Lesbians Who Tech Makes History In So Many Ways, Every Time

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feature image: Danielle Feinberg during her talk on what happens when you add art to code, from her perspective at Pixar. By Amy Mayes photography.

Okay, so the amount of coverage of the Lesbians Who Tech Summit on this website may signal to you my feelings about Lesbians Who Tech, a community of queer women and non-binary folks in and around the tech industry founded, organized and mobilized by Leanne Pittsford. But I feel like, even in the amount of times we’ve gushed about it, questioned it, been there for its new iterations, we collectively still haven’t done a great job of expressing why such a summit is so damn important.

I was sitting in the auditorium of NYU Law School listening to Aliyah Rahman‘s talk entitled “Desegregation in the Age of ‘Innovation;’ Getting Past New Ideas in Social Justice Tech.” In the middle of her slideshow, she pressed the remote and a slide came up that read, in big block letters, “Black Trans Lives Matter.” She stood in the middle of the stage, in her impossibly chic and tall high heels and said, “this. Because this.” Everyone whooped and cheered. At a tech conference, this happened.

When people think of the technology industry, we think of brogrammers, of the absurdly low numbers of women, of Google buses. We often think of social justice and technology being diametric opposites; for example, GamerGate. A tech conference isn’t where we would think of this talk being given. But it did. This happened.

The talk immediately following was a little more of what we would think of when we think of technology conferences: Stephenie Landry, General Manager at Amazon and creator of PrimeNow, presented on “How To Build Things Fast.” Now in general, Amazon scares the bananas out of me. But Landry herself was a badass and her presentation was captivating—only 111 days lapsed between the conception of and execution of PrimeNow. She asked everyone to begin every process by writing an imaginary press release for the launch of the product you’d like to create. It clarifies your goals, let’s you know what’s important to you, and gives you some ideas for execution of an idea that seems impossible to start with. The talk also included a moment where she acknowledged that she came at tech from a different direction than Aliyah Rahman, but that regardless of your goal and your resources, a lot of these ideas can be applied just the same. She recounted to us that she told her to write a press release for a world without jails. She asked her what would that world look like, what are the important moving parts, what would people be excited about.

That’s one of many history-making parts of lesbians who tech: it brings these two speakers together, one after another, and it brings the communities that would listen to each speaker individually to the same space, where they’ll listen to the other. Lesbians Who Tech is amazing at acknowledging the vast scope of the tech world—technology is involved in almost every part of our lives now. And specifically with the lesbian and queer communities, our physical spaces disappear and we’re congregating more and more in digital communities (look, you’re reading this right now on a digital queer community space). The possibility to become hermetically sealed off from one another is great—we filter everything now. News we don’t want to hear, people that are doing vastly different things from what we’re doing. Separatism, and not the good kind, is so possible in the vast Wild West that is the internet. Lesbians Who Tech has successfully attracted many facets of the community to a place where our ideas and resources can help each other. Hell, I met someone who couldn’t understand why the younger generation would call themselves ‘queer.’ In the same space, teenager Humaira Syed pitched for an organization geared toward introducing queer youth to technology That’s how good Lesbians Who Tech is at uniting people—likely I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet these brilliant people in other parts of my life.

Speaking of resources, the lounge at each Summit is filled with tech companies who are hiring. I say this for two reasons: if you need a job, these companies specifically are hiring Lesbians Who Tech. That’s the first reason—the second reason is that I need to tell you that, though it is history-making to center lesbians, queer women and non-binary folks in a tech hiring process, no space is perfect. One of the reps from one of these companies mentioned to a friend that they knew not only lesbians and queer attended the conference, that they were hoping for some “normal” hires too. Thankfully, this friend didn’t tell me who said this—this poor rep would have received some words from me.

The last history-making part of Lesbians Who Tech I’m going to talk about (and there are many more—I’m omitting so many amazing speakers, amazing interactions, in the interest of time. Gosh, you should just all go to Lesbians Who Tech events to see what I mean) is CTO of the United States Megan Smith‘s interview with Edie Windsor (plaintiff in the Supreme Court DOMA case) and Robbie Kaplan, her lawyer. They talked about the DOMA case some, but what we all really wanted to hear was about Windsor’s time with IBM. Edie Windsor achieved the highest level technical position at IBM in her day. She said two things that stuck out to me—first, that she doesn’t like when people call her ‘one of the first’ women working in this technological field. She reminded us that there were a ton of women back when she worked at IBM. The disparity actually wasn’t the same the same at that time. And the second thing was:

The reason these two things are still rattling around in my brain is because the problem of women not being present in the technology industry wasn’t always the case. According to an article on NPR’s Planet Money:

A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising.

What happened?

We spent the past few weeks trying to answer this question, and there’s no clear, single answer.

But here’s a good starting place: The share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers.

These early personal computers weren’t much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys.

And that drop off of women led to a further drop off of women because women were no longer around to stick up for each other, to understand the experience of being in a male dominated field, and to make sure that women got promoted. This is a man-made problem (gender intended in that cliché). One of our current cultural icons witnessed it for herself and talked to us about it.

The real history-making part of Lesbians Who Tech, the underlying idea that makes all the other history-making moments, is that the disruptive nature of the technology industry can be applied our community, can be used to unmake oppressive structures, to unmake man-made problems. Technology is an inevitable part of our world, but our world is anything but inevitable. We get to control how things are done, what things are made and how our community moves itself into this increasingly technology-oriented age. Leanne Pittsford made some announcements about the future of Lesbians Who Tech—a mentorship program is in the works, for instance, to combat the very thing that Edie Windsor’s stories embodied about the state of lesbians in the tech sector. And as a part of that, the most important thing we can do for our community is to show up. Show up and hear people you wouldn’t necessarily agree with, show up to support people when they ask for help, show up to cheer when lesbians, queers and non-binary folks are celebrated. Show up to make this brave new technological world work for you.

This has been the one-hundred-forty-eighth installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to websites you have to bookmark to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Header by Rory Midhani.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 544 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. I didn’t know that Edie Windsor was at IBM. I knew that women were in the tech industry early on but not that ” for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men.” lastly, i love this sentiment, “Show up to make this brave new technological world work for you”

  2. Coming down the stairs from my last class and seeing that the school had been taken over my a ton of savvy looking, attractive women was *such* a treat. It was so exciting to find out that it was LWT!

  3. I’m glad you’ve had these experiences with LWT. At the Seattle-area events I’ve gone to, I was extremely uncomfortable as a queer woman. One of the presenters at an event was openly transphobic. Leanne Pittsford was at this event, so it wasn’t a situation where a chapter went off the rails. Her contributions to conversations were pretty off-putting, as well, but in a more classist way.

    I would never, ever describe LWT as a group for “queer women and non-binary folks”, but one for cis white middle class lesbians. The only woman I know who is actively involved with LWT is a “radical feminist” TERF, and I’m not surprised that she feels at home with them.

    Let’s hope that the author’s experience at this year’s Summit are a sign that the group is improving.

    • I’ve had a pretty good experience as a trans woman. The Portland group is pretty great, and Leanne also asked me to speak at the NYC Summit. The summit was fun, and I also didn’t get any weirdness from folks after talking about being trans on stage. There’s definitely class issues, but the speakers were a pretty diverse set of folks.

      I was pretty worried initially, but I’ve been glad to find that it’s an alright group.

    • I hear what you’re saying. On an individual level, I had some troubling conversations with folks who attended. I only saw half of the speakers but almost all of the ones I did see specifically mentioned support for trans women and women of color in queer spaces.

      I’m sorry your experience wasn’t so hot. That sucks to go into a place looking to belong and to feel more out of place than ever. This was my first LWT summit so I have nothing to compare it to, but I had a blast.

  4. A friend (from Oakland) and I were just talking yesterday about the tech world eating SF and eating it and eating it. Uggh. I last lived there five years ago.
    But it already seems like I lived there back when.

    My own connection with tech is entirely online (self-taught sometime web developer now in small town).

    Feeling wistful not to be more connected — but often I am just grateful to have little part of the ugly hustle of hype and stress, and the exasperating sub-cultures of [so many[] tech people.

    Conflicted.

    So
    I read this post in hopes of finding something that I think I have now found. What a great kaleidoscope of women and creative energies — makes me more hopeful. Edie Windsor!

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