Lesbians Who Tech CEO Leanne Pittsford’s Advice for Being Inclusive? “Have Awkward Conversations.”

"I entered into tech and was like, ‘Oh, this is really f*cked-up.'"

Last August, I wrote a feature for NewNowNext exploring how the word lesbian has fallen out of favor among my friends, peers, and other women I know who are attracted to women. It was an intimidating topic to broach, especially because the labels we use to define ourselves— lesbian, bisexual, queer—inadvertently end up affecting how inclusive we are perceived to be by other LGBTQ people and society at large.

One essay on the subject that caught my eye during my research was written by Leanne Pittsford, founder and CEO of Lesbians Who Tech, the world’s largest professional organization of its kind for LGBTQ people. Pittsford wrestles with questions of how our language can (or should) be more inclusive every single day. At this year’s LWT Summit in New York City, which took place September 11–13, the San Francisco–based entrepreneur got candid with NewNowNext about the difficulties of making an organization truly inclusive and the pitfalls of running a queer women-centric company with lesbian in its name.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for AOL
Leanne Pittsford in 2017.

How did you first get involved in tech?

I started my career in the LGBTQ space. After grad school, I worked in San Francisco. In grad school, I studied social justice, learning all the “-isms” and the main takeaway that you should work for a community that you’re a part of. I’m a woman, I’m white, I’m gay, and none of the gay people [I knew] wanted to do gay things. Everyone was like, “Oh, that’s my personal life. I want separation.” And I just didn’t get it. I mean, clearly there was a need for it.

I came from a family with parents who were not accepting. So after grad school, I wanted to work for an LGBTQ organization. I ended up at Equality California. I’ve always been a tech person; I love data. I failed the English part of the SAT! [Laughs] I worked on the Prop 8 campaign in 2004. I managed all the data analytics. I got to build fundraising tools that raised millions of dollars. It was during the time of Obama and that sort of digital revolution that was happening—blogging, social media.

What was the industry like back then?

I spent every day working in the Castro. Everywhere I went, there were gay men—and gay bars that were for gay men—and when I looked at the [campaign] data, it was mostly gay white men who were donating. They were the ones who had a voice and were making the decisions. At the same time, I felt like I didn’t have role models. It didn’t feel like there were that many women leading and having a voice. It just wasn’t equal. The dot I could draw around was economic power. Women make less than men. I mean, there’s a reason Pete Buttigieg has raised so much money.

Would you say money and the freedom that comes with it are a big part of tech’s allure as an industry?

Oh, economic power is a huge part of it. There’s only so much time in a day, and money is very scalable. In order for us to actually have an impact, we have to have economic power. I decided when I left [Equality California], I wanted to try to make more money in life. I quickly entered in tech and was like, Oh, this is really fucked-up. [Laughs] It made the queer space—all of the white, cis gay men [I worked with]—look like angels! I was trying to find my squad. I went to so many events. I was really out there. And even the women’s events—they’d be talking about their husbands at home. It was those little micro-differences that got to me. Like, what happens when you’ve got two women at home?

Has gender equity in tech evolved much since the first LWT Summit in 2014?

I think it really depends on the person. Overall, no. Look at the diversity numbers. The needle has not moved. I think what has happened is that communities like ours exist. There’s more support for people. But I think even LWT having the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship—a lot of people around the country are learning how to code remotely because of that. That’s what the most powerful thing for me is about tech. The average tech salary is around three times the average American salary. You’re literally talking about a life changed overnight. You can learn to code in three months and triple your salary.

This year’s LWT NYC Summit had 64% speakers of color. How does your team make figures like that—a clear indication of a commitment to diversity—actually happen?

When we had our first event, we were not 50% [people of color]. I think because I came from the queer space, where I had seen so many white cis men have conversations about not reaching communities of color, I was used to thinking that way. So I said, “Okay, we’re going to be committed to having 50% speakers of color. That’s what it’s going to be.” We have that quota, and we’re committed to hitting it.

I’m a big proponent of having hard conversations. Awkward conversations—whether you have them with yourself around your own privilege, or with other people about their privilege—are so important. Especially in the beginning, the LWT audience was also very white. I thought, Okay, if we can keep the representation [among speakers] at a certain point, then we can build this community and build trust within the community. Honestly, that’s how I felt within the larger gay space. I felt like—and I still feel like—so many gay men don’t understand that for queer women, going into a room where we’re 5% or 10%… it hurts. You know?

Oh, I know.

It’s hard—[queer women] can’t really publicly talk about sexism that exists within our own community because it’s not good for the community’s larger goals. It’s a very, very fine line. It has to be done delicately. I’m very much a proponent about being thoughtful: “Who is this room for?” That being said, it’s difficult. It’s a conversation [LGBTQ people] have to have internally.

Speaking of difficult conversations: You run a thriving company centered on inclusion with the word lesbian in its name. What are your thoughts on that branding choice six years later?

I still feel like it’s the right decision, but I still feel conflicted about it. It’s one of the things that bothers me most. I am always open to more conversations. I would say that bisexual women who feel very strongly that if the [event] does not say queer, they do not feel included—I totally understand. That’s probably the most heartbreaking part of this for me.

Have you debated changing the brand name?

Outside of moving to an acronym or using “queer,” which has other negative connotations, there’s no perfect solution. I’m a problem solver; I’m always trying to think of ways to fix this. That’s why the tagline is “queer inclusive badass,” right? That’s part of how we’re trying to get better about a problem that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer. Making sure we have bisexual woman speakers? We should probably add a quota to that, too, because it’s important. I spend my personal time having very long email conversations and phone conversations about this because I am so passionate about it. I want people to feel included.

I think women are so amazing at being inclusive. We always strive to be more inclusive. But when we stop being specific [with our language], the value does change, and the impact does, too. We’ve made a lot of those branding decisions over time. There’s a reason why there are so many women’s groups and so many LGBTQ groups, and so few specifically for us, queer women. And then we wonder why it’s hard to find community. You have to be specific when you’re trying to build something. I think the idea that you can be specific without being exclusive—that is our motto. We want to specifically address a need and provide a value that doesn’t exist, without being exclusive. It’s a challenge. I think we’ve done it as well as we can, but there are always ways to get better.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella