29 August 2011

Why we should go to SXSW 2012

A couple of weeks back I was invited to participate on a proposed panel for SXSW Interactive.  For those of you who don't know about this annual, Austin-based conference, here's the quick description:
Featuring five days of compelling presentations from the brightest minds in emerging media and scores of exciting networking events hosted by industry leaders, SXSW Interactive offers an unbeatable line up of special programs showcasing the best new websites, digital projects, wireless applications, video games and startup ideas the community has to offer. From hands-on training to big-picture analysis, SXSW Interactive has become the place to preview what is unfolding in the world of creative technology.
It's basically the biggest techie conference that shows off all the "new cool stuff" and what it does and discusses the "next cool stuff" and what it may do.

Heather Barmore of No Pasa Nada and Joanne Bamberger of PunditMom are the ones who asked me to join their panel.  The title: "We Are the Ones You Want: Women Online and Politics."

If you're wondering why a women & politics panel would be proposed at a techie conference, you're probably not alone. It's not as if there are technology tools specific to women who are active in politics. This submission has a lot to do with SXSW's past, the role that women have played in technology and design, and the parallels we see in other fields. Whether it's gender politics or office politics or industry politics or just plain politics, it's all politics. It's all about power and influence and money. It's about how those in power try to rig the rules to stay in power. These concepts are all too familiar to the tech industry, and they're all too familiar to women in politics.  It's uncanny how closely the two stories align.

Emma Persky wrote a provocative report called "Changing the Ratio at SXSW" that is well worth a read.  The takeaways, at least for me: the number of women who attend the conference and the number of proposed panels that have some focus on women specifically have increased dramatically, but the proportion of women speakers has remained relatively constant - roughly 3 men for every woman.  The panels that do focus on women seem to be focused more on marketing and branding than panels generally.   Does everything have to be 50-50?  Of course not.  But these numbers certainly suggest that so far, women aren't getting the spotlight at SXSW, and it's not from lack of trying.

I obviously realize this is a tech conference, not a gender equity conference.  And I'm not accusing the organizers of SXSW are "the man" trying to keep women down.  But let's not have any illusions about how male-dominated the tech industry is, and what that means for the industry.  Let's not deny that most "professional" discussions about women and social media focus on convincing women to give us their money  And let's not deny that SXSW has become a focal point for the industry. Remember - SXSW Interactive claims to focus on creativity as much as technology - and diverse perspectives enhance creativity.

The tech industry can learn from the experiences women face when they're trying to break into politics.  The lessons learned aren't unique to one community.  The fact that Joanne and Heather are active advocates  and leaders in social media provides more than enough relevance to this community. I'm not saying our panel should be selected because SXSW hasn't met some kind of quota.  I'm saying it should be selected because the lessons learned in one field apply well to another, and that merits a thoughtful discussion.

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