About Astia

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Observations From SXSW

I just made it back from Austin’s South By Southwest (SXSW or South By for short). Think spring break meets TED: part music & film festival, part interactive conference, and part college party.

As a panelist addressing entrepreneurship, it was a privilege to be a part of the agenda. As an industry veteran I was pleased by the number of women I saw on panels, in the halls, and as keynotes. It appeared to me that almost one third of the speakers were women. Cool and good on you SXSW for getting women to the party!

  • We are going to be the inventors of the technology in the future: in 2008 women were 57% of the undergraduate degrees, 18% of the Computer and Information Science degrees, and 15% of the Computer Science degrees; and 28% of computer scientist were women. (source: NCWIT)
Now let’s work on getting South By (and other tech conferences) to be a more comfortable place for women to participate - because almost as soon as I arrived I started receiving tweets and texts – mostly from women - about their perceptions of the scene.

There were some really basic things that should not be done at a professional conference that wants to attract diverse talent. Period. If we really want women and minorities to come to the party, the party must change. And I do not mean political correctness run amuck. I mean real change that includes some basic respect for people’s differences and what will or will not make them feel a part of the community.

I am going to make a HUGE assumption here that people would like to see more diversity at gatherings like South By. With that is mind, I thought I would get the conversation started by highlighting what I think SXSW did well and where they left me out.

What they did well:
  • Every panel I visited had at least one woman.
  • There were two female keynotes (one more than I have ever seen at a comparable conference) that drew big crowds.
  • SXSW gets it that people need to connect in person and create real relationships that will last. This message resonates with women; we value our relationships and will invest time and energy in them.
  • The program book was thoughtful enough to recommend I wear comfortable shoes (although I love my heels).
  • Crowd sourcing of panel topics and speakers: the impact was that you hosted relevant conversations where women were represented.

Where they left me out:
  • A corporate sponsor missed it when the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were the headlined guests. Really? Really?
  • Speaking of sponsor’s value alignment: Miller Light as a sponsor? Nothing screams college party quite the way that beer does.
  • The emphasis on night-time activity came off as more college party than comfortable networking space.
  • I leave it to my Latino / Latina friends to comment on the bag tag that said “nothing worth stealing in here, amigo” (included in the schwag bags). I won’t be using mine.
  • Where were the female VCs? I know a lot exited their partnerships this year, but none?
  • Crowd sourcing of panel topics and speakers: a not so great way to source topics from under-represented groups in technology.
As a conference that challenges its attendees to look at new business models and paradigms and new ways of engaging with our communities and society more broadly, how can we do it better next year?

I would like to hear from you – all of you – especially my female counterparts who found it difficult to find their own voices at SXSW and asked me to speak up. We each need to own our voice if we intend to create the change we desire.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I loved SXSW and was thrilled to see so many women attending and on panels. Like you, I was disappointed to see the Microsoft event (clearly aimed at men) to meet the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Was it the worst example of alienating women and thinking that men will only come to an event to see sexy cheerleaders? No, there's been far worse examples. However, if companies like Microsoft are going to invest time and resources in supporting women in technology programs (which they do), sponsoring events like "Come Meet the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders", sends a very different message. And the response by a rep at Microsoft "Well the "cheerleaders" appeals to our target audience," left me speechless!

  2. I noticed that the number of female speakers at the panel tables seemed to be up from two years ago. While the amount of informal meetups between women doing inspiring work was encouraging, there did seem to be few young women on stage--hopefully something we can start to change by making more speaking spots available locally and urging those with worthwhile research to share to purse them.

  3. Nice post!

    Personally, I wasn't too impressed by the conference, but realize that it might be intended for a different crowd than me..
    I am actually OK with the college party scene - assuming people know this is what they are coming for.
    If I were single and 25, I would love to attend a conference that combines work and fun...

  4. Sharon, interesting observations. With all the heat I've been taking for my recent articles on women, nothing surprises me any more. I didn't realize how bad women had it until I stepped into the ring.


    Vivek Wadhwa

  5. Thanks for sharing your observations Sharon. I know I'm late to the comments party here, but I just learned about your blog today.

    I have to say, I'm now not as sad as I was that I wasn't able to attend SXSW this year. And after almost 5 yrs living in Seattle (after Chicago and the Bay Area), I'm certainly not surprised to hear about the MSFT / Cheerleader stunt. They're pretty much dinosaurs.

    It is good to know that, as you said,"SXSW gets it that people need to connect in person and create real relationships that will last. This message resonates with women; we value our relationships and will invest time and energy in them." As a Connector (Gladwell reference), and a huge advocate for in-person connecting, I thoroughly agree that this is something women do very well, so SXSW should be doing more to attract and not offend women. You noted there were 2 women keynotes, but I wonder how many woman are actually designing the SXSW conference? Hmmm...I think I just might volunteer.

    Looking forward to following your blog! Sandy