Improving the male-to-female ratio in the technology industry emerged as a big theme at South by Southwest this year—especially after a panel in which a prominent female executive, United States CTO Megan Smith, found herself repeatedly interrupted by Google executive chairman (and former CEO) Eric Schmidt.
The session, titled “How Innovation Happens,” also included Aspen Institute CEO and author Walter Isaacson, perhaps most famous for his controversial biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The event was advertised as a “conversation” about how companies such as Google transform great ideas into innovative technologies, as well as how lack of diversity holds companies back.
Both men repeatedly interrupted Smith whenever she tried to speak. While interrupting other speakers isn’t necessarily uncommon in this type of session, the audience picked up on the fact that it was happening during a discussion of diversity. As the talk ended and the Q&A session began, an attendee asked: “Given that unconscious bias research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men, I’m wondering if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times?”
According to Twitter, the person calling them out may have been Judith Williams, head of the unconscious bias program at Google. The crowd applauded.
As one man pointed out after the session, Smith was once Schmidt’s subordinate, which could have introduced an additional element into play beyond the typical dynamics of women and men in the workplace. But being higher on the org chart doesn’t excuse certain types of behavior.
This year’s South by Southwest will host a number of panels on diversity, but how many of those will provide such a clear example of the issues at hand?
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