The Evolving Voice of LGBTQ in Tech: An Interview with Leanne Pittsford CEO & Founder of Lesbians Who Tech & Allies
Since 1999, every June has officially been a celebration of LGBTQ pride in the US, which commemorates the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. This year is extra special because it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. To mark this occasion, I had the privilege of interviewing Leanne Pittsford, Founder and CEO of Lesbians Who Tech & Allies. This organization has over 50,000 members and is the only organization specifically focused on queer women in technology. LGBTQ acceptance has grown tremendously over the last few years, and the tech community has been a big proponent of this movement.
Pittsford believes that LGBTQ acceptance in tech has grown proportionally with the general public’s views:
“I think tech has been at the forefront of the conversation. The movement had early supporters of ‘No on Prop 8,’ and now a significant number of tech companies have provided benefits for LGBTQ couples. Many tech companies have also been at the forefront of fighting discrimination in certain states. A prime example is how Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, used his voice to fight the Religious Freedom Act in Indiana. Tech leaders have taken a strong stance on LGBTQ issues.”
The visibility of prominent LGBTQ tech leaders (e.g. Tim Cook of Apple, Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital, and Megan Smith, the 3rd US Chief Technology Officer) have helped increase representation of the community.
What gap did you see in the tech world?
Local gay advocacy organizations have been working for decades to improve the rights and representation of the LGBTQ community. Before Pittsford founded Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, she worked for the California government, where she managed the data for the No on Prop 8 campaign. This is where she saw the disparity between men and women in the tech industry as well as the power that technology had to alleviate economic inequality. At the time, Pittsford felt strongly that, as a young queer woman in the tech space, she didn’t have a voice. Furthermore, if she wanted to have a bigger seat at the table, she needed to have more economic power. One of her core beliefs is that economic power is our civic duty and that it’s beneficial for marginalized groups to make money and use it to invest in the things they believe in.
While getting more involved in the tech ecosystem, Pittsford would go to LGBTQ-focused events and notice that the audience was predominantly male. While also attending events focused on women in tech, she felt many of those were focused on the “Lean In” approach. “I just felt like our voice was missing, both in the women’s space and in the LGBTQ space. We sort of got left out. We were the minority within two minorities. So I thought to myself, if we can focus on providing 100 percent of the support to queer women and those who do not identify with the binary, then maybe we can build a community-focused approach for the underserved,” Pittsford said. This is the moment that inspired her to found Lesbians Who Tech & Allies.
What lead to the creation of Lesbians Who Tech?
Pittsford started Lesbians Who Tech & Allies largely because she did not feel like there was a support system for her as she grew in her career. One of the most shocking revelations was when she would ask other women, “Who is one career woman that you’d love to hear speak?” And out of 100, there would be 95 women who had no idea. While Lesbians Who Tech & Allies provides a great community for queer women as well as their allies in technology, there remains a systemic problem of limited access to resources that can propel their careers. Pittsford mentioned that she receives tons of emails from people of all ages who don’t feel comfortable asking their boss for support. In many instances, these individuals can’t attend the Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Summit due to their companies not seeing value in participating.
How can people get involved in supporting minority groups?
Having different months focused on LGBTQ people, women and other minority groups is great because they foster important conversations around the value of diversity. However, and like most vital conversations, they need to continue year round.
When it comes to government support and solutions, Pittsford is a big fan of quotas (e.g. requiring a certain percentage of women on the board of a company). Many countries around the world have already adopted laws like this. However, an initiative around inclusiveness can be taken on by leadership in tech regardless of any legal requirements. Pittsford says, “Things don’t just change — You have to create urgency, and I think that the government has a big role to play on that side. I’d love to see them come up with some reasonable quotas that companies can meet.”
There are other similar organizations to Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and AfroTech (to name a few). The biggest way to get involved is by simply showing up. Showing up is the majority of the battle, and you can do this in a variety of ways. You can go to meetups, different conferences like the ones Lesbians Who Tech & Allies produces, or by working on implementing some of these different initiatives in your company. This all comes back to visibility, because it is so crucial to the conversation.
Pittsford believes that the conversation is shifting toward an attitude that diversity is good for business and logical to add to daily practices. When I asked her the biggest area where she needed help, she pointed me to her team’s “Tech Jobs Tour route for 2020.” The focus of this initiative is to raise funds from foundations and find savvy people who want to create change in order to do a bigger tour in 2020. Pittsford mentions how tech jobs pay three times the normal salary of non-tech jobs. She wants to connect minority groups with those opportunities.So get out there and show up. It is good for your business; it is good for the economy, and it is good for the country as a whole. You can find more information on Lesbians Who Tech & Allies here as well as other ways to get involved.