SXSW Interactive: Feminist Drama, Female Tech Founders, and Branding Birth Control

Bitch at SXSW

SXSW Interactive had an overwhelming amount of panels, conversations, and sessions that covered more tech talk you could shake a joystick at. Here’s a quick round-up of three panels I saw, including Internet drama from a feminist perspective, the brainstorming behind, and how female entrepreneurs fare in the tech world.

Dealing with Internet Drama in Feminist Discourse

a retro illustration of a goofy man leering into a computerThis panel was led by Deeply Problematic’s (and Bitch contributor) Rachel McCarthy James and Tigerbeatdown’s Garland Grey (both of who, I don’t need to tell you, are wonderful, hilarious people).

It was really refreshing to attend a panel that encouraged such strong audience participation. In an intimate setting it was really feasible for everyone to bring their own experience to the discussion and offer up their struggles they’ve had with online “drama,” whether it’s watching young girls deal with harassment on Facebook, exhaustion at feeling like a token voice in certain spaces, and challenges (as well as strategies) to moderating comments. Online drama can be used to make feminist and non-feminist spaces alike more inclusive, whether it’s centering marginalized voices or challenging oppressive language.

Some take-away thoughts on moderating comments from Garland included “[Your website] is not a space that people deserve. It’s a space they have to earn,” and “You can debate ideas, but you can’t debate people’s lives.”

There were some other great women there from Geek Feminism, Hollaback, and the Pipeline Fund and more. For more notes, check out Liz Henry’s write-up at Book Maniac.

Rebranding Birth Control

BedsiderHave you checked out yet? Hearing how Jenn Maer (of IDEO) and Larry Swiader (of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy) strategically came up with this accessible and informative birth control website was as engaging and fun as the campaign itself.

Maer started off by saying “If you pick up flyers on sexuality, they look like dental brochures. Sex is emotional. It’s carnal, it’s funny, and that’s not what’s reflected in the literature about it.” With half of all pregnancies in the US being unplanned, a campaign was clearly needed to break through these unappealing programs. Instead of going a medical route, they decided to have a “human-centered design.” They performed qualitative research by speaking to real women (and men). These interviews revealed a lot not just about what people knew about birth control, but how they wanted to talk about it. “People actually DO want to talk about sex—that’s a huge misconception. Just do Twitter search for birth control,” said Maer.

It turns out people don’t want to hear about clinical birth control business. They just want to have better sex. Maer compared the sex education taught in school as “like learning how to drive a car in a classroom when you’re ten and you’ve never been inside a car. Then when you’re sixteen they toss you the keys and say ‘Have at it!’” Based on stories from real women, they came up with a website and campaign that was about the fun, safety, and emotions tied to sex—not another banal birth control page.

If you’re interested in creative brainstorming and research, outreach campaigns, and sex and birth control, the audio from the panel is online, where you can hear more about their strategy, as well as some questions from the audience toward the end!

Whither the Female Tech Founder?

<img src=”” alt=”Dina Kaplan” align=”left” hspace=10”>This panel on women entrepreneurs and start-ups featured three female tech CEOs and one male panelist. It was moderated by Jessica Vascellaro, the Deputy Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal’s Media & Marketing Bureau (who was great about constantly steering the conversation back to the gendered playing field of business whenever it got off topic). One of the panelists, Dina Kaplan (left, a co-founder of talked about the deluge of sexism she experienced when approaching investors for Blip. One potential investor told her “Half the meeting I want to talk about Blip, half the meeting I want to hit on you,” and then he told her he wanted to see her naked later that night. She said “It got so bad I just realized I couldn’t go to meetings by myself,” so she began bringing male companion (who might not even be a Blip representative) with her to a business meetings not just to be taken seriously, but to fend off advances. On the other hand, Alexa Von Tobel, a slightly younger entrepreneur, said she had never felt sexism when she was looking for funds: “It never crossed my mind that I was a woman or just 25.”

Ethan Kurzweil, who I think was supposed to represent the male investor perspective, was asked what investors were looking for when it came to female entrepreneurs. He said for better or for worse, investors are looking for patterns, “and there isn’t a long track record of female founder entrepreneur,” ultimately making the male-dominated business world a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. But he added, “To be perfectly honest, we’ve got to get over that. There’s going to be no change in the status quo if we keep trying to force the same model.” #yay

Besides changing the boy’s club, Kaplan’s solution for the lack of women in business is to hire women directly—especially in the tech businesses. “It’s not having role models. It’s not having a female Mark Zuckerberg. We need to flood our companies with qualified women,” noting that it can be intimidating, as a woman, to join a company primarily staffed by men—which I think can be said about many male-dominated fields. She cited Google, who had a significant amount of women at the table when the company began, as a strong business, simply because a more diverse staff means more diverse and creative ideas (which was a theme of many of the diversity panels I went to). Want to hear more? You can listen to the entire panel online!

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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