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LWT Summit delivers straight talk about diversity in tech

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There were plenty of wow moments as IT leaders revealed new software, space and robotics technologies at the 2016 Lesbians Who Tech (LWT) Summit. The biggest surprise, however, was a speaker’s revelation about 1950s’ tech culture. During the main keynote, former IBM Senior Systems Programmer Edie Windsor corrected the widely-held assumption that she was one of the few women computer pros at IBM in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, “about a third” of her programmer colleagues were women, she said.

I was certainly surprised. In this post, I’ll share more of this LWT  Summit’s revelatory and funny moments, as well as what I learned about software and hardware engineers’ efforts to close the gender and minority gap in IT hiring.
Seeing women and minorities in technical positions was rare in late 1980s, when I became a tech journalist.  For a couple of decades, I often was the only woman or one of a handful of women at tech meetups and in session rooms at IT conferences. So, I haven’t been surprised by reports that the number of
women in the U.S. IT workforce dropped from 35% percent in 1990 to 26% in 2013. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen the ratio improve … but not a lot.

Thanks to these reports, bad press and diversity activism, many tech companies are making an effort to give more positions to women and minorities, said LWT founder Leanne Pittsford. So far, their follow-through hasn’t been impressive. She urged Summit attendees to increase their diversity activism in her presentation, titled “Take a [email protected]!#NG Risk.”

“We need to take big risks. Without risk there is no progress,” Pittsford said. “There will always be more white, straight, CIS men in power until there is not.”

The opportunities in diversity activism are very, well, diverse. For example, the victory of Edie Windsor’s Supreme Court case against DOMA (U.S. Defense of Marriage Act) led to advances in gay marriage rights. Many 2016 LWT Summit-San Francisco speakers, including Hackathon session leader Kate Jefferson, work with Women in STEM groups, providing tech education. Apple VP Tara Bunch – who spoke about personal communication – is active in the workplace equality group, Out and Equal. Speaker Caitlin E Kalinowski, Oculus Head of Product Design Engineering, is on the board of wogrammer, which spotlights the careers of successful women engineers.

Diversity activism must also fight workplace and societal hostility toward women, minorities and LGBT people, Pittsford said. Join in working toward a world, she said, “where no one can lose their job because of their sexual or gender identity.” That discrimination still exists. In most U.S. states, laws allow employers to fire or not hire LGBT employees, in spite of the protections legislated by the U.S. Civil Rights Law of 1964.

At the Summit, Windsor confided that she had to remain closeted during all of her tech career, though she was out in her social life.  “I lied a lot,” she said. In 1975, she retired from IBM to devote herself to LGBT activism.

While there was plenty of straight talk about the lousy state of diversity in tech, there was no male-bashing. TechCrunch reporter Megan Rose Dickey’s presentation, “The Kinsey Scale for Diversity,” is an example of the good-humored attitude prevalent there.

Dickey talked about the media brouhaha that followed Twitter hiring a white male diversity chief. That was Jeremy Siminoff, who held a similar role at Apple. Dickey wrote a pro-Siminoff article about the hire, noting that he is gay. On Dickey’s Kinsey Scale for Diversity, Siminoff gets a point for being gay. So, he’s not at the bottom of the diversity scale. Pittsford, who is white, only got two points for being a woman and a lesbian. Dickey ranked herself higher, because she’s African-American, lesbian and a woman. And so she continued to the point of near-absurdity.

Dickey’s smart, tongue-in-cheek presentation was typical of the day’s presentations. I’ve never laughed so much at a tech conference.