away, a babyfaced engineer fresh out of college explained her startup to a small but rapt audience. Cocktails were two-for-one, which meant a lot of double-fisting and a lot of giving away drinks to strangers. Everyone accepted.
"I'm not sure if this is a pickup event or a networking event, but either way, it's great" said one woman, a user-interface designer at one of the Valley's big-name companies.
"Honestly, I'm just happy this is the first networking event where I haven't been called 'sweetie' or 'honey,' or been hit on constantly," said another.
And, yes: Whatever the opposite of brogrammers and booth babes and Titstare is, this was it, earnest and goofy and a bit touchy-feely and very often strange, at least in the cognitively dissonant, does-not-compute manner of any very, very uncommon sight. Lesbians who Tech is perhaps the only tech conference on the face of the planet where the odd man sneaking into the back of a breakout session provokes actual head-turning, or where a panel on entrepreneurship is composed of three queer women of color, seemingly by accident.
At Friday's sessions, opening icebreakers included questions about celebrity crushes and when speakers knew they were gay; topics of discussion included both standard tech-conference inspirationalia about venture capital and user experience and "building products for people and profits," as well as queer-specific details like domestic partner benefits and coming out at work. There were lots of hugs, lots of compliments, lots of jokes, and lots of blazers. Most commonly used words: "hack," "diversity," "ladies." Most popular item of swag: A rainbow-printed LinkedIn T-shirt. Most representative overheard: "I would never date a woman who has an Android."
In the Friday-night keynote interview, right before—yes—a hula-hooping contest, Benioff described a "a crisis of prioritization" in Silicon Valley. "It's more than just women 'leaning in," he said. "Get back to the leaders and say 'you have to do this. You have to raise women up.'" Since Lesbians Who Tech was founded in late 2012, diversity in tech has gone from a little-discussed shame to an abstraction to a moral and public-relations imperative, and companies like Benioff's are genuinely looking to hire a heterogeneous pool of employees. For lesbians specifically, this raising-up process can be complicated and not always complete: Silicon Valley's prevailing socially liberal values may prevent outright homophobia, but it doesn't exactly guarantee entry into the boys' club. "Sometimes, it's much easier to be one of the guys than it is to be a queer woman," Pittsford said. "But just because you get invited to the baseball game doesn't mean you're on par with men in terms of pay equity."
Or as Dom DeGuzman, a software engineer at Twilio who took the speaker stage on Friday in bright red lipstick and a suit, said, "It is much easier for me to be one of the guys than to be recognized as a queer woman. I've spent a lot of times sitting in windowless IT rooms surrounded by farts and dick jokes and locker-room humor." It wasn't so long ago that Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced to step down after word broke that he'd donated $1,000 to California's Prop 8. In Silicon Valley,women make just 49 cents to every dollar men make—an inequity that's magnified in households with two women. Even Benioff's Salesforce, a marquee sponsor and a company generally (and rightfully!) considered to be one of the good guys, reports fairly depressing diversity numbers.
The gold-medal, home-run quote of the weekend, the one that was repeated on Twitter and in conversation the most often, came from Aliya Rahman, a coder-turned-community organizer based in DC in a speech on Friday. "One of the best ways to hire women and people of color is to hire them."
The good news is, they're right here, standing in a very long bathroom line.