In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month we had a chat with some influential women who are making a real impact for inclusion in the workplace. In this blog, we are featuring Leanne Pittsford Founder and CEO of Lesbians Who Tech.
Tell me about yourself and what you do…
I’m Leanne Pittsford, I am the Founder and CEO of Lesbians Who Tech, Tech Jobs Tour and include.io. I started Lesbians Who Tech & Allies in 2012 because I noticed a need to have LGBTQ women and other groups represented in the tech field. I wanted to create a tech sector that actually reflects the world we live in. What started as a happy hour in San Francisco in 2012 has grown into a global community of 40,000 queer women + allies in 50 city chapters around the world. Our International Summits in Paris, London, Brazil, Mexico, Tel Aviv and 5th Annual Summits in San Francisco and New York allows companies to recruit and retain diverse talent and puts a spotlight on communities that would otherwise be ignored.
I started the Tech Jobs Tour with Megan Smith, 3rd Chief Technology Officer of the United States, to expand the visibility of underrepresented talent in tech — to include more people of color, veterans, people with a disability, women, and LGBTQ people. We activate tech hubs in cities across the United States with our events (featuring a career fair, speed mentoring, and awesome content) which will visit 50 cities by end of 2018.
Last year, I saw the need to move our community of diverse talent and companies online, and launched include.io, a digital platform that helps companies recruit diverse tech talent that is validated and referred by their current teams.
What do you love about your job and what are your challenges?
Nothing is better than hearing from members of the LGBTQ community that our organizations help them to feel visible within the tech community, or that they are finding jobs because of this network. Or we’ll hear from folks who aren’t necessarily able to be “out” at work that when they come to our events and Summits, they find a community they did not know existed before Lesbians Who Tech. It’s why we show up and do the work everyday. That’s not to say it’s not without challenges. Getting queer women to events is a challenge on its own because historically, we haven’t had spaces. Another challenge is getting companies to partner — I can’t tell you how many companies say no to joining our events by telling me that while they think my organization is great, they’re focused on hiring women right now. I often gently remind folks that Lesbians are women too. We’re the largest LGBTQ professional tech conference in the world, and over 80% of our attendees are women. But people who aren’t in the community have never seen something like this, and they don’t even know what to expect.
Being intentional about inclusion by being community-driven is not easy, and it takes time. Meeting quotas of 50% women of color and 15% transgender and gender non conforming speakers at our events is a process. I think we always have to find out how to build relationships and use positive persistence especially when it comes to working with companies and influential people. It’s the work with tech companies, leaders, and our community of working with Lesbians Who Tech & Allies + Tech Jobs Tour to meet these goals. The education, learning, and partnership around changing behavior and tradition to design a more diverse tech sector together. What makes it all worth it? Hearing from our members that they can be out at work. That their company showed up for them by sponsoring and they are on teams that support them. Or, a member found a job by attending an event. It’s why we show up and do the work everyday.
The second part, that’s so important, is getting to a critical mass. When things are smaller it’s harder for people to prioritize. We’ve gotten to a place where we are now the largest LGBTQ professional event in the world after the SF Summit in March. Not to mention, the environment hasn’t really changed in technology in terms of diversity still being such a huge need. We are really the only community of queer women in technology, so if you want to reach this audience and speak to this audience, then it’s the place to be.
Tell me more about Lesbians Who Tech
Lesbians Who Tech + Allies started out as an experiment to prove myself wrong. I wanted to see if there were other LGBTQ women in tech who’d want to meet up and talk about the issues facing us in the tech sector. I started with one happy hour in 2012 in San Francisco, and soon after we grew to a summit 1,000 person summit in SF. This year, we’ll host summits in San Francisco, New York, London, Brazil, Mexico City, Stockholm and more across the globe. Without that first happy hour, we wouldn’t be where we are now, with over 40,000 members in 50 cities around the world.
The reason that we’ve had such success is that people really wanted this. Not just our community members, but companies too. They’re trying to hire and retain diverse talent, and we provide a pipeline of qualified talent for them to access. We’re all winning.
Oh, and we know how to have fun. High fives and hula hoops are kind of our thing.
How do you feel Lesbians Who Tech is making an impact for inclusion of women in tech and how has IBM been involved in this?
Lesbians Who Tech is the only professional organization in the world dedicated 100% to LGBTQ women, trans, gender non-confirming, non-binary folks and allies who love us. We hear time and time again from our members that if our organization didn’t exist, they wouldn’t have a space for themselves and access to job opportunities where their full and authentic selves were celebrated. We’re also incredibly intersectional in our attendees and speakers (who can identify as all parts queer, woman, woman of color) which provides another layer of value to our community of members and hiring partners. We’re highlighting technologists who are too often ignored and hidden, uncovering the hidden figures of tech. We’re giving a literal stage to makers and creatives to share their voices and stories with thousands of people, and we’re getting people hired at some of the coolest tech companies looking to make a change and diversify. We’re directly changing the ratios in tech and the narratives that get shared.
And IBM has been such a huge part of that success. They’ve supported our efforts directly through our Summits and also they recently donated an incredible $50,000 to the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship to send even more LGBTQ women, women of color, and transgender and gender non conforming folks to the coding school of their choice and upon graduation into technical jobs. Of course, it’s only fitting that Edie Windsor, a technologist and hero of ours, paved a professional career at as one of the first female programmers at IBM. We wish she were here to witness our progress.
How can someone find out more about Lesbians Who Tech?
You can find us online at lesbianswhotech.org, on Twitter at @lesbiantech, on Instagram at @lwtech, and on Facebook. But more importantly, come to a Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Summit in New York, San Francisco or Internationally. Or, join a local event. You can access which events are going on in your city on Facebook or Eventbrite. We have over 50 global chapters, and if you’re in a city we don’t have a chapter, let’s start one. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get the conversation started.
Turning to you, what has been the most memorable moment in your career?
So many big moments. Getting Sheryl Sandberg to speak at the 5th Anniversary Lesbians Who Tech + Allies Summit was huge. Having her show up for queer women, support the organization, and bring a visibility to us that we had not had before at that level was a big moment for us. It was definitely a highlight.
Who has inspired you or influenced you in your life?
Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of role models. There wasn’t a spotlight on queer women and that in many ways influenced me to change that. People like Megan Smith and Kara Swisher have been so instrumental in giving me the right advice at the right time. More than that, just being there for different conversations. I think career mentorship is often not about long-term relationships but one piece of good advice.
Sometimes we get too focused on getting coffees and needing a mentor when it’s actually just one piece of great advice that helps. I’ve gotten so many little pieces of advice from so many different entrepreneurs that have helped get me bring Lesbians Who Tech to where it is now.
The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #PressForProgress, what does progress mean to you?
Progress to me is having a black, lesbian president. It’s changing the notion that success looks like one thing. One person. It’s making sure that voices that have gone unheard are lifted up, and it’s giving a seat at the table to those historically denied the inclusion they deserve. A lot of times people kind of hire one type of a person. You have to break the cycle of bias and work at it daily so that representation is equal. So that equal access to a range of opportunities is possible. One of our members said ‘the best way to hire women and people of color is just to hire them.’ I think that’s true for upper mobility as well. The best way to get women, people of color and LGBTQ people to leadership positions is just to put them in leadership positions. There will always be more white, straight, cisgender and male CEO’s until there’s not.
If a prerequisite for filling a job is years of experience, then your list is literally going to be in that category. You have to change the hiring criteria and that’s a huge thing companies are really struggling with. Until we change the criteria, we are still going to get the same group of candidates over and over again. There’s more CEO’s in the Fortune 1000 literally named John than there are women. If we want to change that, we really have to figure out how to change the criteria. One of the things that other countries have done when it comes to corporate women on boards is developing quotas because they don’t feel that it lowers the standard but actually forces them to change the criteria. I think like anything, change doesn’t just happen. It happens with urgency and you have to change that urgency.
Finally – What is your view on how IBM is contributing to Inclusion and the support of women in tech?
IBM has always been at the forefront of innovation and change, and that includes diversity and inclusion. Edie Windsor liked to remind us that while she was one of the first female programmers within IBM, she was not the only one. She rose to the highest technical ranks within IBM with the support of her mentors and we need more managers and leaders willing to lift up those who might not always get the support they need.
IBM’s support of our Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship program ensures that we continue Edie’s progress and that we continue to see LGBTQ women and other underrepresented groups become the next CEO, President or lead programmer at large tech companies. Our next coding scholar could be the next leader at IBM!