By Perry Eising
Now, I’m not unfamiliar with the Portland Tech Scene, in fact, it’s not completely unusual for me to be in the crowd or even on the stage of a tech event, doing ignite talks or presenting workshops at awesome events such as ACT-W and Lesbians Who Tech. (Say hi next time!)
But I hadn’t heard of SUPER: WOMEN IN TECH Live Storytelling, presented by VOX SIREN pdx and backfence pdx at Revolution Hall, and hosted by a two irrepressible and hilarious hosts, B. Frayn Masters and Mindy Nettifee, until about a week before the event. My exposure to live storytelling has been pretty limited, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when my partner surprised me with two tickets.
But girl, am I glad I went, as this was a fantastic introduction to the genre. SUPER: WOMEN IN TECH Live Storytelling was a completely inspiring smorgasboard of woman tech talent, with people telling their stories that ranged from being unexpectedly successful in tech to being unexpectedly unsuccessful at math (hello learning disability!) and much, much more. In fact, surprise, along with being inspired by unusual circumstances and obscured truths, was a theme that linked much of the evening’s entertainment.
Revolution Hall’s 850 capacity event hall was packed when we arrived at right around 8pm, with free seats looking sparse on the main floor - and with a strong male presence, which I really appreciated. I love seeing women create well attended women’s events, but I also loving seeing men in attendance, especially men who came ready to connect with diverse women’s authentic stories, and we definitely got a strong dose of authenticity right from the get go.
The first presenter was Maria Webster, who took to the stage with such clear presence and such a well crafted, compelling story that I was blown away - taking us through her journey from tech n00b to tech supervisor to tech layoff and back again, all the while weaving this tale through that of her own life & love story with this city. It was super refreshing to hear a perspective that in some ways mirrored my own, and hear her poignant comments about lesbian life and associated cliche’s that made me laugh out loud.
Told at a different pace, but nonetheless equally affecting, was Leah Siddall’s story of (nearly) ending her career before it began, and figuring out she had a little known learning disability called dyscalculia along the way. As a result, she made her way in the world as a programmer for Elemental Technologies instead. As someone who works in tech and struggles disproportionately with numbers, I identify with you! I was once told at face value by a university official that I would never be able to study informatics (and now I reach app and web development @Epicodus instead, so consider yourself proven wrong, unnamed uni). Your story rang so true that I couldn’t help but feel proud of both myself and you, for the obvious struggles we have been through in order to succeed.
The next story came from Saira Weigel, whose identity as a “straddler” is also one I identify with. Born in India and schooled in Kuwait, Saira’s story clearly ticks more unusual boxes than my background: I was born in England and raised in Germany, and moved to the US in 2005. But that notwithstanding, her perspective on growing up and coming of age in between cultures was meaningful to me. It is true that as immigrants in cross-cultural relationships we never really belong, at least for me. Saira’s story could have been a little shorter and wavered between well-rehearsed and off the cuff, but was nevertheless affecting and meaningful, bringing some much needed international perspective to the show.
The trajectory of having a clear connection to my own life continued with the fourth presenter, Melinda Campbell, currently working at Puppet Labs. Melinda told the story of how her eccentric father became an unlikely role model, and, eventually some-time boss who helped her become successful in her own right. Melinda’s odd, ham radio toting dad who was an insular basement dweller touched a nerve with my partner, while I found familiar ground with Melinda myself: I, too played Leisure Suit Larry, a morally extremely dubious text-adventure from the 80’s; I too, had it supplied to me by an unwitting parent who I couldn’t imagine myself growing up to mirror (and then of course, I did). Leisure Suit Larry was a terrible game, complete with rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, and otherwise sickenly contemporary themes - and not something I’ve thought about over the last 20 years. Incredible to see that one pulled out of the brain vault, and I am so very glad that Melinda dusted that one off for me. Fantastic delivery here, humorous and unique yet oddly universal, this story shone as one of the brightest I heard that night.
Second to last, I was excited to witness my excellent friend Brook Shelley’s presentation on coming into her own, as a trans woman in tech in Texas, nonetheless. And with that experience comes her witnessing of casual and ubiquitous sexism before, during and after her transition. I always appreciate the pure fearlessness and authenticity that Brook brings to all of her public speaking, and this talk was no exception. Her main point, namely that we cannot become like those who oppress us in order to no longer be oppressed, and that we need to come up with an entirely new way of doing things instead is not an easy thing to digest, but an incredibly important perspective. In my opinion, it is one that needs to be championed and presented. I am grateful and proud to be the friend of someone who continues to be authentically herself and do this work - again and again, in many shapes and forms.
By the time we got to experience the last presentation, by Dominique DeGuzman of LWT San Francisco and Twilio, the crowd had clearly all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, and was ready to really give Dom the space she needed and the attention she deserved to really bring the show home. While her story of repeated questioning and harassment around her job title (Engineer!) in a technically dense area of the tech field isn’t new, the excruciating detail that Dom spelled out was likely unfamiliar to many in the audience, especially white cisgendered men. The questioning, the embarrassment, the harassment, and clearly stalky tendencies of the perpetrator - all these made crystal clear not just how these moments of erasure and being challenge to minority employees in tech fields. But Dom’s story didn’t stop there, in fact, it did something far more important: It made it clear how it feels.
It’s not enough to know that women, gender minorities and racial/ethnic minorities are discriminated against in their fields of employment - most people know that by that, I think. But when we can have a moment, as a straight person, as a white person, as a man, as an able bodied person... when we are able to feel the palpable injustice of discrimination, that has the potential to be a moment of change. And it’s Dom, like Brook, like Melinda, like Leah, like Maria, and sometimes, I hope, like me, who do this work for this very reason - we work to feel ourselves feel. We do the painful work of preserving these moments of harassment and alienation, and rejecting them every time we tell our stories, so you can learn how it feels. We work to bring the us out in you.
I’m so very grateful to all of the presenters on stage last Friday for their work and their vulnerability, for their passion and willingness to show us some parts of themselves. A broad and breathless set of stories, but clearly also just a beginning! I can’t wait for more.