SXSW Afterglow: The Sessions That Stuck with Me

I was sitting in my Human Resource Management class when that statement snapped me back to attention. I wasn’t sure how I felt about those words. How can the mere presence of women in media, business, and the world at large be construed as “the hot thing” of the moment? Is this the attention that we were striving for? Perhaps it is more important to bask in the light of this publicity to educate the public at large about our plight as women.

As Hilary Clinton once commented, “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.” After absorbing several female-focused, thought-provoking sessions at SXSW in March, gender diversity and its impact on technology are fresh in my mind. Below are some of the highlights from the sessions I attended,

Women + The Power of Community, with Audrey Gelman

The women’s club movement started out in the 19th and 20th century as a way for women to have access to an encouraging community. These clubs formed as a means for women to better themselves through education, but also to better society as a whole through acts of community service. Hundreds of years later, we are entering a new renaissance of women’s clubs, but for strikingly different purposes.

Women wear a many different hats in today’s society and they need spaces where they can meet-up with their peers – to work, rest and engage. Audrey Gelman discussed the beginnings of The Wing, a network of co-working and community spaces for women. She was inspired to develop it as both a flexible space for changing and transitioning for different commitments and a welcoming space where women can meet each other.

She discussed the strategic design of the space – it’s designed with lots of different areas where members can work together or alone on innovative projects, but also have happenstance run-ins with other club members. The result of these carefully designed spaces included members hiring one another or starting a business together.

The discussion concluded on the topic of community, with Gelman remarking on the phenomenon of technology connecting people globally more than ever before, while on a local level people are feeling more and more isolated from one another. Community groups help fill these gaps by creating spaces for women to connect and where they are free to share their common interest and values.

Inclusion + Tech: How To Get It Right

Diversity, equality, and inclusion are terms that are often cited as values for organizations and corporations, both small and large. The basic definitions are as follows; diversity can be explained as everyone is individual and different. Equality can be outlined as achieving equal access to opportunities in business, while inclusion is a sense of belonging, feeling respected, and valued for who you are and your contributions. This session focused on the current status of these values and what role they will play with companies and the emerging workforce.

Diversity and inclusion are changing how companies are showing up. Some companies now take measures to include diversity statistics as part of their earnings calls, while other corporations have tied compensations structures of senior leaders and managers back to defined diversity KPIs. Whereas, smaller companies are starting to realize that diversity and inclusion plays an integral part of their acceleration and growth strategies. Companies are becoming more transparent on the topic as they compete for a limited talent pool.

There is also a strong role that technology is playing to remove biases within companies and ensure a more diverse perspective. The session panel cited tech and organizations such as – which removes bias completely from the interview process, textio – used to mitigate bias when doing job interviews, and Project 99 – leading organizations in engaging and advancing millennial and of-color talent through workforce development programs as tools that companies are starting to leverage.

Companies are also striving to better measure inclusion by strategically placing questions in company surveys to explore this component of the work environment. These survey questions are asked on a particular cadence and then the results are analyzed from male, female, and ethnic perspectives. Ultimately, the panelists agreed that retention is a company’s greatest inclusion metric – if you don’t feel included you are going to leave. At the end of the day, every single person from every background should feel that level of inclusion with your organization.

Democratizing AI for Individuals and Organizations

The promise of artificial intelligence is incredibly powerful and promises a strong future. However, just like a child, AI needs good parents. This topic was broadly explored by Dr. Fi-Fi Li, Director of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and Chief Scientist of AI/ML at Google Cloud, and Megan Smith, CEO of shift7 who served as the 3rd U.S. Chief Technology Officer (2014-17).

In 2005, AI was founded in computer learning. Things like the formulation of object recognition, WordNet – a large lexical database of English, and ImageNet – a large visual database designed for use in visual object recognition software research were three big ingredients that drove the deep learning movement. The AI sphere is now focused on democratizing AI with the ultimate goal of bringing it to each country, each company, and each person in a fair and equal way. It’s a technology that can benefit everyone in sectors such as health care, agriculture, manufacturing and many more.

AI is a very young technology given that has only been around for 60 years, and it needs a sustained pipeline of people to continue to design the technology and bring it to others. In order to build this talent pool, some states have voted to include Computer Science as part of the core curriculum. To date, 20 U.S. states have changed policies to incorporate coding into their curriculum. As the panel pointed out, technical and design thinking are needed as a fundamental skill.

There is also a need for diversity in AI. It’s essential to get people from different walks of life involved to establish different thinking to strengthen the medium.

The crowd was given a bit of a history lesson on two areas that make up the underpinnings of AI – social science and computer science. Megan talked about the contributions to society that Jane Addams, who is most commonly known as the mother of social work, and Ada Lovelace, who often is viewed as the first computer programmer as she introduced many computer concepts. Without the foundations that these women built, artificial intelligence would not be in its current state.

The ultimate goal of AI is for the ability to accurately mimic human intelligence. The future of AI relies on ensuring that the technology is developed in human-centered ways This can be accomplished by aiming for deeper meanings and understanding of human behavior and thought through technology, investing in creation and innovation technology (i.e., how can AI help us with co-work that is more precise, doesn’t fatigue, and is unbiased?)and bringing AI together with social science and humanities to study how it impacts education, ethics and law.

As a parting thought, for humanity to continue to evolve, women and men from diverse backgrounds must have seats at the table. Our beliefs, values and viewpoints play at integral role in pushing society forward. We all need to be active and invested not only for ourselves, but for the next generation.

This article was originally published in Women in Digital.