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Silicon Valley's diversity problem followed it to SXSW

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At a time when diversity is an issue facing tech companies large and small, South by Southwest is taking action in the name of inclusivity. This year’s convention featured a number of diversity-focused panels aimed at women and people of color in media, startups, and engineering, along with, ideally, those charged with hiring them. The panels are all too necessary; in the last year, several notable Silicon Valley companies released diversity reports detailing the racial and gender makeup of their staffs. The findings were almost uniformly dismal. SXSW overall has received some criticism in the past for failing to highlight difference, so the event is making strides for the better. That said, it has also become a case study in how much things still need to improve industry-wide.

"We still have a ways to go."

South by, like Silicon Valley, has long been a party where most of the guests look and behave the same. That’s slowly changing. "We’ve been working on this diversity stuff for a long while," SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest told The Verge. "Firstly, I would say we’ve tried to get more women speakers involved. More recently, we’ve pushed to get more black speakers involved, [as well as] Latino speakers." Forrest stated that, while there has only been a slight increase in programming aimed at under-represented groups this year, the convention has worked to improve their overall visibility. "We feel like we’ve made some progress here, but we still have a ways to go."

That there’s "a ways to go" is self-evident at SXSW Interactive, creating a sense of tension between what has and hasn’t been done to address the problem. As far as progress is concerned, Forrest remarked that diversity panels that were once shunted off to hotel ballrooms away from the Austin Convention Center are now more centrally located.

At one such panel, Facebook outlined how it aims to improve engagement with minorities to better grow brand opportunities for its ad partners. "From an advertising perspective, more and more advertisers are focusing on effectively reaching multicultural audiences," said Facebook’s head of US multicultural sales Christian Martinez. "They are recognizing the sheer size of these audiences, their engagement with digital platforms, and their buying power."

SXSW Diversity

Just as Facebook and other companies are creating initiatives for diversity’s sake, work is being done here at SXSWi. However, at a convention that’s still overwhelmingly white and features panelists that tend to skew white, cis, and male, the need for more and different voices is felt now more than ever. Of the 30,000 festival attendees in Austin, MVMT50 founder Donell Creech told The Root that he estimates there being between a paltry 500 and 1,000 black registrants at the conference. Organizations like MVMT50, a coalition of black thinkers in tech, want to see the number of black and brown women and men at SXSW improve. But getting them in the room isn’t enough.

Integrating rather than placating

"What is the intention behind the attention?" asked Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder and CEO of angel investing bootcamp Pipeline Fellowship, in a question that echoed director Ava DuVernay's own words from earlier that day. For her, it’s more than just having diversity panels. It’s a combination of being visible on both panels and boardrooms, while also encouraging the white men in power to engage in diversity discussions constructively. "My hope is that these diversity conversations [are] going to be integrated into the larger ecosystem," she said, "versus it being a move to placate us. Us being marginalized voices. Oftentimes the people who should be listening to us and hearing the conversations in these spaces are the allies."

Doing the work to become an ally — that is, being sensitive to issues concerning those that don’t share your experience — is harder than just creating a venue for the issues to be discussed. The act of encouraging panels for marginalized groups, while a necessary step in the right direction, doesn’t inherently foster conversation with the group in power. And as we saw with Eric Schmidt on Monday, acknowledging that there is a problem doesn’t mean that the problem is fully understood or that the unspoken biases that allow for a man to speak over a woman have been overridden.

"I’m really tired of seeing women who are put on panels to talk about being a woman in tech," Alexa Scordato, director of product marketing at Stack Exchange, told International Business Times. "I want to see a woman in tech who’s talking about technology, not talking about diversity."

The next step in fixing the problem might then be recalibrating where, when, and how the exchanges about diversity take place. According to Meredith Clark, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, the exchanges need to be foundational for any organization.

"I’m finding that the best way isn’t necessarily conversation," she said. "It’s very pointed questions, and asking people in groups from their inception, at the very building blocks of what they’re trying to do, ‘Okay, who’s not at the table and why?’"

"The best way isn't necessarily conversation. It's very pointed questions."

Asking those questions (like, How do we reverse the pattern matching that keeps straight white men in charge? How do we address tokenism? How do we close the pay gap?) needs to happen early for the kinds of startups that might find their future at SXSW. But for established entities, now is the time that they should be asked often. Not at conferences, but in offices everyday. It’s not enough to support the cause. Diversity touches all aspects of tech, so there can be no excuse not to consider marginalized groups as producers or consumers. Unfortunately — and especially as the industry observes the ongoing Ellen Pao trial — that’s a slow and painful process.

When asked about SXSW’s internal diversity, director Hugh Forrest was candid in that the organization’s numbers are probably as bad as the rest of the industry’s. "We’re trying to improve like they’re trying to improve," he said. "It’s a long road there." Aiming to improve is always a good thing, especially in the iterative world of technology, and companies are paying attention. The hard part, as always, comes in finding the right answers to the hard questions.