By Carolyn Wysinger
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. The home and mecca of the current-day tech world. I drive for Lyft and Uber, usually during rush hour, so that means I drive a huge amount of techies everyday. To date, I have given about 1,700 rides. I wish I knew how many of those were to Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Airbnb employees. But one thing I can say for sure is that I have never had one rider that shared my identity as a queer woman of color (QWOC). I was almost positive that we didn’t exist in the tech world. Boy was I wrong.
From February 25 to February 28, over 1,000 queer women and allies descended on tech’s ground zero for the annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit. Queer people from all over the country came to share community with their peers who are shaping our world in some shape or form through tech. After many years of hearing about LWT, I was invited to check out the summit, which started at the legendary Castro Theatre before moving over to the Twitter headquarters on day two.
Intersectionality is not just a buzzword.
San Francisco may be the tech capital of the world, but it is has also become the focal point of just about every conversation about inequity and gentrification in local communities. Most of those conversations paint tech as the big white male-dominated behemoth that is pushing long-time residents out. With that narrative, I took on the task of attending this year’s summit. My goal was simple: Find the 20 queer women of color at the conference and talk to them because clearly there couldn’t be that many. Right?
As soon as I walked into the theater I knew that I was completely wrong. Simply looking at the conference agenda made it clear that LWT was very invested in making diversity and equity a central issue of the conference. Not only were they centering issues of diversity but they were making sure that diversity meant more than simply seeing more women in the tech workforce. It also meant centering the people of color community as well.
“Intersectionality is not just a buzzword.” That was the title of one of the workshops but it also felt like the theme of the summit.
It was interesting to be in the presence of developers and executives from companies like Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and Dropbox and see that a high majority of them were QWOC.
“Leanne [Pittsford, LWT Founder] is always very intentional when curating the agenda,” said Danielle Moodie-Mills, Politini founder and NBCBLK contributor, when asked about LWT’s effort to make sure that QWOC were present and highlighted throughout the conference.
Ace Portis, Major Gifts Officer for the National Center for Lesbian Rights NCLR) who also worked closely with Pittsford, agreed that there was special care taken in choosing a diverse group of emcees and presenters as well as reaching out to QWOC media and spaces.
From what I saw scanning the crowd, over half of the LWT attendees were QWOC. It was interesting to be in the presence of developers and executives from companies like Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and Dropbox and see that a high majority of them were QWOC. My goal quickly changed from interviewing a small pool of QWOC to finding out more about this now huge pool of QWOC techies.
Many people hear the term “tech” and only think of coding which leaves out many who don’t have access to affordable coding schools. However, there are many roads that lead into the world of tech. Coding schools for and by POC like Black Girls Code are not only introducing young girls to the world of coding but several members of the QWOC Meetup listed Black Girls Code as the organization that offered them a chance at a new career by reeducating them in coding. Another great place that POC are finding opportunities to dip into coding is hackathons. During the IGNITE TED-style talks, EqualityTV founder Lisa Mae Brunson discussed her hackathon Wonder Woman Hacks.
There were registration-only hackathons that conference goers had access to join where they could join and work with other burgeoning developers on a project. With so many “tech newbies” in attendance, this many boot-camp was a way to dip their foot into coding in an environment with like-minded individuals.
For the sake of community conversation, it is important that we broaden the idea of what it means to “work in tech.” There is a limited view of employment opportunities within the sector. Whether it be ways that you participate in tech as a content creator or simply finding alternate ways to use tech. There were a variety of talks about how we are already broadening the scope of how we use tech. Talks such as “The Future of EdTech” and “What Does the Future of Cancer Research Look Like” focused on how we are using tech to transform our world. In our current social climate that persistent question of how will you help others continues to ring true.
“It isn’t just so much being in tech,” Danielle Moodie-Mills continued, “it’s about what you are creating with that aptitude. What are you doing to help activists on the ground for orgs like Black Lives Matter. I would love to see women like that highlighted.”
As of 2014, data published by the Huffington Post showed that “25% of Computer Science professionals were female, while just 4% of these professionals are African American (3%) or Latina (1%).” In the same article, HuffPost laid out the challenges that women of color face in the tech world as “barriers and obstacles related to both race and gender, a so-called double-bind. These barriers can include racial/gender discrimination, lack of access to resources and facilities, questions about skill due to one’s gender/race, isolation, endorsement of negative stereotypes about one’s own background, and a lack of diverse mentors, peers, and role models. Unlike men of color and white women, women of color experience a combination of two marginalized and negatively stereotyped identities.”
A variety of speakers tackled these issues head on. During the QWOC Meetup, former LWT pitch winner Stephanie Lampkin spoke on her experience as an African-American woman trying to get hired in the boy’s club of tech world. Stephanie was an MIT graduate with five years at Microsoft under her belt when she started looking to move up the ladder in her chosen field. To her amazement she was continuously told that she was not qualified. It was this experience that inspired her to create BLENDOOR, an app that looks to diversify hiring by stripping items from candidate profiles that cause bias amongst employers such as name and ethnicity. These employers are only able to see the candidates work history and skill set. Social innovation looks to be the hallmark of community-accountable engineers as they step into the role of founder in order to create avenues that help more community members into the workforce.
The amplification of QWOC voices at LWT was incredible but I did have one final question: How can we as a community amplify these and other voices outside of the walls of this conference?
For QWOC that choose to stay with established companies, there are still many obstacles they face. During “The Internet of Things,” Heather Hiles of PATHBRITE discussed her work with Oakland Tech Equity Week. She described the goal as working toward establishing fair hiring, compensation and advancement for people of color. This is another form of advocacy that was prevalent at the summit. This was not limited to organizational advocacy. Advocating for ourselves and each other was important as well. When asked for tips in navigating the “bro culture” in the hiring world, newbies were advised to negotiate. Talk to each other. Find out how much others are making so that you have a firm starting point for those negotiations. We are taught that these behaviors aren’t advisable but the members of the boys club do it all the time. We have to learn how to value ourselves and our work. That doesn’t guarantee fair compensation but it does start a culture of empowerment in a sector where people attempt to strip us of that power every day.
The amplification of QWOC voices at LWT was incredible but I did have one final question: How can we as a community amplify these and other voices outside of the walls of this conference? It can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Queer people in tech face so many obstacles rooted in stereotypes of their identities. Like many of us, sometimes they simply want to do good work and be recognized for that.
Dropbox developer Jamie Chung stated, “Sometimes, even if you’re queer in tech, that’s not the only thing that you want to be to define you. Sometimes you just want to come into work, do your job, and then go home. And, that being said, making those identities known is important to future generations that are looking for that presence. Because we need those models, we need to fight that imposter syndrome, and some of it is the individual’s responsibility to make your own voice and presence known. But I think as we continue to highlight the accomplishments of QWOC in tech and other industries, then more and more will join in celebrating that as well.”
Let’s admit it. One way or another we are all part of the tech community. We may not be developers or engineers but we are bloggers, entertainers, teachers or activists that use tech in some sort of way. We blog on websites. We use social media to promote our brands or pass on information. In that respect, we are content creators that have our own hand in making our QWOC-in-tech faces seen.
As I walked out of the conference, I walked by a young African-American woman who was standing alone at the corner. We both gave each other “the nod” and I turned to walk away. I turned back to her and I told her who I was and asked her what she was enjoying so far about the conference. She said, “Being around queer Black women that think coding is as fun as I do.”
I have to admit. That was my favorite part too.
Carolyn Wysinger is an author, blogger and all around community activist. She a contributor at Autostraddle, ELIXHER and the Media Diversified in the UK. She is the former Human Rights and Human Relations Commissioner of the City of Richmond, and the founder of TheKnockturnalProject.com. Her first book, “Knockturnal Emissions: Thoughts on #race #sexuality #gender & #community,” is currently available on Glover Lane Press. You can follow Carolyn on Twitter and Snapchat @knockturnalpro. Find her on Instagram @TheKnockturnalProject.