This year, two tech conferences directly related to social computing—SXSW and Etech—were scheduled so close together that many of us with an interest in these topics had to choose between the two. Clay and David and Ross are at ETech. danah and I were at SXSW.
Why did I choose SXSW? The biggest factor for me was the gender balance. Increasingly, I’m finding that I want to be in places where there are women I respect and enjoy to spend time with. It changes the nature of the conference experience for me. I feel more at ease, more relaxed, more like I belong.
This year’s Etech is perhaps the least diverse yet. Of the twenty featured speakers on the main page, one is a woman, and none are people of color.
At SXSW, in contrast, strong and wonderful women were everywhere. I don’t recall seeing a single all-male panel. When I hung out in the hotel bar, my companions were mostly women. When I went to the evening parties, everywhere I looked there were other women.
Three of my co-authors here on misbehaving—Gina Trapani, danah boyd, and Caterina Fake—were there. Fabulous women like Molly Steenson and Molly Holzschlag and MJ Kim and Cecily Walker Kidd and Adina Levin and Mary Hodder were there. Not all the faces were male. Not all of them were caucasian. The voices were rich and varied. The vibe was open and warm. There were more conversations than there were pontifications. (SXSW doesn’t call panel participants “speakers,” either, which I like. We’re panelists. A subtle distinction, but one that makes a difference.)
Many of the topics being covered at ETech are things I’m interested in. Ideally, I would have gone to both. But O’Reilly made a decision to move ETech up this year and place it in competition with SXSW—splitting the audience and forcing too many of us to have to make a choice. For me, conferences are far less about the presentations and far more about the people and the connections. And I chose SXSW because it offers me a far richer environment for those connections than ETech.
I’m reminded of a quote from Tom Melcher, formerly of there.com, that I use often in presentations: “If you build a place that women love, the men will follow. The reverse is not true.” Perhaps more conference organizers need to take that line to heart.
(Update: David Weinberger posted about why he’s at ETech, and an interesting dicussion about the gender balance there is brewing in the comments of his post.)
(Update 2: Trolls will be disemvowelled. Keep it civil, please.)