How would you feel entering into a Club on a Saturday morning walking under soft light and smelling the cigarettes from the night before to attend a Tech Conference? Organisers of#Unit2017 – Connecting Unicorns would probably answer calmly “welcomed”. This is the venue – SCHWUTZ, a gay-friendly club based in Berlin – and the attitude – friendly and cool – in which the Global LGBTI Tech & Science Conference hosted by Unicorns in Tech, took place last 6th of May.

There are multiple reasons for queer people and tech activists to be excited about #Unit2017. Not just because the LGBT community in Berlin is lively, active and rooted, but also because of the energy and the self-confidence produced from the meaningful and powerful discourse on LGBT rights in the tech workplace.

Working at the intersection of gender issue and technology, #Unit2017 provides the kind of interactions that would encourage new ideas and perspectives.

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Meeting and sharing to build a more inclusive tech world

Thanks to the work of Stuart Cameron and Dastan Kasmamytov, and many other volunteers, Unicorns in Tech is an international tech community for LGBT people. The network involves anyone who is interested in technologies and tech science, whether he/she/they is a professional or an enthusiast/curious. The community is nourished by people with different backgrounds and interests, from computer scientists, software engineers, graphic designers, digital artists, gamers, physicists, engineers, to social media specialists, bloggers, journalists, innovators, students, startuppers and so on.

The aim of the network is to systematically connect and bring together LGBT people and diverse tech communities and make them more visible and empowered. This is the reason why Unicorns in Tech organizes an annual conference, the #Unit2017.  Furthermore, among others activities, Unicorns in Tech organizes monthly meet up – Get-Togethers – hosted by various companies mostly based in Berlin with the goal to network and to learn about new tech developments and trends.

#Unit2017 is at its third edition and this year it welcomed more than 400 people coming from all over Europe, USA and Asia. There were more than 50 sessions on the most pressing issues at the intersection of technology and LGBT rights. The festival/conference is intended to be an inclusive multisensory learning-space where workshops, talks and performances take place.

Activities were displaced in different rooms. You could easily meet people learning how to code in one room, people attending a lecture about women’s contributions in science, engineering and math in another, and an inclusive meet-up for queer women taking place close to a wonderful digital harp performance. Boundaries among disciplines, between arts and science, professional and DIY culture were challenged: one could give a talk about sexism in startups first and on a later stage be engaged in a coding workshop.

A “speed networking” was organized regularly during the day in order to encourage people meeting each other, remixing group and building new connections. Organisers intended “speed networking” as an occasion to encourage participants to enjoy time together in a fun and safe space. Sharing, inspiring, and learning from each other is seen as a fundamental tool to develop self-confidence in the tech world which often gathers prejudices and discrimination against people living beyond the gender binary.

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What is the gender of technologies?

Technologies are not gender neutral at many levels. Minority groups, such as women and LGBT people, have been often excluded from technologies – as well as gender, also race and class define the level of inclusion and exclusion from technologies.

On the one hand, they have been excluded from the labour market – people employed in tech world are mostly male, white and heterosexual. Even if bigger companies in ICT are developing more sensitive policies for ending discrimination against LGBT people, the cultural and structural discrimination still remains high in terms of presence, possibilities of career and pay gap – with different impact considering different geographic contexts.

On a cultural level, the symbolic relationship between technologies and hegemonic masculinity has produced stereotypic gender representations of tech – and in tech – together with a different socialisation of technology for boys and girls.

As it is well known to whom are used to think critically about Internet, video game culture is a clear example of how sexist digital spaces could be. From their origin video games have been perceived as the field of interest mainly for young heterosexual men, producing a misogynist culture among players and exclusively binary representations of sexuality and gender.

Speaking about videogame – one of the issue taken into account by the festival – #Unit2017 was both an event where to discuss over the current state of the industry, and a space in which to highlight and celebrate the diversity in the games industry through coming together, sharing stories and experiences, and celebrate the works of female, transgender and non-binary game developers.

“We need a queer Alan Turing test” says Robin-Boris Kasper during his talk “Adding a Gender Perspective to A.I. Driven UX Design”. We are not used to think about how tech artefacts embody gender norms. How is heteronormativity produced and reproduced in a video game or into an algorithm? In his presentation Robin asks the audience, especially programmers and coders, to take their (our, I would say) own responsibility to allow for queer diversity to emerge when producing and spreading A.I. technologies into society.

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In taking into account the gender dimension, Alan Turing implied that the renegotiation of the boundary between human and machine implies more than the transformation of the question ‘who is able to think?’ into ‘what is able to think?’. The reconfiguration of subjectivities in regards to gender and technologies opens important challenges in our homophobic society which address even the kind of knowledge embedded in the materiality of technology.

I had the chance to attend a lot of interesting exchanges and take part into conversations with different people over coffee, beer and meals. One in particular, with a computer scientist & engineer and a transadvocate invited to speak during the meeting, helped me to understand the importance of the creation of a safe space in which LGBT tech people can network, share and discuss in order to inspire, improve tech skills and even create job opportunities.

Creating a space of visibility for the needs and experiences of women, trans* and people living beyond the gender binary in tech, will help reclaim technology as a space of empowerment for all.


A report by Arianna Mainardi:

Arianna Mainardi is a Postdoctoral Researcher Fellow at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Scuola Normale Superiore. She holds a PhD in Information Society at tUniversity of Milano-Bicocca. She has been a Visiting Fellow at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and at the Centre d’Analyses et d’Intervention Sociologique (CADIS), École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris). Her research interests are in the area of Gender & Tech, Body & Sex, Digital culture, Social Research Methods, and political participation.

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