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Queer women and allies pack tech confab

by Sari Staver

Lesbians Who Tech welcomed thousands of queer women and their allies to its fifth annual conference in the Castro last week. Photo: Sari Staver
Lesbians Who Tech welcomed thousands of queer women and their allies to its fifth annual conference in the Castro last week. Photo: Sari Staver  

When there are long lines of women waiting to get into bars in the Castro at 10 on a Friday morning, it can only mean one thing: the Lesbians Who Tech Summit is back in town.

Beginning March 1 and continuing through March 3, more than 5,000 queer women descended upon the neighborhood where the nation's largest LGBTQ technology community held its fifth annual gathering at the Castro Theatre.

With over 35,000 members and chapters in more than 40 cities worldwide, the annual gathering featured dozens of lesbian technologists offering tips about getting ahead in the male-dominated tech field, as well as some well-known women allies who offered their perspective on the tech world.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed, a 43-year-old African American woman who is running for mayor, described her childhood in public housing in the Western Addition. Raised by her grandmother, who came from a family of sharecroppers, Breed said family and teachers "believed in me."

"Nobody succeeds on their own," she said, noting that tech industry leaders often mentor younger colleagues. "As business women and public servants, we're all in this together."

Despite progress, women still typically have to "climb and claw" their way through a glass ceiling, while hoping that the next generation of girls can "achieve their professional dreams" more easily, Breed said.

In San Francisco, said Breed, the rapidly growing tech industry has kept the city's unemployment rate below 3 percent. Still, she said, "a large number of women" are either pushed out or left out of the economic success shared by so many others. Three-fourths of the tech jobs are filled by men and only 5 percent by people who are African-American or Latino, she said.

The "world-class companies" created in San Francisco "can't be considered successful" if minorities are excluded, Breed said, adding that city leaders must "challenge" the tech industry to do better with the hiring and promotion of minority and LGBT people.

Breed said that "first and foremost" the city must provide "affordable places" for people to live. Between 2010 and 2015, eight jobs were created for every new home built, she said. Breed pledged to implement policies that would provide 5,000 new homes annually and make San Francisco a city "where nobody is forced to live on the streets," she said. She is pushing for additional expenditures for mental health and substance abuse treatment as well as safe injection sites, she said.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, told the audience that many people in the country "feel that technology is hurting our country."

In a conversation with lesbian Recode executive editor Kara Swisher, Sandberg said that not only do people feel they may be "left behind" if they don't qualify for jobs in the tech sector, but that citizens are wary of the internet, following news that hackers used the websites and social media platforms, including Facebook's, to plant fake news ahead of the 2016 election.

Facebook has become "more proactive" and is working hard with state election commissions to prevent similar situations in upcoming elections, she explained.

While there is widespread agreement that a workplace where women should be able to work without sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement has complicated corporate life, said Sandberg.

A recent survey showed that half of male managers said they were "afraid" to share certain work-related activities, such as dinner, with women colleagues.

"Access must be equal," said Sandberg. "If you're not comfortable having dinner with women [at your company] then you shouldn't have dinner with men either."

The fact that over 94 percent of the top jobs in tech are held by men does not mean men are more qualified or more talented, she added.

"Diverse organizations are more effective," she said, but trends like decreasing numbers of women studying computer science make that goal difficult. In the 1980s, women comprised 35 percent of those studying computer science, a number that is less than half that now.

In a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter following the close of the summit, Lesbians Who Tech CEO Leanne Pittsford said the 2018 gathering was "the most attended tech conference for women" in the world.

Last year, the organization sent 40 Edie Windsor Coding scholars to coding school, paying half their tuition. The program, named after the late Windsor, who successfully challenged a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act and used to work at IBM, will continue and improve by offering students additional support while in school and helping them navigate into a successful career, Pittsford said.

The group also held international summits in Paris, Mexico City, and London and launched a 50-city tech jobs tour with adviser Megan Smith, a lesbian who served as chief technology officer under President Barack Obama.

"At Lesbians Who Tech, we are committed to helping the tech sector reflect the diversity and talent" of the nation, Pittsford said.

"We lead by example," she added, "by having quotas that make sure our speakers are 50 percent women of color and 15 percent transgender and gender nonconforming.

"We are what the face of technology actually looks like," Pittsford said. "But we still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity in the tech sector. If we keep pushing for change, one day we will create a tech sector that reflects the people who live in this country."


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