The tech industry has historically been a notorious boys club, but if this year’s South by Southwest lineup is any indication, it looks like the festival’s organizers are finally taking strides to change this. This year, the resounding feedback to the increased inclusion of women in the festival so far has been uniformly positive, especially from women in tech themselves, many of whom have been vocally displeased with SXSW’s exclusivity in the past.
The festival itself, the focus of which is innovation in technology, art and music, has become a staple of the startup scene, as evidenced by the exponential growth in its attendance each year and its wide-scale media coverage. In fact, SXSW has become so influential that this year, the keynote speaker was President Obama himself, and First Lady Michelle Obama keynoted the music portion. When it comes down to it, SXSW has always served as a microcosmic representation of the startup and tech world, which has meant that it’s always skewed towards a male audience, panelists and presenters. As a result, any conversation about women in technology has been all but absent from the festival in prior years.
This gender disparity, and SXSW’s general omission of women from the tech, development and startup narrative, has historically left many women in the industry with a bad taste in their mouths. Judith Williams, the former global diversity and inclusion programs manager at Google and current global head of diversity at Dropbox, wrote a public letter last year to Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, about her frustration with how he continually interrupted and spoke over a female panelist, Megan Smith, who happens to now hold the position of U.S. Chief Tech Officer, at last year’s SXSW. The message of her letter was that this demeaning treatment of women in the tech world may be pervasive, but it is just downright unacceptable and has no place in the modern age.
Of course, Williams is far from the only vocal critic of the underrepresentation of women in tech. Whole organizations have sprung up in recent years to make sure younger generations of women will be given the access and education in STEM that has not been readily available to women in years past. And it seems that the organizers of SXSW are finally taking notice; this year, the festival featured a number of panels catering to women in tech, and there was even a space set up called The Girls Lounge, which offered women in the industry the chance to network exclusively with each other. The festival also featured an event called The Online Harassment Summit, which lasted a full day and was concerned with sexism and intolerance against women in the tech space (see: the abuse hurled at female gamers in Gamergate).
We undoubtedly still have a ways to go with regards to granting women equal opportunities in technology. With that said, though, I am happy to see that women in technology are finally being given the respect and the platform for discourse about gender politics in the industry that they deserve. The more this topic is spoken about, the quicker we can adjust the status quo and recognize women as the valuable assets to tech innovation and development that they are – and I’m glad SXSW seems to have finally realized this.