SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST

SXSW clarifies, updates policy on diversity requirements for panels

Language in the PanelPicker includes guidelines on gender, ethnicity and diversity in thought for submitting panel ideas

Posted July 11th, 2018

South by Southwest says older language on its PanelPicker website that was not updated to new guidelines may be to blame for why at least one participant raised concerns about whether the event might be disallowing panels consisting of all women or all members of the same minority group.

Leslie Wolke, founder of MapWell Studio, said she’s been a speaker, volunteer and participant at South by Southwest since 1995. She says she was distressed by language she saw on PanelPicker that led her to believe that all-women panels were no longer welcome.

“While they are careful not to state how many genders there are (another inclusive move which I respect), no 3-4 speaker panel can be comprised of a single gender,” she wrote in an email to the American-Statesman. “This is a step backward in my opinion. To be blunt about it, not every panel needs a man. Women are still minorities at SXSW (and at all tech and design conferences I attend) and should be encouraged to participate by policies such as the former SXSW one.”

A spokesman for SXSW says that Wolke might have been viewing a pop-up window with outdated information.  This week, SXSW is updating its diversity guidelines.

The new text, according to South by Southwest, reads: 

“Speaker diversity plays an extremely important role in the decision making process. The most interesting sessions are ones that include many different perspectives. When choosing speakers keep in mind these basic diversity guidelines.

All sessions with three or more speakers should include:

  • Diversity in gender
  • Diversity in ethnicity
  • Diversity in location and employment of speakers
  • Diversity in thought and opinion

panelpicker.sxsw.comThis text was appearing in a pop-up window on the SXSW PanelPIcker application under the "Speakers" section. SXSW has since taken steps to update its guidelines.

We understand that some topics work best with full representation of a particular group and will review these sessions on a case by case basis.“

While the current language used on the SXSW site still could be read to suggest that the conference is requiring diversity within the panels themselves (such as not having only people of the same race in a panel of three or more, even if that race is not white), it appears that SXSW is using the word “diversity” as a catch-all for panels that are not made up exclusively of white men of the same background and point of view.

On the PanelPicker site as late as this week, a pop-up next to “How does this speaker contribute to a divers perspective?” had different, more expanded language than the policy above. For gender, for instance, it reads: “For sessions with three or more speakers, gender diversity is required. For example, a panel of three or four speakers cannot be comprised of a single gender.” 

SXSW says that language is being updated to the more current diversity guidelines.

“These guidelines were created many years ago in order to bring diversity to sessions where we saw a lot of male-only panels and panels that weren’t ethnically diverse, as well as panels that were comprised of people from just one company or people who all thought along the same lines,” said Hugh Forrest, chief programming officer fro SXSW.

“Our mission at SXSW is always to serve a wide creative community in order to help them achieve their goals. As a result, we’ve now updated the language to more clearly match our intent,” he said

For years, SXSW has been trying to promote diversity as a major tentpole of its annual March event, with programming, tracks, meetups and other events around the topic.

But it has occasionally stumbled in that mission. In 2015, the conference faced a public-relations nightmare over a set of panels involving gaming and the controversial “GamerGate” movement that ended up resulting in an Online Harassment Summit for its 2016 event. 

It has also regularly featured programming with all-female panelists and panels where all of the participants were of the same ethnicity to drill down on specific issues around race.

Wolke said in an email that the updated version still gives her the impression “that a three or four person panel needs to be comprised of men and women — no all-women panels. If they truly want to encourage women as an under-represented group (like non-white minorities) they must be more explicit and state that every panel of three or four needs at least one woman on the panel. I believe that was their previous policy.”

A representative for SXSW reached out to Wolke by phone. Wolke said she had a positive conversation, but was still concerned that the guideline language might turn off some potential panel submitters. She said she’s pleased that SXSW is reaching out in its marketing efforts to under-served communities.

Wolke said, “it’s a complicated issue and I know SXSW’s intent is to promote diverse speakers and audiences, but I’m still a bit discouraged that they’ve written a vague policy that may easily be misinterpreted, perhaps to the detriment of women in particular.

Nevertheless, she said she’s going to submit a panel as-is. “I am still planning to propose my all-women panel on technology in museums,” she wrote.

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