Why I Will Not Withdraw from the Women in Tech Panel at Shopify

Let me start by saying I do not support Breitbart, I do not support the Trump presidency, and I do not support Shopify maintaining its relationship with Breitbart, nor do I endorse the unfortunate and amoral comments about free speech made by Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lütke. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the panel.

Forget Shopify for a moment and look at the event for what it is meant to be: a celebration of the Toronto women in tech community. In an industry where it is already difficult to get diverse crowds to attend conversations held by women, it is such a shame that we got sucked into the controversy and are now having our platform called into question. At its core this is not a Shopify event, it is part of the Women in Tech Week campaign and just happens to be sponsored by the company. It could just as easily be held somewhere else, and I have recommended to the organizers that they look into this as an option.

Okay, back to Shopify. As easy as it is to vilify the entire company based on Lütke’s actions, we need to recognize that this event itself likely had nothing to do with him. I would bet money that, before this panel blew up, the CEO hadn’t even heard of Women in Tech Week. People tend to forget that large corporations are run, not as cults, but collaboratively by thousands of employees, and that those employees may not share their CEO’s views. This panel is not some malicious scheme concocted by Lütke, nor is it supporting the company’s association with Breitbart in financial, political, or ethical ways; this is a diversity-centric event put on by a small team in Toronto* (see below for a sidebar on this topic). It’s worth noting that Shopify is making no money off of this free event; if they were, this would be a different story. But since all they’re getting is visibility, none of which is positive at this point, taking away the panel wouldn’t affect Shopify a whole lot. But it would affect the Women in Tech movement. Boycotting the panel does not hurt Shopify, it only hurts our community by removing yet another stage meant to be held by women.

A stage at Shopify doesn’t have to be a bad thing – if we want to make this about Breitbart, what better stage to protest on than Lütke’s own? Instead of tearing down this panel, we should use it as a platform for change. Let’s show Lütke what free speech really looks like, not by recusing ourselves, not by throwing our hands up and saying “I want no part in this,” but by going forward with this discussion and addressing the issue head on. Let’s make it a discussion about ethics in technology, and the tech professional’s responsibility to adhere to a strong moral code. Let’s talk about the changing state of the tech world and how technologists now have to have a political stance, let’s address the jarring statements about free speech, share the facts, and make sure everyone knows the truth behind the headlines. We can use the power of the stage to rally the Toronto Women in Tech community to get them involved in the issues that matter to us today, and work together to make a change. Toronto tech professionals, I implore you not to give up this chance. We can either forfeit our platform by walking away from this panel, or we can seize it, take a stand, and affect change from within.

I stand for equality, fairness, and inclusion, and I truly believe we can make a stronger impact by going through with the discussion than we would if we removed ourselves from the event. That is why I will not be withdrawing my participation in the Women in Tech Week panel.

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*Sidebar: Despite the acts of the CEO, employees of the company are real people with individual opinions, some of whom are themselves women in tech. Are we to assume that, since they work at Shopify, they are supporters of Breitbart? The fact that Shopify employees are reportedly urging the company to drop Breitbart should tell us that that would be a generalizing and unfair assumption. Do we expect them to quit in a demonstration of their moral stance? Sure, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to afford to take this kind of action to stand up for what they believe in, but that is not the reality we live in. What we have to see here is people – individuals, not Shopify – trying to do some good in the community from within an organization with a leader whose lack of moral code is seriously concerning.

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DISCLAIMER: this should go without saying, but all opinions expressed in this article and on this blog are mine and mine alone, and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of the company I work for or any organizations or individuals with whom I am associated.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Will Not Withdraw from the Women in Tech Panel at Shopify

  1. I think that was very well said. You’re right, women need to stay focused on their objective and intent. Discussion is the only way to find a meeting of the minds. Anything else leads to conflict. So what you are advocating is what would solve all the problems in the world, to sit down and discuss the divisive matters, try to understand the other viewpoints, and work together with the sincere intent to find a positive win-win solution.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the Women in Tech event with Shopify as a Sponsor. While I do understand (but don’t agree) with your personal decision to attend rather than boycott, I can’t help but wonder if the ‘takeaway’ is: vet your event Sponsors more carefully, now and in the future.

    1. Thanks for commenting Jennifer! I definitely agree with you, it is important to vet sponsors carefully. I’m not sure when this was all planned, I suspect the sponsorship was locked in long before the Breitbart issue became prominent.

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