Geeky Women Break Up the Bromance at South by Southwest

Entrepreneur Tina Cannon never had to wait in line for the women’s restroom six years ago at her first South by Southwest Interactive conference. This year it’s different.

“It’s definitely changed,” said Cannon, an Austin, Texas-based vice president of client relations at law firm Tuggey Calvoz LLP. “I’m hoping at one point down the line you can stop talking about the first woman this, first woman that. It’s just, ‘Sally, the engineer.’”

As startups, venture capitalists and enthusiasts have descended upon Austin for the technology-heavy forum, female-focused events have grown in number and panel audiences are dotted by more women at what has traditionally been a male-dominated event. About 25 speaker sessions are about women in technology, five times more than last year.

The shift at South by Southwest underscores a movement to address the dearth of female engineers, startup founders and business leaders, which technology figures like Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg have said needs to change. Last year, 74 percent of U.S. workers in computer and mathematical occupations were men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In software development, 20 percent of the jobs were held by women. For companies backed by venture capital, the proportion of female to male executives is two to nine, according to a Dow Jones VentureSource report.

Bro-gramming Culture

Started in 1994 as an offshoot of an annual music-industry conference, South by Southwest has become one of the year’s main technology gatherings for up-and-coming companies, especially those making smartphone and social-media applications. Twitter Inc. was a hit in 2007 with attendees who posted short status updates. Location-sharing service Foursquare Inc. took off after the 2009 conference, while Airbnb Inc., a short-term room rental service for travelers, was named “breakout app” in 2011.

This year, Sabrina Parsons, chief executive officer of Eugene, Oregon-based Palo Alto Software Inc., was one of those hosting a mentoring session at the conference. She said the technology industry’s culture can deter some women from pursuing jobs, especially with the rise of jock-like coders known as “brogrammers.”

“Part of that is the ‘bro-gramming’ and too-cool-for-school attitude that goes on,” she said in an interview before her meeting. “What women have to push really hard about is you don’t have to be successful in a man’s world -- it’s just the world.”

Look Harder

Parsons said the surge in women-related events reflects what the technology-savvy attendees wanted this year. The conference’s panels are chosen through a crowd-sourced selection process, with people entering proposals that participants then vote on and for which they provide feedback.

Hugh Forrest, the symposium’s director, said he welcomes the trend after years of having a policy requiring panel organizers to give at least one woman a speaking slot.

“If I had a dime for everybody who said that’s a great rule but there just aren’t enough qualified women I’d be rich, rich, rich,” he said. “My reaction is: Look a little bit harder. It’s impossible for me to believe that you can’t find a female speaker in the world who isn’t extremely qualified to speak on any given topic.”

Man’s World

Among the panels and other sessions that exclusively addressed women’s issues this year was a March 7 talk “Starting Up in a Man’s World” that featured Catherine Cook, co-founder of social media company MeetMe Inc. Lauren Flanagan, managing director of venture fund Belle Capital USA LP, spoke on a panel about women-led companies.

The lineup contrasts with other technology conferences, some of which have been permeated by a boys club atmosphere. Last year after programming event Pycon in Santa Clara, California, developer evangelist Adria Richards received threats of violence when she posted online an image of male programmers she accused of making inappropriate innuendos at the event.

Parsons said there are deeper concerns that females in technology face that need to be addressed outside of conferences and within companies.

Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, sued the venture-capital firm last year alleging it treated female employees unfairly by promoting and compensating them less than men. She said she faced retaliation after she complained about sexual harassment.

The Menlo Park, Californa-based firm, which provided startup financing to Google Inc. and Inc., later lost a bid to avoid a public trial.

C-Suite Women

Still, more women are taking executive roles at technology companies like International Business Machines Corp. CEO Ginni Rometty and Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer, who started her job more than six months pregnant. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sandberg wrote the book “Lean In” to inspire other females.

Carley Roney, co-founder and chief content officer of XO Group Inc., said the key to getting more women in the technology industry is having more female developers -- like some of the attendees at the South by Southwest conference.

“The number one thing that can make more female entrepreneurs is female engineers,” she said in a panel on entrepreneurship at the forum. “They have the ideas, but they don’t have that best friend they can sit with and jam code.”