Gender at South By Southwest: Harassment, VC Jobs, & Hard Choices
[Angela Shah contributed to this report.]
Austin—If there was a common theme among the gender-focused panels at South by Southwest, it might be the disbelief that we still need to discuss the importance of having women in tech.
But considering the current occupant of the Oval Office, popular ride-sharing companies that back supervisors accused of sexually harassing employees, and the controversy that surrounded last year’s South by Southwest Interactive, perhaps the discussion is needed.
This year’s SXSW featured several panel discussions about the lack of women in technology and the various ways to support a more diverse innovation community. Here are a few highlights:
Entering the Venture Capital Sector—If You’re a Woman
If you are a woman and want to get into venture capital, it seems that a more successful path would be to join the ranks of corporate venture groups. At the “(No) All Girls Allowed” panel on Monday, a few female leaders of corporate venture capital firms said their companies have mandates and programs that have helped corporate venture keep diversity in mind as a priority, said Marianne Wu, senior managing director at GE Ventures. One of the tools at GE is unconscious bias training.
“Lots of companies don’t get funded that should get funded because the bias [in venture] is to say no,” Wu said. “You want to avoid the additional bias that can creep into decision-making so unconscious bias training is helpful. Traditional VCs don’t have these forcing functions to prompt these conversations.”
At GE Ventures, the CEO and the leaders of each practice are women. Wu, who heads the energy and intelligent environments investing team, said each division leader reports to a vice chair at GE, who is also a woman. It’s a “rare and unusual situation in tech,” Wu said.
“Corporations have a different diversity mandate than traditional venture capital,” said Niki Manby, managing director and global head for innovation and strategic ventures at Citi Ventures.
Since both GE and Citi have made the bet that it’s good business to support women executives, I asked Wu and Manby why that logic has not become the norm in more traditional venture capital shops, which are not typically known to be inclusive.
Traditional firms tend to be extremely small as compared to large global firms like GE, which has embedded policies and programs in place related to talent development and diversity, Wu said. “The numbers are so small they tend to think all about the individual and not the population.”
How can traditional VC firms change the gender balance among their ranks? Wu had a simple piece of advice: “Hire more women.”
For the Right Reasons: Why We’re Hired
The idea of “hiring more women” gets to a core point many female technologists expressed at SXSW: Women don’t want to be hired because they’re women, but because they’re intelligent, hard-working, and talented.
“I don’t think it’s because you’re female you should get the money,” said Mimi Walters, a Republican congresswoman from California who represents part of Orange County, during a panel called “Women in Entrepreneurship” on Saturday. “It’s not if you’re female or not female; it’s if you have a really good business idea.”
Robin Kelly, a Democratic congresswoman from Illinois who took over Jesse Jackson Jr.’s seat in 2014, agreed, but only to a degree. “If you’re a woman or a person of color, does your idea have to be just a little bit better?” Kelly said.
Walters and Kelly were speaking to a room set up to accommodate at least a couple hundred attendees. Instead, however, the room was mostly empty. About two dozen people—almost all women—attended the session.
SXSW’s Impossible Decisions: Women or Machines?
With the hundreds of panel discussions, networking receptions, and informal get-togethers, there is a constant fear of missing out at SXSW. Often I’d find that there were two panels I’d like to see—and they both happened to be scheduled for the same time. What if I wind up at the boring one?
That was a decision I faced when debating whether to attend “Women in Entrepreneurship” or, instead, a discussion on the future of AI by a male researcher at Microsoft. I chose the latter, and wound up at the end of a long line of people who similarly picked to hear a man (albeit a prominent researcher) speak about artificial intelligence—a topic as hot as fire right now. Most people didn’t get in, like me (so much so that SXSW added an encore of his presentation).
I was struck by how I, like others perhaps, subconsciously or otherwise, chose to attend a popular and easy session rather than a broadly important one. Thankfully, my SXSW analysis paralysis was resolved for me: After being turned away from the AI talk, I went straight to hear about the experience of women entrepreneurs, something we all—especially men—should learn more about.
Responding to What Shouldn’t Have Been Said
When she was an engineering student in Nigeria, Unoma Okorafor was often the only woman in her class. She was a good student, and sometimes when she came up with ideas before the men in her class, they’d get angry. They’d threaten to rape her.
Okorafor persevered, and has since co-founded data analytics company Radicube Technologies, organic products business Herbal Papaya, and a nonprofit foundation called Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW). She told a mixed audience of men and women at “Why Women in Tech Matter” that women bring unique perspectives for solving problems and improving businesses.
“Getting more women into technology, we’re not just doing the women a favor,” Okorafor said. “It’s about solving the next generation of problems facing us.”
The problems that Okorafor faced in college are common for women in tech. The Gamergate controversy last year at SXSW included threats of sexual and other harassment against female panelists. More recently, there was the case of the female Uber engineer who was harassed by her supervisor.
One audience member asked Okorafor and her four co-panelists how to best respond when a man makes an unwanted pass during a tech event like SXSW. William Hurley, a panelist and the Austin tech entrepreneur who sold his fintech startup Honest Dollar to Goldman Sachs last year, said men need to take responsibility for their inappropriate behavior and work to embrace women as colleagues.
“It’s rude and inappropriate,” the entrepreneur, who goes by Whurley, said about the sexual targeting done by many men. “That’s not on you to avoid getting hit on. That’s on men.”