SXSW Needs A Great Big Dose of Periods


Let’s face it: society is really uncomfortable with women’s bodies. That is, of course, unless those bodies happen to be super skinny, photoshopped, free of imperfections, and used strictly for sexual or objectifying purposes. Tech giants like Facebook and Instagram have come under fire more than a few times for banning photos of breastfeeding women and removing images of menstrual blood, body hair, curvy figures, and post-pregnancy bodies.

Despite the rampant censorship of women’s bodies, periods have somehow managed to steal the limelight in the best way possible. Women are live-tweeting Donald Trump about their periods, a woman ran the London Marathon without a tampon (like a total badass), companies like THINX, HelloFlo, and Lunapads are making periods more approachable, period trackers like Groove are gaining steam, and even Apple is hopping on the M-train with it’s upcoming addition of menstrual cycle tracking to iOS 9.

If you ask me, the only logical next step is to bring periods to SXSW in a big way: by putting them front-and-center with a dedicated talk at SXSW Interactive.

Technology’s woman problem

It’s no secret that the tech industry has a woman problem. In 2013, just 26 percent of computing jobs were held by women, which is an astounding 9 percent decrease compared to 1990. Women abandoning the industry blame everything from terrible maternity leave policies to a hostile work culture. And the latest news that men’s rights activists in California are filing lawsuits against businesses and events that cater to women doesn’t make the future look particularly bright.

So it should come as no surprise, really, that SXSW Interactive, one of the largest technology conferences in the world, still has some work to do in the gender department. Even though the conference’s gender gap is closing in some areas — 41 percent of SXSW conference attendees in 2014 were women and 35 percent of Interactive speakers in 2015 were women — it remains rampant in others. For example, an estimated 25 out of more than 500 SXSW Interactive sessions in 2014 were about women in technology. That’s fewer than 5 percent.

And a quick search through PanelPicker, where public voting for proposed 2016 sessions is open until September 4, suggests that the 2016 Interactive conference will be no different. Sessions that specifically address women’s issues — including technology’s gender and diversity problem — appear to be few and far between. A staggering 142 out of 4009 proposal submissions for the 2016 Interactive conference contain the word “women” (3.5 percent), and just 155 contain the word “diversity” (3.8 percent). So, yes, the gender gap is beginning to close among the people involved in the conference, but very few sessions are addressing steps that can be taken to improve diversity and bring about parity in the industry.

I’m certainly not implying that female speakers at SXSW have an obligation to discuss women’s issues, but I am a bit surprised by the extreme discrepancy given the narrowing gender gap among attendees and speakers. On the plus side, conference organizers are very aware of the problem, and Interactive director Hugh Forrest is quick to admit that there’s still a great deal of work to be done to improve diversity.

Why talk about periods?

Women’s bodies are a silent killer in the tech industry. We’re discriminated against both during pregnancy and after pregnancy, we’re accused of being hormonally unstable, and women in positions of power are branded as bitchy and emotional. Much of this bias seems to stem from biological differences and their perceived (and unfounded) effects on the performance of women in the workplace. And even though these biases are often unconscious, it’s toxic for women in the industry. So why not cut the bullshit and dedicate an entire talk to periods?

The tech community is unquestionably data-driven, and I want to use my tech industry prowess to educate people and break down period stigmas in a way that only SXSW Interactive allows: by talking data, science, technology, and the future of a massive industry. What could be more SXSW than that?

What time is it? Period time.

It’s time for an honest dialogue in the tech community about a biological function that affects half of the human population. The brightest, most innovative, and forward-thinking minds in the world are more than capable of listening to (and expressing genuine interest in) a talk about periods and period tracking technology without shrouding the topic in shame, stigma, and disgust.

Yes, the industry has a woman problem, but most folks (men and women, alike) are genuinely concerned about improving it. So let’s not underestimate the tech community’s capacity to understand and appreciate the important health benefits of tracking menstrual cycle data and the profound ways that technologies like period trackers can further empower women both in and outside of the industry.

I invite you to join me as I encourage this community to learn and grow by showcasing a topic that still manages to furrow brows and evoke discomfort. After all, isn’t pushing the boundaries what being in tech is all about?

Vote for my talk and share this post to be part of the movement.

Images: Mike Beales/Flickr; Giphy