Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

Changing the Ratio at SXSW

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Not many conferences publish quite as much raw data about the session proposals submitted to them as SXSW. The SXSW Panel Picker is one of the few sources of such information available on the web, and contains data going back to 2008 (for the Interactive portion of the conference). The number of women involved in, and highlighted at technology conferences has been a topic of recent discussion, and this report examines what effect this has had on SXSW.

1. Changing The Ratio

The number of women submitting proposals to the SXSW Interactive Panel Picker has increased 8 times over the last 5 years, from just 140 in 2008 to over 1200 this year. That represents a mean growth rate of 76% year on year, with a peak rate of over 100% growth from 2009 to 2010. Simultaneously, the number of men submitting proposals has experienced a mean growth rate of 37%. Female involvement in the Panel Picker process has increased steadily since 2008, whereas the growth of male submitted proposals has leveled off [1].

SXSW Interactive is made of up a number of different session formats, including panels, comprised of an organizer and up to 5 speakers. Panels in 2012 make up just 35% of all submissions to the Panel Picker, but warrant further investigation as panelists contribute as high as 65% of all speakers attending. In 2012 the ratio of proposed female to male panelists is 1:1.93 which is significantly lower than the 1:1.3 ratio of session organizers.

The SXSW Interactive Panel Picker contains more and more submissions each year, affording potential attendees greater choice and direction over the conference. This growth has been increasingly driven by sessions proposed by women, and this year as much as 92% [2] of the increase in proposed sessions comes from women. To date, this growth in female-submitted sessions has not made it through to the final line up, where the percentage of female speakers remains consistently between 17% and 33% over the past 10 years. It’s unclear from the available data how this occurs, although it should be noted that 70% of the final line up at SXSW is curated by the organizers and their advisers, as noted in the introductory note to the Panel Picker.

 While the ratio of female-proposed sessions has increased from 1:3.6 to greater than 1:1.3, the same can not be said for the final line up where the ratio of women has remained around the 1:3 mark for the last 10 years.

2. What are we talking about

The number of unique proposals which mention the words Women, Female, or Gender [3] at least once in the full text description has increased from 0.5% of all proposals in 2008 to almost 5% this year, another order of magnitude growth for women at SXSW Interactive. It is clear from the data that there is a great desire to talk about women and their role in this industry. It is not, however, expected that parity around this particular metric will be achieved.

With the sheer volume of submissions from women there is now a significant presence in all of the SXSW Interactive categories. Apart from “Design / Development” and “Work and Happiness” the top 7 categories were in the same order for both men and women (the former being lower for women, and the later higher, although both remain in male and female top 7). The remaining top 5 categories have a strong correlation between female and male submissions, with a mean relative difference of just under 1%.

Taking into account the 1:1.3 ratio of female-to-male driven submissions, Women take the lead in “Work and Happiness” by submitting almost 20% more proposals than men, whereas in “Design / Development” men submitted almost 30% more proposals. The most heavily female- dominated category is “Global / International Issues” where women submitted 27% more proposals than men. Other categories do not have enough submissions to make their differences significant.

By analyzing the tags used in submissions we can determine the types of topics that women are talking about, men are talking about, and those topics both men and women are talking about. The data is both normalized to take into account the ratio of 1:1.3 female to male submissions, and weighted towards more frequently used tags in each column [4].

There is a strong social (not just social media, but in the wider sense) component trend from women, vs a product one from men. The topics that both men and women have proposed in greater parity are more varied (as to be expected) but seem to slant towards the social web, with the notable exception of User Experience.


The number of women submitting to the SXSW Interactive Panel Picker is increasing consistently, and the categories women are proposing submissions in cover the entire spectrum of topics. Specifically, it should noted with the exception of “Design / Development” and “Work and Happiness” female submissions to categories are in ratios consistent with men.

The increase in total proposed panels is being driven by women, however, as of 2011 this has not yet present itself with increase in female speakers, which currently sits in the 20 – 30% region as it has for over 10 years.

Key Points

Female-proposed submissions to the SXSW Panel Picker has increased steadily for the last 5 years, and is at 43% for 2012.

Women are submitting proposals in similar proportions to men across all of the SXSW Categories.

The rapid growth in submissions to the SXSW Panel Picker is being driven by women, who made up as much as 92% of the increase in 2012.

The percentage of female speakers at SXSW has averaged 24% over the last 10 years, with a standard deviation of 4.5%

Appendix I : Data Background

The source data was obtained by scraping the panel picker website using a Ruby script, and outputting a JSON object that represents each proposal which is then stored in a CouchDB instance hosted on Cloudant. Map/ Reduce functions were constructed against the data set to extract counts for terms in documents, tags, categories, etc, which were then reprocessed using Ruby, importing data into both Numbers and Google Docs for graph generation.

Appendix II: Names and Gender

Since SXSW does not provide gender information along with panels, a gender is associated with the organizer of each proposal, and the speakers in the case of panels by inspecting their first name and comparing it against US Census Data from 1990 detailing relative frequencies of first names for genders [5]. From this a confidence rating can be calculated for gender, and in this instance a confidence interval of 90% was used for assignment. Approximately 20% of the names appearing in submissions are not contained in the 1990 Census [6], which means that in some instances, only 80% of the data was available for analysis. However, since presence of name in a census (or lack thereof) is not discriminatory towards this dataset, one can assume that ratio driven calculations are still valid. This was verified by comparing the ratio of female names to male names on random samples of the data set.

About the Author

Emma Persky is a vocal technology evangelist, an avid traveler and vibrant storyteller. You can’t miss her with her bright red hair and distinctively British accent. When Emma is not at home in New York, doing science with data at Hashable she can be found on an intrepid expedition, collecting stories for her blog,


tel: 209-559-5275




[1] Despite the huge growth in attendance at SXSW Interactive 2011, it was a slow year for proposals, as growth across the board (from men and women) slowed to less than 10%, where as it had been running at around 80%. It returned to 26% this year. Although there is no evidence to support this hypothesis, it seems likely that this is in some way related to the financial conditions of the time.

[2] In 2012 a lower than average proportion of names were gender identified, although as explained in Appendix B, this should not significantly skew this result.

[3] Sex was not included in this list as there are talks at SXSW about sex (vb.) not sex (adj.) which is of less interest to this discussion.

[4] Specifically tags used less than 20 times across the entire dataset are ignored here.


[6] Such as Orian, Tikva and Poornima

Thinking Digital – The Aftermath

Despite having been in Newcastle the the past two years during Thinking Digital, I’ve never actually had a chance to attend. My time in newcastle has instead been spent partying hard at the mal, running up Tara Hunt’s champagne bill (love ya!), and nursing mammoth hangovers on the train up to edinburgh. This year, however, I was fortunate enough to attend this conference I have head so many good things about, and I have to say, it lived up to expectations. And not just because Herb Kim knows how to throw a party…

This year the conference was split in two – The Main Hall, and the Livecast Lounge. Now, I loved the theory of the Livecast Lounge – a more relaxed space to listen to watch the talks from, on a giant screen, somewhere you could, eat and drink, talk to fellow attendees, blog, and so on. This appealed to me specifically because I often find it hard to sit in a seat and just listen, I need to do 100 things at once (I’m watching Being Erica whilst writing this, oh, and shopping for wedding presents).

Unfortunately, the Livecast Lounge didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it was great being there, I was just hoping for something a little different. The somewhat stoical atmosphere was, at times, excruciating, and if I wasn’t as bold and crazy as I am, I would have felt quite uncomfortable clapping at the end of talks – almost everyone in the lounge just sat there. I think it went wrong on two counts: first that people bought Livecast Lounge tickets as overflow when the Main Hall was sold out, when from my perspective it wasn’t overflow, but a different way to experience a conference. And secondly that the physical layout of the room reinforced the overflow mentality. Instead of seats in rows I would have thrown in beanbags and couches around the outside, put screens on all the walls (so that you can sit facing people whilst still watching), and found a way to engage with the lounge participants more, perhaps a two-way video link during questions.

I think this was a great attempt at doing something new and innovative with conferences, and despite my thoughts, I had a great few days. Planning for Thinking Digital is already underway for next year, and I certainly plan to go back to the Livecast Lounge.

LiveCast Lounge at Thinking Digital Conference

Despite my love for conversational, interactive conferences, there are some that simply don’t fit that bill and Thinking Digital is one of them. It’s tag line “Technology, Ideas and Our Future” hints at a breath of fresh air from the traditional web/tech conference circuit, and with speakers with quirky background such as Robert Lang, a world origami expert, it promises to be very interesting this year. I have to confess that whilst I have never been to Newcastle specifically for Thinking Digital before I have been in ‘toon in and around it’s dates for various reasons. Last year I had the privilege to spend the day with some of the speakers on a jaunt to Edinburgh for the day, and through the haze of a truly epic champagne hangover was unbelievably inspired by people like Caleb Chung (creator of the Furby and Pleo) and Chandler Burr (The New York Times’ perfume critic).

Thinking Digital are clearly doing something right because this year they have already sold out, and the demand has been so high that they have created what they are calling the “Live Lounge“, a space where attendees will be able to watch live streams of the talks, relax, eat, drink, tweet and so on. For people like myself who are addicted to being connected it’s difficult to spend all day sitting in a traditional conference venue even with fantastic speakers, so I am very excited by the prospects of this space and the conversations it will inspire.

So, if you find yourself at Thinking Digital 2010 please do swing by the LiveCast Lounge and say hello to the girl with the red hair furiously tapping away on the iPad in her hand.

on sxsw panels, conversations and how to get me out of bed

My favourite sessions at barcamps tend to be those which are (directed) discussions on topics ranging from sex and gender to rural broadband. I love to engage with other participants during these moments, often playing devils advocate so that ideas and concepts are deeply justified and thought through. Oh, and I love to get my opinion across too! I always walk away from these sessions with a feeling of satisfaction, even if no conclusions have been reached and often feel both inspired by what other people have said, and hopeful that I have had some impact on others too. It really doesn’t matter if you are leading the discussion or not, everyone should have a chance to speak their mind.

On the flip side what seriously frustrates me about panels is that I have to watch a discussion take place, and despite the ability to ask questions I do not have a chance to engage in actual conversation with either panelists, or more importantly other attendees. I only attended one panel at SXSWi this year “What Guys Are Doing To Get More Girls Into Tech” (#moregirlsintech) and the frustration experienced by many attendees was evident through the hash tag stream on the giant screen. Many of us wanted to engage in discussion but had to resort to venting our frustration and disagreement through twitter.

Perhaps it’s the physical layout of the room. In the core conversation I attended “How Geeks Grabbed Philly By The Balls” (#geeksgrabbedphilly) the two core conversationalists were on the same level as the attendees, physically much closer, and encouraged to disrupt the process, whereas in the panel the panelists were on a raised platform at the front. That physical separation makes it much harder for the audience to become participants and engage with the panelists.

I’m fairly certain that this is not an issue of the conversationalists of panalists themselves. My amazing friend Alex Hillman was key to the Philly conversation and the panelists were also incredibly fascinating people, as was the modertor who did a very good job of fielding twitter queries where she could.

The panel I was on “Don’t Stop Believin’: How karaoke is going to change the world” (#dontstopbelievin) (slides) was not a conversation panel, but rather a set of 7 short and sweet presentations followed by questions and karaoke – and I think they key difference here is the presentation aspect. Let conversations be conversations and presentations be presentations, even if they have 7 people presenting. Panels muddy the water. They give you a taste of a conversation you can not be part of, and that frustrates me.

So my request to SXSWi 2011 is that they significantly ramp up the number core conversations they have by switching out some of the panels. There is no reason conversations can’t be guided and focused by a group of key conversationalists, nor is there any reasons presentations can’t be presented by several presenters. This is an interactive conference after all, so let’s get interactive where we can. Turn panelists into conversationalists by bringing them down to floor level and into the discussion. Minimise the gap (physical and virtual) between them and the attendees, and overall increase engagement. Everyone will benefit from this. And you might actually encourage me out of bed and into a session or two…