March 22, 2016

SXSW 2016: Diversity, humanity and the future

By Tom Kelshaw Metalworks Director of Technology

Tom Kelshaw

Tom Kelshaw

Metalworks Director of Technology

South by Southwest Interactive 2016 presented a dichotomy of topics: hype for an AI-empowered future (covered in recap Part 1), and a long overdue look at humanity, diversity & fairness, covered below.

Part 2: Diversity & Fairness

This year included an Online Harassment track, which highlighted the challenges (and at times violence) faced online, in gaming and social media by anyone who isn’t a young, white male. There was a specific focus on the #GamerGate issue, with panels from various viewpoints.

Unfortunately, after controversy where the entire Harassment Summit was cancelled by SXSW organizers and then reinstated, the harassment panels were very sparsely attended. This could have been in part due to their location (a 25 minute walk from other areas… I rented a bike for this exact reason).

DiversityRemember #levelup panel, cancelled by #sxsw and then reinstated? It’s not drawing a big crowd #onlineharassment Find a story about this on

SXSWi always features great content on diversity across nationalities and ethnicities, yet a featured, prime-location “Latino Millennial Vote” panel – an important issue in this USA election year – was also poorly attended. Panelist and multi-award-winning actress America Ferrera even commented that “they should have booked a smaller room”.

At very least the keynote on the topic of gender issues in tech – by Elephant in the Valley survey authors Michele Madansky and Trae Vassallo, drew a significant crowd. But it was still only 2/3 of the packed house afforded to a typical tech mogul.

The Silicon Valley diversity survey found:

  • 60% of respondents had experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.
  • 60% believed they did not have the same opportunities as male peers.
  • 66% believed they were excluded from networking opportunities (golf, drinking, sports) because of their gender.

They reported on the “Goldilocks paradox” – with 84% of women being told they were too aggressive, whilst 50% were told they were too quiet. They also discussed solutions, like the Code2040 initiative which helps correct the imbalance in tech.

Later, Dan Price (CEO of Gravity Payments, a credit card payments company), told a sobering story of income inequality in tech startups. He explained that even though his entire, “disruptive” startup was meant to bring fairness to the world of payments – he wasn’t being fair to his own employees. His “market-competitive” wages weren’t even covering their basics.

So Dan volunteered a 1.1M pay-cut, invested his assets back into the business to ensure every employee made at least USD70k a year and could live a comfortable, decent and fair life with a family. Dan’s talk focused on the shift in business from making money to making a change.

Important: It’s impossible to be at every panel, talk, meet up or off-site about any part a topic at SXSW, so my perception of attendance here is anecdotal, mixed with some Twitter-stalking of other attendees. And I’ll admit I didn’t stay for entire panels when I wanted to check the discussion and level of engagement at others at the same time. Perhaps every other attendee was doing what I was doing? Perhaps I needed to spend less time talking (and reporting)around and about the issue, and be more engaged in dutiful discussions?

Overall I don’t feel the level of engagement with the topic of diversity and inclusion needed better marketing, or different panelists (all of whom have been driving important conversation around the issues), or that SXSW isn’t the right audience or environment for this discussion. Where else should we have an open, inclusive, in-person discussion about decent and fair treatment of all people, specifically as it relates to technology?

Nevertheless, it does seem the SXSW community still has a long way to go here. To not only give continuing voice to diverse speakers on difficult topics such as gender, class and ethnicity in tech, but also to pay attention in adequate numbers to affect change.