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SXSW 2019 embraces #MeToo as International Women's Day kicks off

Diversity and inclusion aren't a given at conferences.

KOCCA - 2018 SXSW Conference and Festivals

SXSW says it works on representing people from "all of walks of life."

Steve Rogers Photography/Getty Images

SXSW 2019 kicks off Friday in Austin, Texas, coinciding with another annual cultural event.

Friday also marks International Women's Day, which dates back to 1911 and is devoted to the "social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women."

The music-film-media festival itself has a full slate of sessions and panels that deal with diversity and inclusion. Search the 10-day SXSW schedule, and you'll find about 50 sessions with the word "women" in the title, and nearly 20 more with the word "diversity." They have names like Women in the World of Venture Capital, Diversity is the New Superfood, Black Women in Entertainment: The Necessary Voice, Avoid Diversity Myths to Avoid Diversity Failures and The Women Behind the Music.

"Increasing inclusion is something we've been working on for the better part of a decade, and it is important that the event represent people from all walks of life," Hugh Forrest, SXSW's chief programming officer, said in an email.

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SXSW brings tens of thousands of festival-goers to Austin every spring.

Diego Donamaria/Getty Images

But within the last decade, the topics of diversity and inclusion have gained increasing attention. And in 2017, the #MeToo movement swept through industries like tech and entertainment, unseating power players such as actors, anchors and venture capitalists. It also surfaced stories of sexual assault and harassment, long stifled, showing that there is strength in numbers as women come forward, and what's more, that accountability was long overdue.

Representation at conferences is far from a given. You might remember a Tumblr that started back in 2015 called Congrats, You Have an All Male Panel! to document events, panels and seminars where there's nary a woman on the lineup. Conferences like RSA and CES have faced criticism for a lack of women keynotes.

Sparking change

Lauren Clark, a junior at Stanford University, will be speaking on a  SXSW panel called #MeToo, Now What? Looking Beyond the Hashtag, having completed a research project called Catalyzing Courage that looks at gender equity in the entertainment and media. When she initially pitched the project two years ago at school, interest was limited, she said. But after #MeToo kicked into gear the next year, she got funding.

"What the entertainment industry is creating is what society is consuming on a daily basis, and that really does make a huge impact," she said in an interview.   

What's more, she's hoping the panel can not just further awareness of diversity issues, but look at what comes next. Also on the panel are Color Farm Media's Erika Alexander; Sarah Hernholm of Whatever It Takes and Smart City Saturday; and the San Diego International Film Festival's Tonya Mantooth.

There's a reason so many of these panels have come to SXSW, said Brian Solis, digital anthropologist, author of Lifescale: How to Break Free from Digital Distractions and a longtime SXSW attendee. "If it's anywhere, SXSW is the place to energize, strengthen and mobilize efforts to push forward against hate and bots and algorithms designed to promote hostility."

At an event like SXSW, a giant cultural gathering that in 2018 attracted about 432,500 attendees, those presenting are hoping to bring their message to a bigger, potentially receptive audience.

Alex Williamson, chief brand officer for dating app Bumble, is on a panel called How Women are Re-Building the Man-Made Internet. She noted via email that Bumble -- which lets women send the first message to their matches -- was born out of wanting to make something geared to women's experiences.

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"We saw firsthand just how damaging social media can be and wanted there to be an internet that was both rooted in kindness and engineered to empower women," she said.

Then there's Austin-based photographer John Davidson, who will present his portrait series Women Who Tech are Dangerous: Portraits and Stories in the Age of #MeToo. His photos show women against a dark gray background, shot from the chest up, and accompanied by their own words on subjects like stereotypes, working in all-male groups, and mentorship.

When Davidson started the project in 2017, he didn't know how far the movement's momentum would carry, but more than a year later, he's still adding to the collection online.

An anti-bias bus 

Companies bringing their own programming to SXSW are conscious of the increased attention to diversity and inclusion, as well.

Dell Technologies has panels on funding for women entrepreneurs and on why diversity is beneficial for businesses, to name just two It's even got a Check Your Blind Spot Bus, a bus decked out with interactive activities like using virtual reality to "look into someone's reality," or that deal with the concept of unconscious bias. You can also sign the I Act On Pledge to check and curb your own biases. The bus is a part of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, which is "the largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace"

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The Blind Spot Bus at Dell Technologies' headquarters in Round Rock, Texas.

Dell

"It's about what is the responsibility that we all have to ensure that the world moves forward the way it should?" said Brian Reaves, Dell's chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Once attendees to conferences have chucked their badges and used up their drink tickets, it isn't always clear what sort of impact an event has had.

The hope is that the exposure and discussion will stick with folks when they go back home.

"This," Solis said," is where the influence sparks."

Here are some other highlights to look for from SXSW 2019:

Game of Thrones: Bleed for the Throne: The final season of HBO's Game of Thrones premieres April 14, so HBO is bringing an interactive experience to SXSW called Bleed for the Throne. (You could say there's been some bloodshed on GoT in the previous 7 seasons.) This event lets "guests will walk in the steps of those who bled and relive their sacrifices. Those who earn an audience before the Iron Throne will be recognized and rewarded for their bravery." There's also an American Red Cross blood drive, so you can actually bleed for the throne.   

Good Omens: If the end is nigh, why not have some fun? Amazon Prime Video is creating The Garden of Earthly Delights, based on the 1990 novel about the apocalypse by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, complete with a "Hellhound Puppy Pen" and a 20-foot tree that dispenses booze.

Us world premiere: Following up on 2017's Get Out, Jordan Peele is bringing his thriller Us to SXSW for its world premiere. The movie stars Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke, both of whom you might remember from Black Panther.

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