Recently, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be out in tech.
In the startup world, there’s a common understanding that we should bring our whole selves to our startup lives. When a well-known VC writes a blog about how he and his wife negotiate their partnership, we read it enthusiastically because we want to know about his whole self. Entrepreneurs who admit to and discuss their bouts with depression garner our respect and trust both for them and for their organization. I would argue that the “whole self” aspects of entrepreneurship are part of what makes this whole startup ecosystem so rich and exciting. As studies show, being our whole selves at work is also crucial for innovation. Being our authentic selves (and feeling comfortable and safe doing so) makes us more creative and engaged and better contributors at work. (Source)
But who gets to be their authentic self at startups, and who doesn’t? Which groups are still barely at the table, much less able to move through the startup world free to be themselves? As stats from tech companies brave enough to release them underscore, lack of diversity in tech is very much still a problem. While there are many aspects of this lack of diversity that need to be addressed (gender, ethnicity, age, disability status and more), for the purposes of this post, I’ll talk about a particular kind of diversity that I personally come up against: being a woman and being gay.
For the past few years, I’ve been out to my startup clients. I used to ignore inevitable pronouns and questions that would crop up after a few months on a project, but I felt like I was hiding myself every time personal lives became part of a conversation and I neglected to mention my partner. I’m grateful to say that, so far, coming out on the job has never been an issue for me. I have felt only supported by the clients with whom I’ve worked. It turns out, being out at work has not been an issue for me personally any more than my being vegan and ordering tempeh Ruebens at business lunches. That has been my experience, but I know that for many LGBTQ people, coming out in tech brings substantial risk.
In the United States, it’s unfortunately still a privilege to be out at the workplace. A gay CTO in Salt Lake City may worry about telling his co-workers about his engagement, lest doing so get him fired. This may sound extreme, but in many states with vibrant tech communities, workers can still be fired based on sexual orientation. Other issues with coming out at the workplace include simply being treated differently after coming out–not get promoted as quickly, not getting the best projects to work on, having assumptions made about your work based on your orientation/identity, and on.
When Tim Cook came out, it mattered to our community and to young people and to the world. Being out in tech shouldn’t be an issue, but in today’s world, whether we’d like to admit it or not, it very much still does.
In May 2014, I founded the Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup in an effort to create community around and bring awareness to a group who have been historically underrepresented in society and in tech. Since inception, we’ve grown to 100+ LGBTQ techies and allies, and have hosted diversity in tech-focused, dinners, panels, happy and coffee hours, and community networking events at local startups and technology hubs. The incredible people and co-organizers I’ve met as a result of this are now my friends and unending sources of inspiration (you know who you are).
Boulder, CO, where I live and have clients, has come under fire for diversity and tech issues. It seems like we can’t go a week without some council member suggesting that growing tech in Boulder is just going bring more “straight rich white guys”. I recommend reading Brad Feld’s blog on the subject if you want to read up. Our group stands in the face of those criticisms. Our members are exceptionally valuable contributors to Boulder’s technology economy. Local and international companies and orgs have embraced us, and we’re exploring new ways to partner with allies and companies working to make things better.
Our group is now an official partner of Lesbians Who Tech 2015 conference and we’re a NCWIT Affinity Group Alliance member. Our Meetup membership has been generously sponsored by Pivotal Tracker for 2015. We do volunteer work and community service (a few weeks ago 11 of us met to upgrade Out Boulder’s website, for example). Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup has done events with Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software, gSchool and Galvanize and 500 Startups, Lesbians Who Tech, SendGrid, Trada, Quick Left, and more. And we’re just getting started.
Since I moved to this beautiful mountain town almost two years ago, a lot has changed. When I first arrived, it was illegal for me to marry my partner. Now we have marriage equality. We now also have a LGBTQ tech meetup.
These days, I do my best to bring my whole self to work. Every day I feel grateful for that privilege, and reminded of those who don’t yet have it, and the work that needs to be done.
Thanks for reading. – Sarah