Tech Confab Aims to Empower Lesbians

by Sari Staver

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday March 20, 2016

Lesbians working in technology, still greatly outnumbered by men in the workplace, are often "smarter" than many co-workers because they have developed emotional intelligence, according to Roseanne Malfucci, product lead at Thought Works.

Speaking to a standing-room-only audience at the recent Lesbians Who Tech conference in San Francisco, Malfucci said that queers may have higher rates of emotional intelligence because "we were forced to understand the dominant culture."

"Learning to manage emotions when we were younger was a way to stay safe," Malfucci noted.

The three-day conference, held February 25-28, brought over 1,700 lesbians and their allies to the annual meeting of the rapidly growing organization. Begun about three years ago as a happy hour gathering for lesbians, the Lesbians Who Tech community has over 15,000 members in 35 chapters, six of them international.

Emotional intelligence, Malfucci explained, is a concept made popular by psychologist Daniel Goleman that refers to the ability of people to identify and manage emotions, both their own and those of other people. Goleman found that emotional intelligence has a stronger correlation to success at work than IQ, she said.

At the panel on career growth and leadership, Malfucci said that many people get "hijacked by their emotions" in the workplace. Instead, she said, a better strategy is to figure out "when to push and when to lay back."

While there is much talk about the need for diversity in the tech field, "it's rare that we talk about how diverse people in tech bring value," Malfucci said.

Someone with emotional intelligence, she added, may find it easier to "cultivate empathy with customers" by being able to "put yourself in their shoes."

Emotional intelligence can also help people take care of themselves. For example, if someone is hard at work coding for several hours, and finds their vision is getting blurry or they're getting irritable, it's best to take a break rather than pushing too hard and making mistakes, Malfucci said.

Also speaking on the career panel was Heather Hiles, the CEO and founder of Pathbrite (, a cloud-based portfolio platform where users can "showcase all digital evidence of what they have created, achieved, and mastered."

Hiles, a lesbian who formerly served on the San Francisco school board, urged conference attendees to create a free personal portfolio as a means of improving their career. No matter what someone's current position she said, "we are all really just freelancers and need to show off the latest thing we have achieved."

Hiles said she founded the company, after working in education for 25 years, to make "free technology" available to people not used to having access to such tools.

"You've got to just keep putting it out there," she said.

February Keeney, an engineering manager at San Francisco's GitHub, urged the attendees to fight "patriarchy bias" in a company's hiring practices. Keeney, who has spent almost two decades "on both sides of the interview table," explained her recent experience interviewing several dozen women for a job at GitHub, a San Francisco web hosting company.

Keeney, a trans woman, said she found herself ranking higher the women "who she could make easy friendships with," rather than those most likely to be best at the job.

"We must be sure we use objective criteria to hire," not try to meet new friends, she said. Keeney also suggested, "taking good notes" while interviewing someone and afterward, "notice your biases," if any.

If someone is overheard saying, "She's not a good fit" for the team, call out these "non-qualifier" statements, she added.

Tiffany Dockery, a senior product manager at Amazon in Seattle, described her experience overcoming the "imposter syndrome." Earlier in her career, Dockery found herself working in a department where she was the only African-American person, as well as the only out LGBT person.

"I found myself constantly apologizing and questioning whether I was good enough," she said.

But one day, she had a "tech bro revelation" when she overheard a male co-worker voice the same doubts she had.

"It's a human problem," she said. "We live in a world that tells us we're not enough."

Out tech journalist Kara Swisher said that when women in tech ask her for career advice, she tells them to "stop waiting for people to offer you things." Rather than job offers that come in over the transom, said Swisher, the co-executive editor and co-founder of Re/code, go after "what you want."

Swisher said that in her career, "any time I think I have failed has been when I wasn't straightforward and outspoken enough. I always regret not speaking up."

"I always ask for tons of money," in job interviews, Swisher said. Once, while interviewing with Vox Media, the interviewer, in trying to convince her to accept a salary package, said, "Oh, c'mon Kara, we're friends," Swisher recalled, adding that she responded, "Yes, I love you but give me the fucking money."

(Vox acquired Re/code last year.)

While it is difficult to get an accurate count of LGBT people in any workplace, Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford said, in an email to the Bay Area Reporter, that the number of queer women in the technology sector is growing, "because we're reaching a point where we're not silent about our identity anymore."

"Where we're not hiding our wedding ring when we get to work so we don't have to tell our co-workers that we're married to another woman. Where we're not fearing not getting a job in the first place because we chose not to hide who we are," Pittsford said. "We're in a time where more and more queer women in positions of power - VPs, product managers, directors, board members - are coming out and in turn, will only lead to acceptance of more of us in tech, more queer women role models, and more queer youth getting involved and assuming positions of leadership.

"And as more tech companies continue to be called out for their lack of diversity amongst women and people of color, our hope is that these numbers will grow," she added.

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