How SXSW and the tech industry are trying to fix their diversity problem

by Natalia Ciolko

Published in Complex, March 2016

Like most daylong forums, Tech Inclusion: Austin offered breakfast tacos, name tags, coffee, and other standard conference fare. But sitting across from these staples was something noticeably different: a stack of T-shirts that read, “Bring A Lesbian To Work.”

Hosted by Denver-based startup hub Galvanize on Sunday, the conference’s 200 attendees—many of whom were also in town for the sprawling South by Southwest Interactive festival—found time to attend a non-SXSW event in downtown Austin on Sunday. Their shared goal? To come up with real solutions for tackling Silicon Valley’s diversity problem.

The timing of this year’s Tech Inclusion was said to mark the opening of Galvanize’s new campus in Austin. But with the campus still days from completion, it was clear that holding this event within shouting distance of the Austin Convention Center—a SXSW venue—was no coincidence. Interactive was once SXSW’s unofficial coming-out party for emerging tech, but like the industry, the festival is growing up.

"This is a stark contrast from several years ago," Joyce Williams, vice-president of business development at social commerce startup Gearlaunch, told NTRSCTN. Williams, who traveled to Austin from San Francisco, said she saw a marked improvement in diversity programming at this year’s Interactive.

Concerns over the festival’s lack of diversity and inclusivity has been a point of controversy over the past few years. In addition to the high cost of attendance (an Interactive badge costs anywhere from $825 to $1,295), which excludes lower-income groups, there has been a consistent lack of programming that addresses tech’s treatment of women and people of color.

Last year, an Interactive panel on diversity featuring Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson backfired, after an attendee called them out for repeatedly interrupting fellow panelist, White House chief technology officer Megan Smith.

In the following months, SXSW organizers faced public backlash for cancelling two panels on how to combat Gamergate harassment, after receiving threats of violence. They later planned an entire day of programming around online harassment.

Recent data from PinterestSlackGoogle, and other tech companies suggest that inside these engines of innovation, persistent obstacles prevent marginalized groups—including people of color, members of the LGBT community, and people with disabilities—from accessing job opportunities and development.

As a harbinger of disruption, SXSW’s organizers say change is necessary. "I think that there is a lot more attention across the board on the diversity challenge in tech industry whether it be gender bias or a lack of racial diversity," said Interactive director Hugh Forrest. "This is a huge, huge problem, many years in the making, and it's not going to be fixed overnight. But what an event like SXSW can do, on our best days, is shine a spotlight on issues that we think are important.”

A demand for real conversations about tech’s diversity problem led many SXSW badge-holders to Tech Inclusion: Austin, which kicked off with a panel about the LBGTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) community in tech.

Despite scant data on sexual orientation and identity in tech workplaces, the lack of openly gay industry leaders suggests an overall closeting across the board, according to Leanne Pittsford, founder of Lesbians Who Tech. “We just need a major tech company to get a black lesbian CEO,” she said with a smile.

Rachel Miller, a lesbian software engineer on the panel, stressed that small victories are crucial on the road to equality.“The best companies are going to be built by diverse, inclusive teams,” she said. “I want that to become common knowledge in the tech industry.”

But Karla Morrison, vice-president of programs at Code2040, a nonprofit organization that wants to increase minority representation in tech, spoke to the difficulty of turning the concept of diversity into actual hiring and promotions.

“People are well-intentioned; people want to believe themselves to be good and progressive, but when the rubber hits the road, we’re not taking the actions that are needed to diversify the workforce,” she said during another panel about underrepresented minorities in tech. As the only white person on the panel, Gina Helfrich, founder of inclusive recruiting firm RecruitHER, had advice for Tech Inclusion’s white attendees.

“It’s the responsibility of white allies to educate themselves,” she said. “When you make a mistake, apologize, learn from it, and move on. Humility, empathy, and resilience are what makes a great ally.”

For her part, Yelp’s head of diversity Rachel Williams had more specific advice. “You can never be sympathetic with me as a black woman, but you can have empathy. And we don’t need allies, we need sponsors,” she said during a panel about women in tech.Rachel Williams (far left), head of diversity for Yelp, describes solutions to address the lack of diversity in tech. Image via Owen Rogers  

American history has systematically erased the presence of diversity in early technology, explained keynote speaker and White House CTO Smith, who is openly gay.

“Everyone’s been doing awesome stuff since forever,” she said, advising attendees to look to the past for inspiration when seeking a new, diverse way forward. “But only some of the stories get written down.”

Ending the day, Melinda Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, a platform for women entrepreneurs, urged the crowd to take genuine action with what they learned at the conference: “Please don’t let these just be conversations.”