Advertising Age: “Square Pegs Who Tech”

An LGBTQ Take on Gender, Diversity, & Inclusion in Digital

As seen in the November 2016 issue of Advertising Age

The first time I attended the Lesbians Who Tech Summit, I felt radical. While I loved working at agencies, being around creatives, and immersing myself in technology, I had struggled to find my people in the field.

As an industry, we can be honest about why. I’m not a programmer, so I didn’t always mesh with that kind of nerd. Project management was a natural fit but I wasn’t stoked to base a social scene on gantt charts and time tracking.

What was disorienting was that everyone around me looked the same — not to me, but to each other. Where were the women, the people of color, the gays? I was hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t wear snarky t-shirts and cargo shorts. I generally felt welcome, but the sameness struck me as odd for a group of people trying to do disruptive things.

To me, Lesbians Who Tech (“LWT”) sounded totally different. “Queer,” they said. “Inclusive,” they said. (They even said, “Badass”). I imagined us staging the rebellion — damning the patriarchy, shaking our fists, and crying out against the norm in a safe place.

It was that, but more topical: a nice mix of subversive neutrality and hostile but optimistic self-segregation. Talks ranged from traditional tech subjects like prototyping, AI, and personalization algorithms along with issues of desegregation, visibility, and social justice in the industry.

I returned to work feeling validated, but I still kept my newly found, you’re-not-alone feeling in my back pocket. Though my company had paid for my ticket, I didn’t tell many of my colleagues that I’d gone. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed or nervous; I just felt like they wouldn’t get it.

The next year, I joined a new agency, Bluecadet, where I felt much more at home. They too made interesting digital projects but chose clients with difficult stories to tell and crafted those stories into thoughtful interactive experiences that reached diverse audiences. When I asked if I could attend Lesbians Who Tech again, they not only paid for my ticket, but they got excited about it. I felt comfortable letting everyone know that I was going to attend a focused meditation on queer, feminist inclusion, and I just might return a more vehement homo than before.

This time, however, my expectations, both for myself and the summit, were different.

Lesbians Who Tech had a compelling premise: that one’s identity as a queer woman in this industry makes her uniquely poised to solve problems. It isn’t a handicap, but an asset.

As an underrepresented, low-visibility, and often marginalized community, we bring new and different perspectives to the table. We tend to be observant, critical, and thoughtful in ways those who have never been in disparate company maybe can’t be. It’s a skill we’ve honed by not constantly having our opinions and ideas reinforced by the masses.

In returning to LWT a second time, I thought back to my former agency, where everyone got up every day, worked with like-minded people, and did things in like-minded ways. Grouping a bunch of lesbians together in a room was better, but clearly not best.

In fact, “Lesbians Who Tech” seemed a contradiction in terms for a field where human empathy aids accessibility and varied human perspectives empower an ever-growing audience.

As a rule, technologists don’t seek to avoid failure. They try to fail early and often. We throw things at the wall and see if they stick. If they don’t, we ask questions, change our approach, and do it again. We’re agile by nature, or at least we’re supposed to be. So why are so many companies so much of the same? Why do we preach change and practice routine?

At the summit, I realized LWT was simply scratching the surface. The tech industry doesn’t merely need to build up lesbians in tech; it needs to embolden all outsiders to tech. It needs input from all angles to support, surprise, and delight. This requires proactive recruiting, visible representation, and serious open-mindedness. Give us your lesbians, sure; we’ll take ’em. But I want all the square pegs on my team: the atypical, the overlooked, the new, and the strange.

A professional culture that serves to benefit diversity and inclusion is one that produces a strong body of work: products and services that pivot on observation, engagement, and collaboration. For the designers, developers, and directors to be so similar to one another is to sell our user base short. With a greater range of input, we can build teams that think for themselves, challenge trends, and offer up new ideas as they flex their freak-flag-waving muscles. They’re the radical ones. They’re not just my people; they’re everyone’s.