“There’s a place for us,” sang Consuelo in Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s legendary musical, “West Side Story,” set in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Somewhere, on the far end of West 48th Street, hundreds of queer women found that place last week at the Lesbians Who Tech & Allies leadership summit, along with scores of non-binary and gender nonconforming individuals.
Women account for 1 in 15 people in STEM, the professional fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as LWT explains on its Facebook page. And LGBTQ representation is an even smaller percentage.
A few words on the group’s YouTube account page sums up the theme perfectly: “The conference with the lowest #techbro ratio in the industry is back.” This particular summit was the 6th one organized by LWT, billed as the world’s largest network of LGBTQ professionals and their allies.
“There hasn’t been a lot of stuff historically focused on lesbians and queer women and non binary folks,” Lesbians Who Tech founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford told me. “We’ve been able to build this, for us, by us, in a way that’s super intentional. And that energy carries outright. And every year it gets better and stronger because there’s such a foundational element of trust.”
I saw ample evidence of that trust in the abundant energy on display among these women of varying ages, backgrounds, races, experiences and identities.
LWT has grown into a haven for tech workers trying to eke out a living in a cisgender, white male-dominated industry.
The group boasts more than 50-thousand members, according to NewNowNext: LGBTQ women, people of color and other marginalized techies who flock to these gatherings for networking, recruiting, bonding and to realize, they are not alone.
In addition to hearing from dozens of speakers like feminist icon Gloria Steinem and writer Roxane Gay, attendees met with recruiters, traded business cards and shared stories in break-out groups, some of which represented those on the margins, everything from transgender to women of color.
“We have so much in common, and we all come from these spaces where we’re often the only person in the room where we’re the only woman or a woman of color, or the only trans person,” Pittsford explained at a media reception Thursday evening, held in the penthouse of the host hotel, looking out at a gray, rainy Manhattan skyline. It’s the kind of view most of the summit attendees would consider out of reach, the exclusive domain of rich, white, straight, cis men who have reached the highest heights in their careers, aided by and benefitting from male privilege and good ol’ boy cronyism.
“We come here, and all that gets left behind, and it’s all about how we’re connected and everything we have in common,” Pittsford said. “People take a big exhale, and then they can be who they are.”
Non-lesbians were just as welcome. Swati Vauthrin is straight, the vice president of engineering for Buzzfeed, and a mom to two children, her youngest being just 9 months old. She presided over an AMA session — “Ask Me Anything” — and afterward, I asked her what lessons she’ll teach her 4-year-old daughter to help her overcome obstacles society and industry might throw in her path. And she admitted, the very thought of that provoked an emotional response.
“Everything I do is so that she doesn’t have to feel like she’s not equal,” Vauthrin told me. “I want to be her role model. I want her to one day realize like, ‘Oh my God, my mom worked so that I can have it all.'”
Oh, and there were guys on hand, too. They’re just outnumbered, by what seemed to be a factor of something like 100 to one.
When NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway and Out Magazine editor in chief Phillip Picardi took the stage Thursday, they were only the second and third men to do so in six years of events, Pittsford told me. Galloway recorded a live podcast with ReCode’s Kara Swisher, and Picardi hosted a panel with his executive editor, Raquel Willis, and Gabrielle Korn, formerly the editor in chief of Nylon.
“When I chose to cover stars a lot of whom were queer women, I wasn’t choosing them because they were queer,” Korn told Picardi. “I was choosing them because they were super cool and had super cool relevant projects coming out, and they were also queer.”
Korn quit Nylon in a letter from the editor following the magazine’s acquisition by the Bustle Digital Group in July. “Quitting was a personal victory,” she told Picardi, “because it was setting a personal boundary. It was me not taking a passive role in my own career.” Picardi asked Willis, a trans woman of color who joined Out from the world of activism and advocacy, what the media gets wrong about queerness. “Pretty much everything,” she said.
Willis and Korn were among dozens of women who spoke over three days of events, including business leaders from tech and other companies including Google, Tesla, Slack, Axios, Buzzfeed, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Capital One, PayPal, Indeed, PNC, AT&T, Verizon, Northwestern Mutual, Oculus, L’Oreal, Delta Airlines, FastCompany and Reddit, among many more.
Topics in the series of brief, 10-minute presentations, held on several stages indoors as well as on a hotel rooftop, ranged from rocket science, virtual reality and socio-economics to the politics of reproductive rights and even sex work.
But the largest crowds by far turned out to hear speakers likeRoxane Gay, who was interviewed by her girlfriend, podcaster and educator at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, Debbie Millman.
“I wake up every day and ask myself, ‘Am I being radical enough?'” Gay confessed. “And the answer is usually, ‘no,’ because I’m from Nebraska, and I’m a Libra,” Gay said to much laughter. She told the crowd that through their relationship, she’s helped radicalize Millman to the point where her white girlfriend is now the one challenging the haters.
“Sometimes we’re doing something somewhere and some racist BS happens,” Gay recalled. “And she gets more heated than I do. I’m just like ‘YES!'”
Speaking as a lesbian woman of color, Gay said life is both easier and harder now. “It’s interesting to see how it’s gotten so much easier to come out,” she said. “But in many ways it’s gotten so much more difficult to be black. And to be black and queer.”
Jess Szmajda is an out transgender woman, who came out two years ago at Optoro, a tech company where she’d been working for seven years. While accepted, she said she felt people “still remembered the old person.”
“It took maybe five or six months before I was sitting in a meeting and I was trying to say something, and people were just talking over me,” Szmajda recalled of her first experience of being treated like every other woman in corporate America. Her first thought was, “Oh! Oh, yes! I’m so excited!” but she quickly tired of having her opinions questioned and second-guessed by men.
“I think only trans women can really understand how bad misogyny and the patriarchy is, in a lot of ways, because you have this perspective,” she said, adding, “It can be really frustrating.” Now she is chief technical officer at Axios, where Szmajda said men and women enjoy 50/50 representation in the tech side of the company. “That is so incredibly rare,” she said.
But even though she is accepted as she is at Axios, “Still,” she said, “I’m deeply frustrated by having to explain myself all the time,” about being transgender, her plans for surgery, her relationship with her ex-wife and their four-year-old son. Even so, Szmajda said she feels a responsibility to do so.
“I feel like it’s really important to share my perspective in as many ways as I can,” she said. “And so for me I feel super comfortable talking about it.”
In Szmajda’s presentation, she offered the advice that managers should “coach, not direct.” I asked her to expand upon that idea after she left the stage on Thursday. “I don’t ever want to work for anybody,” Szmajda said. “We’re going to want to work with people, and I want people to be able to work with me. I don’t want people to work for me, either. I think it’s really important.”
“What sustains us is each other. We are communal animals,” 85-year-old Gloria Steinem told Alicia Garza of Black Futures Lab on Friday, the closing session of the summit. “What keeps me going is imagining a world where we’re winning.”
“One of the good things about being old is you remember when it was worse,” Steinem said. “The only thing I worry about in terms of tech is that you may spend more time looking at a screen than being together in this way.”
Steinem was just one of several inspirational women taking the stage during the summit. Also powerful and impactful was a presentation by public affairs executive and “Woke AF” SiriusXM radio host Danielle Moodie-Mills, on what it means to be “woke.”
She argued that “woke” is a verb, a state of being, and an action. “It is up to us to stay vigilant. To wake up our neighbors. To take action.”
More than any other speaker, she delved deepest into the idea that politics today is intertwined with racism.
“The whole truth is that the election of Donald Trump is white supremacy’s last stand,” said Moodie-Mills. A long, loud cheer erupted from the filled-to-capacity auditorium.
Later that evening, I asked Pittsford if she worried that LGBTQ Republicans might feel excluded at the summit, and she replied, “I would be interested to see if there was a Republican here.”
“My money would be on ‘no,'” Pittsford told me. But then she added that she believed the important thing is how we women respond to those kinds of potential conflicts.
“You have to be kind,” she said. “You have to assume the best, and I think that no matter where people are coming from, you want to have a conversation. I’m all about hard conversations. And that’s really the only way that you create change.”