Eric Schmidt

Charles Haynes/Flickr

When your diversity panel becomes a cautionary tale.

At the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, this week, sexism was a prominent if unintended theme. 

Problematic gender dynamics emerged out of a high-profile shushing perpetrated by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. The executive repeatedly talked over former Google colleague Megan Smith, now the White House’s chief technology officer—ironic considering the panel discussion focused on problems with racial and gender diversity representation in the technology industry.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Schmidt jumped in multiple times to talk over the country’s CTO.

At one point, Schmidt opined on which of two questions Smith should respond to. Later, he interjected mid-sentence with thoughts on Raspberry Pi, a small computer popular with digital tinkerers that Smith was promoting.

During the panel’s question and answer session, Judith Williams, head of the Unconscious Bias program at Google, called out Schmidt on his behavior, and the audience applauded.

Unfortunately, Schmidt was not alone interrupting women while simultaneously attempting to champion them.

During a panel on how to create gender-balanced startups, venture capitalist Stewart Alsop repeatedly interrupted fellow panelists designer and developer Julie Ann Horvath and TechCrunch reporter Sarah Buhr.

He mentioned how his process, “Has led me to understand what women like, like jewelry and dresses, and stuff like that.” Alsop also said that women just simply have to start more companies and work through the misogynistic behavior.

“So you’re telling people to just lean in to it,” Horvath responded incredulously.

The back and forth between panelists was quite strained, especially when Alsop said that the tech industry can’t just hire women to fill a quota, and when he rolled his eyes multiple times in response to Horvath’s answers about her own personal experiences in Silicon Valley culture. The audience noticed it.

“If you’re assuming when people are saying that people say they want to hire more women in startups that you’re passing over a better-qualified man for the same job, how can you see a woman who is applying for a job as just a baseline equal?” panel attendee Megan Ruthven asked.

The panel was just one more in a series of cringe-worthy moments throughout the event.

Of course, there were a significant number of encouraging moments throughout the event, too.

“GTFO,” a documentary about women in gaming and the harassment they face in the games industry debuted at SXSW. Astro Teller, Google’s “Captain of Moonshots,” and former Smith colleague, too, said “mental diversity,” is important to building successful companies, and the best way to build that is hiring people who don’t look and think like you do. A group of women took the stage at SXSW to discuss best practices in ways Latina moms can teach their children to code, which included creating foundations in communities for teaching both technical skills themselves, and why such skills are important.

At an event during which some of the most high-ranking U.S. executives ostensibly gather to discuss diversity, behaviors that stifle inclusion managed to creep up on stage in front of hundreds of people. As these conversations grow louder and broader, overeager executives may find them more difficult to talk over. 

At SXSW 2015, there were 183 sessions that mentioned diversity, either in the panel title or the description itself. The increasing number of conversations around inclusion and structural prejudice at an industry that can at times be more part of the problem than part of the solution may point to a growing interest in actually fixing this kind of deep-rooted problem. 

While it’s frustrating that executives like Schmidt pop up as bad examples at events like these, it helps to remind the industry that structural sexism and racism remain very real problems for tech culture—even and perhaps especially at the top.

Photo via Charles Haynes/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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