“I love walking into a room where nobody looks like me,” said Lisa Davis of Citigroup during her talk “How to Leverage Your Most Compelling Advantages” at the third annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco last week.
Flying in the face of the awkwardness many of us have adopted when we’re “the only whatever it is in the room,” it was just one of the many assumptions challenged during the four-day oversold event boasting a record-breaking over 1500 attendees.
And I needed it. I countered this exact sentiment in a recent film in which I admitted that I’m often not sure if it’s ok to be out as a lesbian in technology. Such self-censorship comes at a tremendous loss to freedom and creativity personally, for business, and for us all. The Lesbians Who Tech Summit is a conference that removes that entire burden and serves as a revelation and a liberation.
Kara Swisher, afternoon keynote and long-time Silicon Valley commentator at Re/code, challenged us even further (as is her way). She suggested there is, in fact, no such thing as unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is the term often used to rationalize why well-meaning homogeneous groups of people don’t tend to choose diversity while hiring.
“There’s nothing unconscious about it,” she said. “If you’re ten white men at Twitter and you didn’t notice, you’re [insert expletive],” a reference to Twitter’s flap last fall over the mostly-white-male makeup of its board (a situation they’ve been working on transforming ever since).
“They sit around and feel bad, and they never do anything about it,” she continued, referring mostly to the homogeneous crowd of tech founders and board members in Silicon Valley and beyond, but homogeneity – let’s be clear — especially in higher levels — is a problem most tech companies share, apparently helpless to effect meaningful and lasting change.
So let’s talk about what we CAN do. If this is a situation you want to transform, here are three things you can do, all insights from the last few days at the Summit:
Recast your role, like Lisa Davis, who loves being in a room where nobody looks like her. Only woman in the room? Only queer? Only person of color, differently-abled, differently-aged, differently-sized or gendered or anything else? Make that your absolute strength. This goes for everyone. We all have a freak-flag to fly, even if you feel you’re the straightest, whitest person in the room. Fly it.
Look outside your tribe.
If this speaker list does not look like any tech conference you’ve ever been to, it is living proof that you do not need to accept excuses. We’re here. During these jam-packed days we were treated to amazing talks by technologists from every stripe including rocket scientists and NASA engineers, researchers, software engineers, data scientists, user experience experts and beyond — mostly women, many transgender, with a huge percentage of women of color. “Be responsible for questioning that post-interview report that ‘she’s not a good fit,’” said Caitlin Kalinowski of Oculus (Facebook). If you’re hiring, did you also know that referrals are the enemy of diversity? Referrals from homogeneity lead to homogeneity. Look outside your tribe.
We heard this refrain often: “Don’t give up: This is not easy,” said Jenn Van Dam from alphalab during Saturday’s sessions. As Kara Swisher put it: “I work harder than anyone else.” All the people at the tables, at the Career Fair, in the break-out sessions, hackathons, Tech Crawl, and on the show floor would probably agree. Tireless and fearless Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford would agree. And the ultimate tireless advocate, 86-year-old Edie Windsor, still working on human rights and as a role model for technologists everywhere — would agree. Work hard.
How SAP Worked Hard:
After three days of a solid SAP sponsorship of Lesbians Who Tech, I can say for a fact that this is true: it’s hard work, but it’s the best work ever, and I think the small army of my peers who joined me there would also agree. Here’s some of how we worked hard:
- SAP sponsored the event as one of the top-ten sponsors. We’ve sponsored Year One and Year Two of the Summit, but this third year is easily our banner year of engaging at Lesbians Who Tech.
- We sent 12 lucky colleagues including 5 dedicated recruiters who worked their butts off standing for literally two days at the always-crowded SAP table, talking the entire time to eager candidates both in the Recruitment Zone on Thursday and Friday and in the Career Fair at Twitter on Saturday.
- Of the over 1500 attendees at the Summit, we estimate we reached at least a thousand people at the tables alone.
- Jenny Dearborn, SAP Chief Learning Officer and executive sponsor of Pride@SAP, spoke at a breakout session with over 100 fully engaged people about The Power of Data Analytics. We distributed over 150 copies of her book Data Driven.
- Three of us demoed TripIt and Internet of Things at the Thursday night Tech Crawl, never stopping for a breath or even a sip of water in the unabating crowds upstairs at the Castro Theatre.
- Two mentors dedicated themselves to the Social Good Hackathon on Saturday at Earnest on Market Street, in which at least 35 hackers worked on a range of projects: from meetups that let you to connect locally with your diverse peers, to how to dedicate a portion of your earnings, to social good causes, to supporting Nuns on the Run.
So yeah we worked hard. You can too. Then you’ll be tired, but no longer tired of excuses. Which rocks.
Before I leave you with a few more images from the Summit (also known as: what our tech companies could look like), I invite you to stay in touch with me if you’re also interested in making a difference. We’re right here.
PS: I’m considering a diversity-related hackathon later in the year at SAP Silicon Valley. Let me know if you want to pitch in.