3 Women Speak: What It's Like To Be Queer In Tech

The tech industry may be under fire for some forms of discrimination, but leaders in Silicon Valley have made one thing clear: They won't stand for discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Following outcry over Indiana’s controversial “religious freedom” law, more than 100 of tech’s most powerful companies and personalities officially supported a petition demanding that any state considering similar laws must also include legislation that protects against LGBTQ discrimination. (Opponents of Indiana's law are worried it will allow businesses to refuse services to people for religious reasons — essentially legalizing discrimination.) 

We spoke with three queer women in Silicon Valley to get their takes on the situation, and what their experiences in tech have been like. 

Overall, Silicon Valley Is Very Supportive

"Most of the big tech companies have done a pretty decent job with local politics to make sure discrimination isn’t tolerated," says tech consultant and reporter Myriam Joire, who self-identifies as queer. Apple, in particular, was very vocal against Prop 8. Being so near San Francisco, which for decades has been a mecca for the gay community, has been helpful, says Christel van der Boom, who handles communications at Flipboard. "That liberal and forward thinking leaks into Silicon Valley." 

Leaders like Salesforce's Marc Benioff have proven time and again to be allies to the LGBTQ community — and, of course, they have the ability to vote with their dollars. “Billion-dollar companies like Salesforce not sending customers or employees to Indiana has a real impact. These are the biggest leaders in our country, and they're saying it's wrong, and we believe so strongly it's wrong that we're willing to back that up with financial power," Leanne Pittsford, founder and CEO of Social Good Tech Week and Lesbians Who Tech says. As Joire notes, Indiana hosts major conferences and events, like the Indy 500, that have a lot of tech and sponsorship behind them — which could get pulled.

But, There's Still Work To Be Done

“I’m having a lot of second thoughts about the tech industry being progressive in the last five years," Joire says. With the tech boom, she's seeing a lot more opportunists descending on the scene — some of whom are frustratingly narrow-minded. "When you see the Evan Spiegels, they’re not engineers. They’re just Ivy League, white, rich kids that have always had money and been dude bros. They poison the well, in a way.”

Van der Boom has always felt like she can be herself in the workplace, but Joire has sometimes felt stifled. "It’s always been around 'You need to think of the herd.' You can only make so much noise. If you make too much noise, you reach a tipping point where you’re no longer tolerated."

And, while the industry is a meritocracy — anyone can become a millionaire if they just work hard enough — there's a double-edged sword when it comes to being a woman in the scene. As the Ellen Pao trial highlighted, women have to balance not being seen as too timid or too aggressive, something Pittsford finds personally challenging to overcome.

And, even in the post-Tim-Cook-coming-out era, the list of openly gay female CEOs remains small.

Changes On The Horizon

“I think that step one is becoming aware that there is an issue, and step two is that you have some power to change things," Van der Boom says. "Speaking out is the first step in that. Everyone changing their avatars to the 'equal' sign on Facebook [when Prop 8 was on the ballot in California] had an effect. It made people more aware."

Van der Boom also notes that one of the key solutions, in any form of discrimination, is visibility — if you don't see someone, they can be dehumanized. That goes for women, Black people, LGBTQ individuals, and other minorities. In the case of Silicon Valley, that lack of visibility translates into cyclical, homogenous hiring patterns. 

Popular shows on TV like Modern Family and Glee are helping in that aspect. The more we see of the LGBTQ community or any minority — that we're all different, and we're all people — the better off things will be. Pittsford would also love the LGBTQ community to rally together on the issue of gender equality. "I've personally seen deeper sexism in the gay community than any other space in my life. And, I know we can do better," Pittsford says. "I would like to see gay men, and all allies, show up for women and lesbians in real, tangible ways."

As for discriminatory laws such as those in Indiana and Arkansas, having powerful allies like Salesforce pulling their business is perhaps the strongest way to say, "What you're doing is wrong." Technology is the future, and if you can't abide by reasonable, equitable laws, your state is going to be left behind in the dust. 
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