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Fighting Silicon Valley Sexism as a Queer Woman

After years of navigating the industry's insidious "Boys Club" culture, Leanne Pittsford founded the organization Lesbians Who Tech to combat the unique sexism queer women face in the workplace.
Photo by Alto Images via Stocksy

After years of working in the tech industry as a lesbian woman and entrepreneur, Leanne Pittsford was fed up. "I was really frustrated because LGBT women didn’t have the voice [in tech] that we deserve," Pittsford told Broadly. "We didn’t have a community that so many of us needed." Pittsford had joined group after group created for LGBT people in tech, but "every time I looked around those LGBT events, it was 90 percent men," she said.


Pittsford attended women-centered events, too, but encountered different problems. "I would go to women’s panels and the speakers would be talking about how to talk to the men at home, saying it’s important for men to have a role in the family. Then I was left there sitting in the audience thinking, How do work duties shift when you’re in a family of two women? There was no representation there."

In 2012, Pittsford took her frustrations with the preexisting networks dominated by men and cis straight women and channeled them into launching Lesbians Who Tech, a community made up of queer women and their allies that aims to create networking opportunities for queer women in tech, while increasing their overall visibility in the industry.

Pittsford says that when she launched Lesbians Who Tech, she thought it was "probably going to fail." But the organization's first happy hour event in 2012 attracted 30 LGBTQ women for a night of networking. Now, nearly six years later, Lesbians Who Tech is flourishing with over 15,000 members across the US and three annual tech conferences. "We’ve had lines out the door at some of our events," said Pittsford. "It’s just so clear lesbian and queer women within tech were a community that wasn’t getting its needs met."

Broadly spoke with Pittsford about the unique struggles queer women face when it comes to sexism in the workplace, and how we can all help put an end to it.


Photo courtesy of Leanne Pittsford

BROADLY: What kind of experiences made you realize the insidious nature of sexism in the tech industry?
LEANNE PITTSFORD: I didn’t enter [tech] in the traditional sense, I was managing the data for an anti-prop eight campaign almost 10 years ago. I was a young staffer—that was my start in the LGBT world, my first job after grad school—and it was one of those situations [where] if you want to take on more things, there is a lot of room to grow in other areas. I ended up building an online fundraising tool that raised millions of dollars for the campaign and really fell in love with the power of technology. At the same time, I realized the overt and not-so-overt sexism that was happening in the LGBTQ world because I was managing the data.

So I saw the data for men and women on the giving side and it was really enlightening. That’s how I fell in love with technology but more than that, I really fell in love with—or felt at the time that—if you could make money in life, that it was actually your civic duty to do so. It was very clear to me that women didn’t have as much economic power, right? Women make less than men, [and] if you put two women together in a couple, two gay men are actually on the other end of the economic spectrum. So for me, I really think that technology is a way and a task moving forward to get that economic power and to get more voice within the larger movement…


There are things when you’re in meetings or conversations and you say something twice. Then the man says it, and they say, "Oh my god, that’s brilliant!" That has happened to me hundreds—if not more—[of] times over the course of my career. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts and it would happen all the time. Then I think, on top of that, while working in tech, you could see the access to capital conversation everywhere you turn. You learn how hard it is for women to get capital and you hear about it constantly when you talk to other co-founders who are women and you hear about their struggles.

Last year's Lesbians Who Tech conference. Photo by Marisa McGrody

What LGBT-specific issues are often overlooked by cis-straight peers when it comes to discussions of workplace sexism?
I think for queer women, there’s an interesting thing that’s very nuanced that happens in the workplace around sexual power and when that’s taken away. It’s obviously atrocious, but women are sort of in a position where they have to make a decision around their sexual power in the workplace. In reality, that has been happening for decades but it’s different for queer women. What happens when someone is more feminine-presenting in contrast to when someone is more masculine-presenting? Or someone who is more androgynous or genderqueer? How do you navigate those conversations while being out?

And it’s not really a conversation you’re having with others, it’s the way you dress, how you carry yourself, and how people perceive you. We have women who are more male-presenting and men around them feel comfortable talking about women in a really derogatory way. What happens when you’re invited to the boys club and you don’t agree with it? How do you make those decisions about what to bring up to HR? I heard a story the other day about a male colleague who was shocked that two beautiful women could be a couple. Those are the issues that Lesbians Who Tech offers support about. And that’s why it’s so important that if there’s a panel being hosted about working in tech, that there’s a queer woman present.


How can one be a true ally in the workplace?
You have to fight [racism and sexism] every day. You have to think about your biases in every situation and context to be acutely aware of how those systems are impacting your decisions and how they’re impacting your thought process. Then, once you’re done thinking about what’s impacting you and your decisions, you have to fight those forces. I think that’s a hard realization and it’s just like anything else: You have to practice it, you have to implement it, and you have to have tough conversations with yourself and your community.

How does the Lesbians Who Tech annual conference ensure that these conversations stay intersectional—do you include diverse panelists and speakers?
We have a quota of 50% women of color speakers every year, which is why planning the event is difficult because companies don’t understand that our process for speakers is set up in a way to make sure that we achieve that… For me, it’s a type of tension that can lead to growth and incredible conversions. It’s uncomfortable and we’re just scratching the surface of how uncomfortable it is and we need to keep putting pressure on having these conversations. Obviously the #MeToo movement and the #TimesUp movement, these are things that are getting more visibility, [but] the reality is, things don’t change without urgency and it’s creating a wave of urgency that people can’t ignore.

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Beyond individuals confronting their everyday biases, how can leaders in tech end workplce discrimination?
I very much try to steer conversations away from the focus on individuals. What we have to do is change power structures and create urgency to do that. Why can’t we have 50% women and 50% people of color on corporate boards? We look at Norway and other countries and see that they have implemented quotas. For this country, companies can make public statements that the press can hold them accountable for. I’m honestly surprised that no tech company has said we’re going to be the first to mandate 50% women on our technical team by next year and we want you to hold us accountable to that. Could you imagine if Mark Zuckerberg came out and made a goal like that? Hundreds of companies would follow suit.

I would also love to see the laws changed around quotas, as affirmative action policies like that are illegal in our country. With that, you change the criteria around the prerequisites for jobs. Currently, if a company is looking for a CEO to go public with, the pool of candidates to choose from is mostly white, straight cis-gender men who are all probably named John. That’s the list, and if you’re always looking at the same prerequisite the pool will never change. Power doesn’t give up power. You must create urgency around change. It doesn’t happen naturally.