When it comes to LGBTQ in tech, inclusivity is a win-win situation
Efforts are being made to engender an all-embracing culture, but it’s an uphill struggle
Apple chief executive Tim Cook is openly gay and also on great terms with one of the most conservative US presidents the country has elected in decades. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
For members of the LGBTQ community trying to make it in business and tech, acceptance in a straight man’s world is an additional challenge that must be overcome. And that’s before even attempting to gain access to the venture capitalists who control the purse strings. Entrepreneurship may be blind to sexuality. But many entrepreneurs are not.
In the US, business and entrepreneurship networking events are so frequent, the number of event management companies entirely devoted to planning such meet-ups make up a major industry all of its own.
Even in a conservative state like Texas, there are countless “meet-ups” and networking events for LGBTQ tech entrepreneurs and start-up hopefuls.
These “meet-ups” serve less as opportunities to rub shoulders with like-minded business owners or potential investors, and more as ways for LGBTQ entrepreneurs to feel a little less isolated in an industry where success is often dependent on conformity.
Some members of the LGBTQ community – gay white males, for example – can make the decision to “blend in”: hiding their sexuality entirely in order to conform and, therefore, rise the corporate ranks of the business world. But large sections of the community couldn’t do that even if they wanted to: gender non-conformists, for example.
Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, is openly gay and also on great terms with one of the most conservative US presidents the country has elected in decades. So LGBTQ people are not without role models. “Even if you are a gay, white male who doesn’t describe himself as gender non-conforming, when the next networking event comes up and you bring your husband or your boyfriend or you come single and everyone else may be there with their wives and asking you about your relationship status, it changes the way you perceive your role in your job, and makes one reluctant to participate in these informal social situations,” says Jimmy Flannigan, an Irish-American, openly gay local city councillor in Austin, Texas.
Social networking is everything
This might seem insignificant but in a place like Silicon Valley, where fledgling start-ups compete for the attention of venture capitalists, social networking is everything. Lewis King is co-founder of San Francisco-based data analytics firm, Telligent Data.
King says the venture capitalist (VC) community in Silicon Valley is still very much dominated by the archetypal “Stanford, straight, white male” (arguably an unfair generalisation of its own). Networking activities outside the office frequently involve playing golf, going to baseball games etc. This is not to say such activities are beyond the skillsets or interests of everyone in the LGBTQ community, but perhaps not top of the list of preferred leisurely pursuits either. “I mostly didn’t participate in those,” said King. “One can’t help that feeling of discomfort when trying to raise institutional money.
“In San Francisco, being gay has never been an issue per se, but sometimes there is that feeling of isolation,” he says. “Even the queer people starting companies here are either closeted about it or not up-front about it. So a lot of us just felt like we had to be sheepish and fit in in order to succeed.”
King and his business partners ultimately decided to grow their business independently of VC backing. “We just felt it wasn’t worth putting on airs and graces when we could just as easily run a business, maybe not scaling it to venture level, but at least be able to run it on our own terms.”
Efforts are being made to promote more inclusive cultures in companies at government level. But this is an uphill battle fraught with challenges including access to training, raising awareness and communicating the message in language different minorities can understand.
Flannigan is also chairman of the Regional Economic Development Board, responsible for workforce development, where increasing diversity in the workplace is a key aim.
The challenges faced by differing marginalised groups entering the “all-white boys” club of tech vary. Those of the LGBTQ community are in some ways more subtle but in some ways the same as any other.
“Many gay people don’t have the same access to family wealth and that’s a big part of getting into higher education in the United States, ” says Flannigan. “It also plays a part in accessing some of the higher paid, higher profile career paths. It’s frustrating because the data shows an organisation comprising people from diverse backgrounds is stronger, healthier, and more successful than those that segregate – on any metric.”
In other words, inclusivity is a win-win situation.
“No one should be restricted from accessing workforce development training,” says Flannigan. “It shouldn’t require that you conform to a certain gender, or sexuality and it shouldn’t depend on you having a supportive family prepared to keep paying your bills.”
Ensuring equitable access to educational resources provided by the state is just the first step.
Media stereotypes play their part too. “Gay people were only allowed to get married in the last four years and there’s still a stigma around being a queer person,” says King. “It’s all very new. And the achievements of some queer people, such as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, happened in the shadows. They were in the closet. So the first representation of queer people in the media focused on the more flamboyant aspects of our culture. It’s going to take time to get past that.”