WITS NE 2019: My Experience

The joy and disappointment of the all-female tech conference

April 19, 2019, 10:52 a.m.

The 2019 Northeast Women In Tech Summit (WITS), which took place last Friday and Saturday, brought together a variable who’s-who of female technologists in the greater-Philadelphia region for two days of women-led and women-centric technology content. This was my first year attending the conference, and I was left with two overall conflicting takeaways:

  1. WITS demonstrated the importance and power of female-only spaces in tech and beyond
  2. WITS demonstrated that diversity in tech, by itself, is not enough to create the radical shift the industry needs

Let’s start with the first point.

The Joy of a Female-only Tech Space

I can not accurately describe to you the feeling of being in a room with hundreds of female technologists, with only the incredibly rare man (mostly venue staff) in sight. It is a feeling of comfort, belonging, homecoming, welcoming, and safety. It is a feeling I have never had at a tech conference before, and I believe that having this space where we could let our guard down and just focus on growing and learning is important, and must be protected. While I certainly don’t speak for all women, I believe I am not alone in my feeling of “otherness” when I step into most tech spaces. Stereotype threat is real, and being distracted by trying to represent your entire sex while you should be learning distracts from many real opportunities for growth. I’ve written before about the impact that overt and subtle sexism has on women’s experiences at conferences, and how this contributes to the perpetual problem of women’s underrepresentation in tech. For women of color, this problem is compounded.

Being in a space with women is different even from being in a space where there is not overt sexism taking place. Being free from fear of the sexism is liberating, and allows women to truly be present in the moment at the conference, forming genuine personal connections and learning in a way that is otherwise out of reach for us. When men are around, the walls go up.

At WITS I saw women stand up and boldly ask a packed room for help. I saw women admit that they did not know things, and struggle together to get to the answer. I saw women challenge each other on controversial topics, free from the risk of breaking the wall of solidarity behind The Only Female Speaker. I saw speakers who were not only female, but boldly female – bubbly, goofy, sarcastic, funny, and fearlessly smart. Nothing was being held back, and it was wonderful.

We did not have to find each other with desperate looks across a crowded room. We did not have to quietly text our complaints and frustrations about the speaker lineup to each other under the table. We did not have to sneak outside to decompress and process what the heck just happened.

When women get together without men, we find freedom very quickly. Without the male-gaze, the stereotype threat, and the constant need to perform gender “right” to be taken seriously, we are able to find a power that is normally suppressed. Feminists have long known that separatism is a vital tactic to women’s liberation, but more and more these spaces are being taken over. WITS remains the only women’s tech conference that actually has an all-female speaker lineup (why women’s conferences continue to invite male speakers is absolutely beyond me), and many “women’s” tech groups do nothing to actually maintain a female-only space. The opportunities for women to participate in such a space are becoming increasingly rare. In this way, WITS is fairly radical just in it’s simple existence.

Yet, it is perhaps because of this baseline radical nature and my joy in the environment itself that the overwhelming stench of late-stage capitalism lingering across the conference remained all-the-more disappointing.

The Lack of Ethical Self-Awareness

White women from companies such as Comcast and Lockheed Martin took to the keynote stage to discuss the “impact” of their technology, blow off questions about the ethics of the products they were promoting, and tell women to “lean in” without a hint of irony. The opening keynote, by Jeanine Heck of Comcast, drilled in what we pretty much already know: that companies count their success by the number of engagements per day, and are constantly striving to capture more and more of the public’s attention. To them, diversity is not about bringing different views to create a better world, it’s about creating a product that they can sell to more people.

Many of the main-stage speaker positions seemed to come from paid sponsorships, such as that of Comcast and Amazon. Diya Wynn, the speaker representing Amazon, portrayed a utopian version of a capitalist future that bordered on delusion where we have a highly-skilled workforce ready to meet the demands of a technologically-centered marketplace, and there is no need for unions since everything is so wonderful! Hardball questions about how Amazon aimed to achieve this future while systemically preying on the most marginalized members of society were brushed off with a bright smile and a laugh, “That’s a good question! Haha!” *cue change of subject* She even had the gall to mention that Amazon, Google, and Facebook were in a coalition concerned with the ethics of the technology they are creating.

Let us be clear: they are not. They are concerned with making money. They exploit their users, exploit their workers, threaten democracy, and uphold current systems of power and oppression. Women, people of color, poor people, and other marginalized communities are hurt the most.

At the risk of sounding personally bitter, it’s no surprise that my own proposed talk, “Free Software is a Feminist Issue” was rejected. It would have stood not only in stark contrast to the messages being promoted, but undermined the value of the top level sponsorship from companies clearly there to make sure that nothing radical happened at all.

During her talk, Shelley Peterson of Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest defense contractor) played a video that bordered on parody of propaganda. Behind the shiny augmented reality tech is the sinister truth: the military-technology complex is as strong as ever. And attendees were eating it up.

While there were certainly other talks that managed to provide helpful, educational, and inspiring content (such as Amber Burgess’s presentation on Agile, Ashley Turner’s talk on Mentorship, and the volunteering panel – to name a few), other talks seemed so inappropriate and out of place for women’s conference that it was genuinely jaw dropping.

Catherine Cook Connelly’s presentation on “How to Make a Product that Matters” was straight out of Black Mirror (and not in a San Junipero type of way). Her presentation was largely spent demonstrating how her company, The Meet Group, has found a way to prey on and monetize people’s desperate need for connection by creating a marketplace for the buying and selling of emotional labor. It was hard to miss the obvious connections between their app and the sex industry, which also largely consists of men buying emotional, physical, and sexual labor from women (although sexual content is not allowed on their app). The idea that this is a “product that matters” or that forms real relationships and connections is laughable. It is very clearly people performing for pay, like a socially-acceptable version of camming.

Meet.me Screenshot

The companies and products being promoted at WITS were the very ones that are the biggest problems in technology today, and the irony that the dystopian capitalist future they are creating will disproportionately affect women went unaddressed. But women “leaning in” to capitalism and succeeding at surviving in a man’s world by playing men’s games is not radical, and is arguably barely even good. WITS painfully demonstrated that having more women, and even women of color, at the top will not necessarily lead to the revolution we need. I don’t want a world where women also exploit their workers, conspire to collect as much user data as possible, and prey on human insecurities to make money. I want a world where women are toppling systems of racism, capitalism, and sexism together. No one is free until we are all free.

Looking Forward

Despite creating a wonderfully supportive, safe, and women-centered space, WITS didn’t even come close to being a conference that would spark the change we need. To be fair, that’s not what it was trying to be. But being in this wonderful space of smart, talented, brave, and optimistic women I can’t help but fantasize about what such a space really could be. If organizations were not beholden to large corporate sponsors, would the content have been different? Would even a single talk about the ethics of the technology we create have been allowed in the schedule? Would we have been able to have real, frank, discussions about the future of technology without the white-washing? Would we have been able to name the power women have to not just participate in the future men have laid out, but create a different future of our own envisioning?

I don’t believe such a space currently exists in tech, but I sure hope someone takes up the mantle to start one. When you do, I will be there.