Interview with Leanne Pittsford of Lesbians Who Tech
Q&A on the Summit, queer women in technology, and the latest and greatest in queer tech.
Leanne Pittsford is the founder of Lesbians Who Tech. After holding their first major conference event in San Francisco in February, the second Lesbians Who Tech Summit is coming to New York in June. (The CFP and registration are open now.) We sat down for a Q&A with Leanne to discuss how Lesbians Who Tech got started, challenges queer women face in the industry, and the most exciting queer tech today.
Tell us a little about Lesbians Who Tech and how it got started.
A little over a year ago, I started a group called Lesbians Who Tech (and the people who love them). We’re a community of queer women in and around tech, including allies, friends and supporters.
There are four main things we’re focused on. The first is we want to connect queer women in the technology field. It’s not always easy to know who the other people are in your community and amazing things can happen when you bring communities together. Second, we want more visible examples and role models of queer women in tech. We always say it would be incredible if there was a lesbian version of Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, someone getting that level of mainstream media visibility. There are amazing women like Ellen and Senator Tammy Baldwin in the mainstream media, however there are not a lot of examples for women in business, and specifically in technology. But there are incredible people out there, so we’re trying to bring more light to them.
The third focus is that right now, women in Silicon Valley make 49 cents to the man’s dollar. We want to make sure that the queer community is part of that conversation and part of the solution when it comes to wage inequality. Fourth, for a lot of women and queer women specifically, we really care about the world and making sure that there are great things happening for our communities. We want to help bridge the gap that exists between tech and groups doing great things for women, people of color and the queer community.
The first Summit in San Francisco was a huge success. How did the idea for doing a Summit come about and what was the experience like?
You know, often when you go to an LGBT event it’s usually between 70 and 90 percent male. When I started my own business a few years ago, I went from the advocacy-political-social world, the LGBT world, to the broader Silicon Valley tech community. I started joining groups that were specifically focused on the LGBT community in tech and entrepreneurship and it was even more male-dominated. I knew there were more queer women out there in tech, so what we wanted to figure out with Lesbians Who Tech was if they’re not coming, then why aren’t they coming and how we can provide value to queer women in tech?
We started doing these happy hours as an experiment to find out one, are we out there and two, what kind of value does our community specifically need? Within a couple months we went from 30 people to over 150 in San Francisco. People in other cities started emailing me about hosting happy hours and we launched in New York and DC a few months later. In just a little over a year we built a community of 4,000 queer women in tech and their allies, and we expanded to three cities internationally. Clearly, we answered the question do we exist in tech; there are a lot of queer women in technology!
The second part was about how we could provide value to the community. We spent a lot of time talking to people, thinking about the role we could play and finding out what people wanted. It came down to being about visibility and stories. That’s how we ended up at a Summit.
When we started, I tried to find out who the queer women in tech are that people would want to hear speak at a conference. 95% of people I asked had no idea, they couldn’t even name one person. I knew that was a problem I could help solve. There is not a lot of space for professional networking in the queer community specifically, so we thought we could create this safe space for queer women in tech and highlight some of the great stories about women doing really amazing things in technology.
Kronda Adair speaking in San Francisco. She wrote up her experiences here.
We worked hard to get top speakers like Kara Swisher from recode.net, Megan Smith from Google[x] and one speaker, freelance developer Kronda Adair, ran an Indiegogo campaign so to bring her out to experience the positive energy of being amongst ‘her people’.
We were able to pull together this really great community of people with about 800 queer women and allies attending the summit that day. It was one of the best days of my life, actually.
What challenges do queer women specifically face in the tech industry?
First of all, you need to address economic power in tech. A lot of lesbian relationships involve two women, and if both of those women are making 49 cents to the dollar, that’s a huge economic disadvantage. Even if the women are not in tech, they’re making 77 cents on the dollar together.
So in terms of economic power, having two women together creates a much different experience. Obviously there are also the overall gender issues in technology and as queer women we have dual identities, being part of women in tech and queer tech communities.
I go to a lot of events for women in tech and I can’t tell you the number of times that people are talking about Sheryl Sandberg. They talk about the importance of husbands stepping up, which is so true. It’s fine to have that conversation. But we need to understand not everyone is married to a man, so for queer women that experience is different.
As far as the experiences of queer women in tech, there’s not a lot of data, which is something that we’re trying to figure out — how to get that information. We know that women and people of color face discrimination in tech, but we don’t have as much data around the LGBT community which we are really trying to figure out how to get.
When it comes to things like the Mozilla CEO situation that happened a couple weeks ago, I think people assume tech is very liberal, that it is this bastion of progressiveness. The truth is there’s a lot of money and conservative people involved in tech. We might continue to be surprised by some of the decisions and where leaders actually stand. The truth is we often don’t know and right now the power structures in this country generally and in tech specifically are white, straight, male.
What is some of the most exciting queer tech happening today?
The one that was the big hit at our San Francisco Summit was the dating app for lesbians, bisexual and curious women called Dattch. The founder, Robyn Exton is a British queer woman based in London.
A lot of times people think the lesbian market is not that big, so there is doubt around targeting the lesbian market for a new start-up in tech or anything else. Until now, I’ve done a lot of things in the LGBT space trying to get women to do things, to come to things and it’s not always easy. There’s a reason why our Lesbians Who Tech happy hours are once a month – there is no one bar we can go to anytime that is focused specifically on queer women. Even in New York or San Francisco, the lesbian market often cannot sustain these types of businesses from a financial perspective. That’s why I think a lot of people thought they shouldn’t support a Grindr-type app for women, if we’re not going to use it then we are a market that’s not really accessible.
But I think Daatch really found a way to reach the lesbian, bisexual and curious women in the community. It’s really about design and experience. You can’t just replicate Grindr for women and expect its going to work. We’re different. In her pitch at our demo session in San Francisco, she painted us this amazing picture. We like to look at pictures on the app, maybe we’ll think about it for a couple days, then we’ll be like, “Okay I’ll ping them based on the photo, because we both went to Greece,” then we talk for a few days online and if it goes well, we might decide to get a coffee. That’s a two-week cycle, whereas Grindr tends to be about meeting within five minutes. Those are two clearly different problems to solve.
Other great pitches at the demo sessions included Section II, which acquires, rates and distributes curated, lesbian-related films and series in order to promote better representation of queer women in popular culture.
HeLLa Rides is a ride-matching service that connects drivers and riders who share a similar schedule and destination in order to provide comfortable, reliable commuting needs in the Bay Area and beyond.
Ultimately, there are so many queer women doing these types of amazing things in tech, you just have to find them.
One big topic in the community right now is the accessibility of the tech industry and tech careers. What are your thoughts on making tech more accessible to queer women specifically?
One of the things we’re working on is a scholarship focused on programming and engineering that will partially fund four or five queer women this year to go to the programming school of their choice, based on a list of our partners. Then we might expand that program to design.
Technology can allow people to change their lives in a huge way. But we have to realize that technology is not accessible to all people. Not everyone has internet in their homes. Even if they have smartphones, there are limitations. For example, close to half of Latino households in California don’t have broadband at home. It is easy to have this idea everyone has a computer and access to the internet, and all of these tech skills are so accessible, but looking at hard facts shows that this is just not true.
Part of the problem we’re trying to solve with technology is “what can I build from a tech perspective to solve the world’s problems?” I’m really passionate about politics and love politics and technology equally. In tech, sometimes we live in a little bit of a bubble. Technology people assume that politics, activism and non-profits involve too much bureaucracy, and that the system is messed up and therefore not worth participation.
The truth is we need people within tech to participate in government and communities at all levels. That’s where Lesbians Who Tech can start to make a real impact, at least with queer women and women in general, because we’re going to be the ones who engage in some of these serious conversations that happen at the intersection of technology and politics.