“The only group that really has it made are the white, straight, upper-class men. But that doesn’t mean every man of that description is going to make it to the top,” said Rachel Sklar, speaking at SXSW in Austin on Tuesday. “If life were a video game, that would be the easiest difficulty setting,” she added, referring to John Scalzi’s theory.
Sklar, who noted that investors typically back a startup founder who is “a young male, usually a dropout of an Ivy League university,” founded Change the Ratio, which seeks to increase the presence and opportunities for women in tech and new media. Her panel of the same name addressed the gender bias in the tech world, including the very conference she was speaking at.
SXSW’s interactive portion consists of dozens of panel discussions a day, each comprising four or five speakers. Conference organizers try to have at least one woman on each panel — but it doesn’t always happen.
Sklar opened her panel discussion by noting that an all-male panel was running at the same time as hers — “Transitioning Alternative Comedy to TV” — where comedians Chris Gethard, Fred Armisen, Marc Maron, and Scott Aukerman were going to talk about how to take a podcasts to television. “It’s a panel of dudes, as comedy panels often are, and it really says something,” Sklar said. She argued that the all-male lineup “suggests that it’s a lot easier for dudes to take their podcasts to TV.”
Yet women are enjoying more visibility at the upper echelons of other industries. Kristin Jones, chief creative officer of internet television channel Vuguru, applauded the recent Sundance Film Festival, where “it was a huge deal, a huge milestone that they had 50% male and 50% female filmmakers” — for the first time in Sundance history. Yet as the tech world becomes more entwined with Hollywood, she hoped that “women will be able to retain a foothold.”
Kathleen Warner, the COO of Startup America, an organization that supports startups, said 42% of companies in the network are women-led, which is a higher number than most people expect. But, “I also think it’s really key for women to step up,” added Warner, who is involved with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In efforts. “One of the biggest, most frustrating things” about her job are contests. While she might get a hundred ideas from men, “we’re literally calling up women to do this.”
“It’s hard, hard work to build companies,” she added. “I understand the challenges around it, I understand the institutional challenges but… women have got to do it.”
Harvard Business School graduate Christina Wallace, cofounder of recently shuttered Quincy Apparel, had a theory about why women don’t pitch as often as men do. Women outperform men at school, but at the same time, the education system “doesn’t reward risk-taking,” she argued. “Girls are really good at following the rules” in school, but “then we graduate and are like, now what are we supposed to do?” Sklar thinks “that’s why no one wants to submit a pitch that’s half-baked, even if that’s the pitch that wins.”
One audience member asked the group if women were doing enough to support other women. “I sort of push back a little bit on the ‘women don’t help other women’ thing,” Sklar responded. “Why isn’t there fretting about why men don’t help men in the workplace? Because I personally know a lot of dudes who have knifed a lot of dudes in the back without thinking twice about it.”
Sklar added, “We’ve actually seen a ton of examples of women helping women, but it’s been made official with Sheryl Sandberg’s book [Lean In] and the infrastructure she’s set up.” (Sklar is on the Lean In launch committee.)
How to behave in the workplace was a concern of another audience member — just how much can women afford to get in people’s faces at work without rubbing them the wrong way?
“I had a very good first boss-slash-mentor, and he’s almost feared,” said Vuguru’s Jones. “He was kind of considered not very user-friendly, but what I learned from him was I’d rather be respected than popular,” she added. “I really do carry that with me: I’d rather be respected than popular.”
All the panelists agreed that women working at tech companies need to, well, lean in and help create opportunities for themselves. But the companies also need to try to diversify their teams. Invoking Yoda to argue her point, Sklar said, “Do or do not— there is no try.”
“Isn’t it about the results?” she continued. “Would you say, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, I really tried’ to your boss after you were supposed to deliver results?”
She closed with the following: “Thank you all for not going to the adult-film panel next door.” Where, for the record, men and women were equally represented.