Eight hundred queer women and a smattering of men crowded into an auditorium at NYU Law School Friday for the annual Lesbians Who Tech (LWT) Summit, an event that rotates between San Francisco and New York City in the U.S. and has now branched out globally. While there have been five such events, including this one, this was my first.
I don't work in tech. I work in philanthropy and I'm a writer. No, not a tech writer, just a plain old writer. Did I mention old? I'm 59, a bit further along in years than the demographic seated around me. In fact, I was taken aback when one speaker actually apologized for the fact that she is 52 years old. But no matter. My inner geek shines bright and I'm always game for any event that has lesbian in the title, so I didn't let any of these issues get me down.
To say I was astounded and amazed is a bit of an understatement. In one of the many videos we were shown that day, Kate Kendall, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a San Francisco Lesbians Who Tech attendee said, "This is the new generation. This is the new leadership. I don't have to worry. We're gonna be fine." I couldn't agree more.
Some Great Stuff About the Lesbians Who Tech Summit
1. The Secret Weapon: Founder Leanne Pittsford - She's energetic, charismatic without being arrogant or unapproachable, and she knows how to build stuff. Pittsford, a former tech entrepreneur and investor with strong LGBT movement experience, is the driving force behind this organization and these events. She's going places and she's bringing everyone with her.
2. They Walk the Talk on Diversity: Pittsford said it herself from the stage -- if you don't start something with everyone, it's very hard to walk it back. So at the LWT Summit, women of color were represented in greater numbers than I've seen anywhere other than at Creating Change. From the stage emcees to the presenters, to the women pitching their business ventures to judges and to the audience as well. This was no gesture of tokenism. It was the real thing. And what's more, there's a genuine effort to ensure a welcoming environment for and inclusion of trans women, including keynote speaker Martine Rothblatt, one of the most high-powered and innovative thinkers in the biotech industry.
3. The Summit Attracts Superstars: In addition to Rothblatt, who's been featured on the cover of New York Magazine, the Summit has consistently featured the country's Chief Tech Officer, Megan Smith, a former top manager at Google, and one of the highest ranking openly-LGBT members of the Obama Administration. This year, Smith had the pleasure of interviewing attorney Roberta Kaplan and her famous client, Edie Windsor, a former Senior Systems Developer at IBM. This was one of the few occasions where the audience was hungry to hear about Windsor's years working as a very closeted lesbian at IBM in the 1960s. And Windsor, to everyone's delight, didn't hold back.
4. The Summit Goes Way Beyond Career Issues: While LWT is dedicated to increasing the numbers of women, lesbians, trans people and people of color (including those at the intersections of all these identities) in the tech industry, the Summit is much more than a career conference. Several of the most inspiring presentations focused on social justice issues. From Nicole Thomas, who talked about Hack Cleveland's efforts to address police violence in Black communities to Aliyah Rahman, who challenged us make sure young people are learning that tech role models go beyond Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and should also include the queer women behind Black Lives Matter.
Some Stuff Lesbians Who Tech Could Do Better
1. Flex the TED Talk Model: The Summit consists of a string of stage presentations in the main auditorium with some break-out sessions. While the choice of speakers is excellent, it would be so amazing if those of us in the audience could either ask questions or, better yet, have the opportunity at smaller roundtables to actually talk to these women.
2. Recognize That Some of Us Have Kids: One of the videos showed a picture of US CTO Megan Smith with her wife and children, yet there was no discussion at all about how tech jobs impact family life. And they do. As someone who was partnered with a software engineer in the past, I can personally testify that it isn't always easy. How about some honest discussion about these issues at the Summit.
3. Invite More Critical Perspectives: While speakers wowed us with all of the tech-related possibilities in store for us in the future, there was no pushback on issues like data privacy. Also, in one session, Stephenie Landry, a high level manager from Amazon.com who was quoted in the recent New York Times article on what it is like to work at Amazon, was interviewed by a journalist from Wired. I imagine because Landry is "one of us" and felt wronged by the article, she was given free range to state her perspective. But the journalist failed to do her job. The softball interview shied far away from some of the more damaging accusations in the Times article. I still want to know if Amazon encourages employees to tattle on one another to management and then fires those ranked lowest, even if they are performing well. Landry and her interviewer were silent on such issues. The Summit needs to challenge its people a bit more.
There's always room for improvement, and really, if the LWT Summit didn't change a thing, it would still be one of the best events going in our community. There's nothing like it out there. I mean, really, what other tech conference begins a plenary session with a quote by Audre Lorde?