Inclusion Gets Real: A New Level of Diversity Discourse at SXSW

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin—There’s no question that humans have plenty of biases that carry on from generation to generation, from sexism to racism to homophobia. Those problems have carried over to machines, too—bias in the data fed to computer algorithms is an issue that comes up often.

Former Stanford computer science professor Daphne Koller recalled an anecdote she once was told at a machine learning conference: If you run an Internet search for images related to the term “CEO,” Koller said, 24 of the first 25 pictures were of white men. The 25th shows Barbie as a CEO.

Human bias in search engines and other software systems is something technologists are trying to combat. “How do we create data sets that represent society the way we would like it to be, as opposed to the way it is, so we can prevent this application of biases?” Koller pondered during a panel discussion at South by Southwest last week.

This is one example of how the innovation community has been particularly active in discussing how it treats women and minorities, and how to resolve the problematic ways of the past. Bigger movements like “Me Too” have garnered widespread attention, particularly around sexual assault. But other changes are happening, too—like at SXSW this year, where almost every panel I attended turned at one point to issues of diversity or gender equality.

Similar discussions have of course happened at SXSW and other conferences for years, and it’s no surprise that activism would increase after the election of a president who has bragged about groping women and been accused of harassment and assault.

But the tone at SXSW was quietly different this year—or at least more fully developed—than in years past. Perhaps things have moved beyond discussions about inclusion, to where inclusion itself is becoming more real. Perhaps.

In recent years, a higher percentage of women have indeed started attending and speaking at SXSW. SXSW reported that 54 percent of its more than 70,000 conference attendees for music, film, and interactive were male in 2017, while 45 percent were female (fewer than 1 percent didn’t identify a gender, which SXSW reported in 2017 for the first time). That compares to 59 percent male in 2014, and 55 percent male in 2015 and 2016. The breakdown varies from year to year, according to a spokesman, who wrote in an e-mail that 52 percent of keynote speakers in 2016 were female. (The conference hasn’t provided data on this year yet.)

“Increasing inclusion and gender parity is something we’ve been working on for the better part of a decade, and it is important that the event represent people from all walks of life,” Hugh Forrest, SXSW chief programming officer, wrote in an e-mail. “We believe that offering programming that is inclusive of different voices aids in finding new ways of approaching innovation across tech, including blockchain and A.I.”

Last Friday, one panel that was focused on the future of capitalism quickly shifted into a conversation about the impact of racism and sexism on the economy. Kesha Cash, who runs America Impact Fund in Oakland, CA, commented that the U.S. economy benefitted greatly from free (slave) labor at its inception, and established a system that disenfranchised minorities. (She was joined on the panel by well-known Austin investor Brett Hurt and Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, as well as B Lab co-founder Jay Gilbert.)

“There’s a system that has been built in a way that was not fair to everyone, and doesn’t provide equal opportunity for access,” Cash said. “For us, in the types of companies that we’re investing in, [we ask]: can you build it in a way that you’re being considerate of your stakeholders, that you are paying a fair wage, that there’s diversity in your supply chain?”

The impact of her statement—and that it was said to a packed convention center room—was a notable moment for the conference. With her comments, Cash, who founded America Impact Fund in 2013, directed a business conversation so often dictated by blanket terms like “innovation,” “disruption,” and “synergy” toward the relevant work her fund does: investing in businesses that aim to improve health, income, and education in underserved communities.

“While I do believe in business fundamentally as a mechanism for change, we need to step on the gas and accelerate change,” Cash said.

It’s impossible to tell whether moments like these are the fruition of SXSW’s efforts to focus more on diversity, or perhaps a product of broader social change. Regardless of the reasons, more discussions about topics such as racism and sexism have clearly started taking place.

That includes discussions that would have once been dominated by men, such as Cash’s panel on capitalism. In a similar vein, female panelists outnumbered male speakers during the discussion about A.I. that Koller participated in (excluding the moderator). And while Michael Dell’s conversation with Dell Medical School Dean Clay Johnston was a big draw, speakers ranging from Christine Amanpour and Melinda Gates to the HBO show Westworld’s cast and creator group panel (half of whom are women) attracted a wider audience.

Westworld star Thandie Newton, in particular, took her opportunity on stage to talk about the need for supporting women’s issues worldwide; she noted the nonprofit she works with, V-Day, that aims to bring awareness about rape and other abuse of women and their families in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“They have died again and again and again. Their psyches have been destroyed,” Newton said during the discussion. “They are my inspiration, and they are on this planet right now.”