First Ever “Lesbians Who Tech” Summit Proves That Nerdy Ladies Get Shit Done

Sexism in the tech industry exists, is a time-suck, is demoralizing, makes no sense and must be dismantled. One of the main messages I received after writing the sexism in tech article was for something more solution-based. How can we respond? And after attending the first Lesbians Who Tech Summit at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, I think this is one of the ways that we can fix this — a way we can respond to the scary misogynistic elephant in the computer lab. The “this” (in this case) is the enhanced visibility of our queer community, and the support of our fellow nerdy lady-gays across racial, socio-economic and generational divides.


What’s In A Name?

I wasn’t apprehensive about the use of the word “lesbian” in Lesbians Who Tech even though I don’t strongly identify with the term. Sure, I’m a lady-loving gal, but I personally am not one to fuss about a label for my own identity. But I know several of the attendees were a bit nervous, wondering if this was the conference for them. It was one of the big things that was talked about when the loveliest nerdlings were talking amongst themselves and to me—what’s with the language? If you look at the website, you’ll notice it’s Lesbians Who Tech, but the tagline is Queer Women in Tech. I asked Leanne Pittsford, founder of Lesbians Who Tech and founder and CEO of Start Somewhere, about why she chose the language she did. “I will never make everyone happy,” she said. “So I just try to use them both equally.” And believe me, whatever language tension was happening here did not curb the sheer diversity of those in attendance: everyone was welcome, I experienced absolutely no identity policing.


The Roster

What moved me over the line from writing about this event as a You Should Go to flying my butt from coast to coast to attend was, of course, the roster of tech rockstars speaking at this event. From Kronda Adair, a freelance WordPress developer to Danielle Feinberg, the Director of Photography — Lighting at Pixar; from Kara Swisher, Co-Executive editor at Re/Code to Megan Smith, Vice President at Google[x]; from Ann Mei Chang, who’s worked for Apple (leading engineering for the initial release of Final Cut Pro), Intuit, SGI and even in the gosh darn Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, as the Senior Advisor for Women and Technology to Danae Ringelmann, the co-founder of Indiegogo (who we really love here at Autostraddle!): there was not one single speaker listed that I was not über-pumped about seeing on stage.


The Sponsors

Unfortunately, we live in a world where corporations are a reality, and tech is a world where corporations play a gigantic role. So when I saw LinkedIn’s table or Chevy’s charging station (smartest thing to do with 800 queer women carting around their screen-machines), I asked a few employees why this is the event they wanted to sponsor. There was a resounding and remarkably similar answer: there is a problem with women in tech. Not just lesbians or queer women, but women in tech. Diversity of opinion. And sponsoring this event isn’t just good for the attendees or the sponsoring corporations—it’s good for everyone in the industry and everyone in general. More minds equals more solutions. This is a way to fix that problem. Corporate attention on queer women as a group with skill that deserves to be recruited is not a bad thing, as iffy as I feel sometimes about corporate structure, taxation or the way we work in America. The basic recognition that we are powerful is certainly not an end to the many problems facing the tech industry, the feminists and the queer community all together—but it is a start.


The Talks

The Summit’s format was kind of like TED Talks (or camp talks, for y’all A-Campers). That a lot of information packed into a ten minute talk. And then multiply that by 13 and there’s no way in hell I can recap all of those. Here are some of my favorites for you with the biggest take-aways from each.

Ann Mei Chang, Former Senior Advisor for Women and Technology, US Deptartment of State. “Women in Tech: A Global Perspective”

Ann Mei Chang got one of the loudest cheers of the day when she pointed out that we celebrate the male warrior who stays up all night to fix a bug and we give no props to the woman who tests and plans ahead so they don’t have to do that. The rest of the day was full of “that’s so true” and “oh my God, I never noticed.” She also pointed out that in Myanmar, 70% of computer science students are women and affirmative action is needed for the men — ya know, because the women outscore the men so hard. They actually have to lower the test score threshold so they’ve got men in the industry at all. If anyone ever again makes a gender essentialist argument about women in STEM fields, this is the statistic I will pull out. Ability directly correlates to environment. And! If that wasn’t enough mind blowing information from Chang, she also had what I think is legit the best idea to fix the “there are no women in tech” problem:

If computer science were required, we wouldn’t have what happened to me when I took HTML in high school — being one of two girls in the classroom. Even though our teacher was a woman, it was still a male-dominated environment that looked extremely intimidating. If we required computer science in high school, that takes away that male-dominated environment all together.

Kronda Adair, Programmer. “My Nerd Epiphany: Doing a Career 180 & Finding A Home in Tech”

Kronda was super approachable and friendly, and she outlined her educational path that lead her to being the freelance programmer she is today. The big take away from her talk: there’s no one path to this. If you want to be a nerdy programmer, find your path and do it up. You can find what is basically the text of her talk on her website (not the whole thing, and with some differences, but you get the idea). Also, purrprogramming:

Leanne Pittsford, Founder of Lesbians Who Tech. “Adventures in Risk Taking: Why Women Need to Take Big Risks.”

I feel like this talk was geared toward women investors (and mostly about taking financial risks), but everyone got something out of it in terms of actually getting up and learning to code/starting a business/making shit happen. This talk was a study of risk and a call to take risks and give what you can to those companies being headed up by fabulous women.

She also gave this downright horrifying statistic:

But as she also said, “there will always be more straight white men in power until there’s not.” This was by far one of the most “call to action” talks of the day.

Danae Ringelmann, Co-founder Indiegogo. “Culture is More Than Ping Pong Tables: How to Build an Intentional Culture”

I loved this talk SO MUCH. Danae’s major point was that no matter what, you’re making culture with every action you take in a company. So you can’t gloss over it—you have to create an intentional culture. And she also mentioned that 47% of Indiegogo campaigns are financed by women, which is what happens when they’re not curating — remove all the usual, sexism-driven obstacles and wham. The women!

Kara Swisher, Founder of re/code. “Lividity”

To be real, Kara Swisher said some problematic things. But I’m just going to take a risk here and say I loved her talk anyway. Like, a lot. Loved it loved it. Every minority group of people can benefit from someone who doesn’t give a flying saucer how they come off, they’re just going to trailblaze and hit hard and learn along the way. And that’s what Swisher’s talk was—it wasn’t a call out, but a call in. A call in for us to radically transform the culture of the technology industry by being loud and not taking no for an answer. And! It was a call in for men in charge to actively network with, engage and hire women instead of just feel bad that there aren’t more women in charge—it produced one of my favorite quotes of the day:

She also used the historic example of roaring women. You’ve got to roar:

Megan Smith, VP at Google[x]. “Heroic Engineering, Network Effects and Debugging Inclusion.”

This keynote tried to cover a TON in a short amount of time. But basically, it had a few points: that everyone has an [x] that they’re passionate about and with the right team that problem can be solved. Also about evenly distributing the future (ie, technology). But mostly, I loved the walk through the intersection of queer history and tech history in her talk about heroic engineering.


The Pitches

Social Good Pitches

Five social good organizations pitched how they were going to use technology to change the world for women, the LGBTQ community and people of color (or all three! Intersectionality!). Those organizations were:

AllOut, Andre Banks, Executive Director
Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, J Bob Alotta, Executive Director
CODE2040, Laura Weidman Powers, Executive Director
Chicana Latina Foundation, Olga Talamante, Executive Director
National Center for Lesbian Rights, Kate Kendell, Executive Director

Now I need to let y’all know that I wasn’t in the room for these pitches because I was prepping for the lunch that the Autostraddle contingent (Alex, Taylor and I) were helping to co-host for queers in the media. But I’ve talked to star A-Camper Lindsey Keefner to verify the details of what was arguably the most magical moment of the weekend.

The way that this pitch-fest worked was that each organization pitched and then voting would take place to see which organization would take home the prize money, the money to make that technology solution happen. Just as they were explaining the voting process, someone in the back stood and started yelling,”Protest! Protest!” Someone passed that person a mic and she explained that every one of the organizations should get the money because they were all doing wonderful things. Then someone in the audience stood and said they would give a thousand. And then another person stood. And another. Until people all over the Castro Theatre were standing and shouting their pledges for large sums of money. Megan Smith ran down the center aisle like a gay lady superhero and said she’d match $25,000 if the attendees at the summit could raise it.

And guess what? It wasn’t just hot air. The Indiegogo campaign, started that day, is already at $29,057 and still going strong. The 50K+ will be split among each of the five organizations that pitched.

This is how we fix problems. It’s moments like this that give me hope for the future of the tech industry.

Entrepreneur Pitch Session

Guess who won the entrepreneur pitch session? That’s right! Robyn Exton and Autostraddle’s new dating-app obsession, Dattch.

There were three other cool apps that pitched as well:


The Overall Verdict?

For a first Summit, I was amazed at how amazing it went — running large-scale events like this is really hard, y’all, especially when they’ve never existed before! And everyone involved with the planning and execution of this event should received a hearty and congratulatory pat on the back because it was fabulous. When I spoke to Leanne Pittsford during the Sunday Brunch after the event had mostly taken place, I actually voiced my surprise that with the sheer amount of speakers they had that the Summit wasn’t a two day event — she said it might well be in the future, who knows! The world is our oyster, nerds!

The number one big request I heard from attendees was for a job fair — so many companies were hiring and represented at the Summit, it would have been extra cool to have them all in one room, recruiting (just in one room, mind you, not recruiting in the Summit at large). But the massive, massive take away from the whole conference is that this is one of the ways we fix this. The crazy surge of support that helps us lift members of our community into better and more positions in the tech industry is one facet of the solution to sexism in tech.

We all know the power of community — it’s why we’re all here, reading this. This is our community. And the Lesbians Who Tech Summit is important because we all know how it feels to be the only queer person in the room. What about the only woman in the room? And the only queer woman in an entire company? That happens. Community is super important for retention — if queer women feel that we’re not alone (and we’re really not alone), we’ll be less likely to peace out and take their incredible brains with them. Visibility on this scale is important to end the bullshit sexism and manufactured obstacles that keep women from, oh, say, getting a board position or succeeding in fundraising or just being taken seriously at a table full of programmers.

The Big Thing I learned at this summit is that the tech industry doesn’t have to look like it does — it doesn’t have to be brogrammer dominated, and it doesn’t have to be hostile to women. We proved that when we solved a social good fundraising problem right there on stage, just us together. We proved it when we listened to each other’s experiences and asked for advice and supported each  other without any of the fictional cattiness that is apparently inherent to our genetic natures. Put enough brilliant queer women in a room together, and we can change the landscape of the industry for the good of all.

I can’t wait for next year’s summit.

Avatar of Ali

Freelance writer and fiction author, Geekery Editor for Autostraddle.com and Fiction Editor for qu.ee/r Magazine. Keep up with her at her website.

Ali has written 263 articles for us.

11 Comments

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    This summit sounds amazing! 2013 saw me make the leap from graphic design to beginning to understand web development and physical computing. My only regret is not starting sooner. I’ll have to check LWT in NYC. Thanks for posting!

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    As a queer lady who works in the tech sector and who does not identify as lesbian, and being of an identity/orientation that mainstream lesbian culture has historically alienated and excluded, the title of the conference is immediately off-putting; I don’t feel like it’s the conference for me. The name really does put up a barrier. The sub-title a concession to inclusivity, but I wish that was front and center.

    Having said that, I’m glad that the conference itself seemed to be inclusive of all identities. The talks sound really amazing and inspiring. Thank you for the summary.

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    It really was a kick ass event.

    I totally agree that the term lesbian can be limiting, and I was put off by it at first. I prefer queer, but I know many people who find triggering since it was used against them for so long.

    Anyway, all kinds of queer, trans, lesbian, and bi humans were there and all seemed to get something out of it.

    So glad I went.

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    It was such a great summit! I was thinking the same thing it really could have been two days at least because unfortunately I missed the morning activities because of work but got to see the pure epicness of the pitches and amazing afternoon keynote but sad I miss the Autostraddle lunch :(. I Can’t wait for next year thou!

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    The Summit was rad for all the reasons listed above but also because we were all able to connect in person. I don’t attend many queer events outside of gay bars, festivals and PRIDE, let alone one that has ambitious queer women sharing their experiences, career advice, and projects they’re passionate about. I spend a ridiculous amount of time online reading about/fawning passively over queer women doing incredible, clever things but I rarely get to engage with them. The Summit reminded me that having an actual space to congregate, share, learn, exchange and get excited for each other, is incredibly valuable.

    Also stoked to see some of the faces behind AS at the media lunch! I kinda felt like a total fangirl when Ari and Alex answered questions!

    Also, it’s pretty damn awesome to walk into a theatre of 800 queer women who are all as equally stoked to be surrounded by so many queers.

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    I sincerely hope that Ann Mei Chang’s talk was recorded and will be put on youtube or something so I can link and highlight that amazing Myanmar statistic!

    (Which I am also wondering if will elicit some responses from male software engineers?)

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    “And the only queer woman in an entire company?” My life. (for a little bit longer anyway)

    I happen to know I’m making 60% the salary of my male co-workers, despite having worked there longer. Is it my gender? My age? My orientation (in a highly heteronormative corporation)? It’s certainly not my skill-level.

    These events are so important. It’s frustrating when our customers see me and assume I’m just my co-worker’s girlfriend. Nope— you actually hired me.

    Definitely going to make a point to attend the next LWT Summit. I’d love to see some expansion in terms of reaching out to young girls to build interest and raise awareness. A job fair is a fantastic idea and that roster of speakers must have been amazing. Were any of the talks recorded for the internet?

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    Finally got around to reading this wrap-up. This event sounds so amazing! My only other regret (besides not attending, of course) is that I didn’t follow Ali on Twitter earlier to catch the live-tweeting. #missedout

    I’m absolutely floored by the story, support and pledging for the Indiegogo campaign. What a rare community it is that from the start, lives up to its promises and takes care of its own.

    Up until this week, I was the only openly queer woman at my tech company. And yes, it has felt very lonely for a long time. I am not a developer, but I do work closely with them every day, and although they’re decent folks, it’s alienating being surrounded by the mostly white, heteri, cis, male perspective and presence.

    Agree that culture is more than ping pong tables… though I do adore the ones at our office! :)

    I follow mostly the going ons of white women in tech calling out sexism. I think it’s crucial to throw race and queerness (and whatever else I’ve missed) into the mix as well to cover the rest of us. Thank you for writing this thorough and excellent piece, and please keep posting on this increasingly important topic!

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