The XX Factor

Google Chairman Gets Called Out by His Own Employee for Interrupting a Female Panelist at SXSW

Zip it, Eric.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

South by Southwest Interactive has been stepping up its programming on social justice and diversity in the tech world, but, as Karissa Bell of Mashable reports, an incident at a panel on Monday shows how far the tech world really has to go: 

On Monday, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and acclaimed Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson were wrapping up a SXSW Interactive panel that had focused on diversity, when an audience member called out the two men for repeatedly interrupting their fellow panelist, the United States’ Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.

Even more awkward? The audience member who posed the question was apparently Judith Williams, who heads up Google’s unconscious bias program.

The panel wasn’t exactly about diversity, but on how to create more innovation in technology, which led to a discussion about involving more women and minorities to improve the diversity of perspectives, which helps innovation. (That the panel itself was lily white suggests that panel organizers could use a little of this advice themselves.) According to Bell, the two men interrupted Smith repeatedly, which is “not unusual for moderated panels,” Bell writes.  

“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,” Williams asked the panel. Williams was not the only one to notice. White House senior technology adviser Haley van Dyck tweeted:

The incident happened during a time of heightened attention to the way women are being treated in the tech world, inspired by Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Pao’s lawyers have built a compelling case that women like Pao are in a double bind in the tech world. Pao described an environment in which she was chastised for not being pushy enough and even being assigned a coach to teach her to speak up for herself in an “interruption-driven environment.” But at the same time, she was also criticized for being pushy and having “sharp elbows.”

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, in their series of essays on the cultural impediments to women’s work equality, wrote a piece in the New York Times addressing just this issue in January. “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope,” they write. “Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive.” They praise Glen Mazzara, the showrunner of The Shield, who discovered his female writers were staying silent in meetings, because whenever they did speak up, they were bulldozed by the men. Mazzara responded by banning interruptions during pitch meetings.

The SXSW incident is just one more example in a larger body of evidence, but as these examples build up and get attention, they will eventually force the tech world, and other proudly cocky environments, to reckon with the problem. Telling women that if they act more like men they’ll be treated more like men isn’t working, because of ingrained hostility to women who act “like men.” Instead, it’s time to change the environment so that women aren’t facing insurmountable obstacles to being heard.