Ahead of Berlin’s Biggest LGBTQI Tech Event, Industry Has a Long Way to Go in Sexual Minority Rights

Unit Festival

Tomorrow hundreds of people will meet in Berlin for #unit Festival, the ‘world’s first queer tech conference’. The event, run by local group Unicorns in Tech, will welcome over 70 speakers to Germany’s first tech community for “gays, lesbians, straight people, or however you may identify”.

#unit joins dozens of other groups, shows and workshops that are promoting sexual minority rights in the technology industry. But further afield, the picture for LGBTQI rights in tech is muddy at best.

LGBTQI rights have been high on the tech agenda this past month, thanks to PayPal’s decision to pull out of a $3.6 million, 400-job plan in North Carolina, in response to a recently-passed law targeting sexual minorities. “The new law perpetuates discrimination and it violates the values and principles that are at the core of PayPal’s mission and structure,” the company’s CEO Dan Schulman said in a statement.

Deutsche Bank soon followed suit, freezing job expansion plans in the state. This prompted governor Pat McCrory to climb down some of the law’s most controversial tenets. But he maintained that North Carolina will prevent transgender people from using bathrooms other than those assigned their birth gender. U.S. presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has thrown his weight behind North Carolina’s bill, telling MSNBC “the political correctness we have embraced. Enough already.”

Despite PayPal and Deutsche Bank’s moves, #unit Festival founder Stuart Cameron still believes that for most big tech corporations, LGBTQI rights are overrated. “Most companies do not care about diversity right now…they think that they are open and proud already. ‘We don’t have a problem with…’ is a very common answer and a sign of superficial reflection.”

Cameron points to tech’s yawning gender gap, something on which Red Herring has repeatedly reported, as a key battleground in the wider fight for diversity. “If you are working for a company with less than 20% women in their tech department, you should know there is something going wrong,” he says.

Mala Kumar, a global development professional and author of The Paths of Marriage, agrees. “There are countless studies and reports showing misogyny in tech companies, and that also includes within the gay male community,” she says. “The tech industry is very male-dominated, and so the misogyny against women in general and more specifically of lesbians needs to be separated from how gay men are treated. Each community has its own issues and challenges to overcome.”

This March, big data specialist Vivienne Ming released a report calculating the cost of being a woman or gay man, as opposed to a straight man – a “tax on being different,” as she put it. Ming found that women in U.S. tech pay a ’tax’ of between $100,000 and $300,000 in their lifetimes, while women in Singapore pay $800,000-$1.5 million. It also costs $54,000 to be a gay man in the U.K., reported Ming, who is herself transgender.

That doesn’t mean, however, that progress has remained idle. An increasing number of apps and programs have catered to the LGBTQI community in recent years. ‘Inclusion technology’ creator Glassbreakers recently raised $1.98 million for its platform, geared towards companies of 10,000 employees, that consults firms on diversity, and mentors women.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an industry watchdog, has seen a rise in corporate gender and sexual equality since 2002. Then, only 13 Fortune 500 companies scored 100% on a test measuring inclusivity. Now that figure is 407. In 2002 only 3% had gender identity safeguards in place, whereas now three quarters do.

Groups such as New York’s Out in Tech, and InterTech LGBT of London, are increasing the visibility of the problem – and sexual minority voices in the industry. The most visible LGBTQI community member in tech is, of course, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who came out publicly as gay in October 2014. But despite the headway that announcement may have made, it is important for the industry not to self-congratulate – or to think huge progress has been made.

“LGBTQIA people of color, queer women, and transgender people might not “see” themselves in Tim Cook in the same way that another gay, white, cisgender man would,” says Abigail Parsons, director of the LGBTQIA (the ‘A’ stands for ‘asexual’) Resource Center at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“So while the Tim Cooks of the industry play an important role in jumpstarting a conversation about LGBTQIA people in tech, it would be naïve and premature to draw the conclusion that discrimination isn’t a concern for others who still face additional layers of discrimination in the workplace.

“Our LGBTQIA students at Georgia Tech still come to me with concerns about how to navigate the job market, particularly if they’re worried that their appearance or the experiences listed on their resume might out them,” adds Parsons. “They’re constantly trying to strike a balance between being seen as employable – which to them means not looking too queer – and not having to compromise their identity.”

Parsons urges corporations to think carefully about what they mean by the term ‘professional’ in the workplace. Often, she says, it is used to describe employees who conform to certain heteronormative, cisnormative, or masculine norms.

“For women who might take time out to raise families or provide elder care and for LGBTQIA people who might present in ways that are gender non-conforming at work (or who are in transition), this nebulous and problematic standard of ‘professionalism’ becomes an often unachievable goal,” she adds.

Ten years ago, says Kumar, “the general environment towards gay people in America was very different to what it is now. Bush made a social platform on bashing gay people. The attitudes across the board, including within tech companies in the US and Europe have changed a huge amount in the last ten years. It’s not to say that everything is perfect now, but being openly gay is now much easier than back then.” Google in particular, she adds, has been very supportive of openly-gay staff.

But that is reserved for tech employees in the U.S. – and, to a greater extent, western Europe. Another cost of gender and sexuality inequality is that it prevents LGBTQI staff from working abroad, in places where persecution of gay, lesbian and transgender people is commonplace, and often state-sponsored. Kumar points out that she, as a gay woman, finds it difficult working in sub-Saharan Africa.

“There are realities that come with being a certain race and/or gender,” she says. “There are social licenses that go with gender and race, and that’s part of the LGBT issue.”

It seems that, as far as gender and sexual minority rights in the technology industry go, there is plenty of work to be done.Tomorrow in Berlin, Stuart Cameron hopes #unit can be another big step in the right direction. People can enjoy “the diverse range of themes that you rarely have a chance to hear at other tech events, and bringing in social change in the tech branch through discussions and reflections.

“And, of course, the biggest get-together between queer and straight tech-loving unicorns until now!”