As many of you know, South By SouthWest Interactive is the largest tech conference in America, hosting thousands of attendees to see hundreds of talks, panels and lectures about all aspects of tech and interactive life.
All speakers are required to check in at SxSW green rooms and wait for one hour before talks. This year, along with water and soft drinks, all speakers were greeted with free schwag from a PR company that sponsored SxSW's 2011 green rooms.
Austin company Ink PR distributed breath mints and cards with a short list of "speaker tips" for all presenters, literally left in piles on each green room table.
Of note to several presenters was the final point on Ink PR's list of speaker tips reading, "A speech should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the topic, yet short enough to be interesting."
When asked about endorsement of the cards or the sentiment expressed, SxSW's official response to me was that they had not been aware of the cards.
I reached out to Ink PR to get their response to speakers who had mentioned they were offended by the last line.
Rather than respond to me directly, Ink PR acknowledged that the cards were offensive in a blog post titled, "Here's A Tip: Lighten Up."
Ink PR wrote,
The last tip on the card was a quote, attributed to everyone (including Winston Churchill) and no one over many years, and considered a sound piece of advice to toastmasters and speech makers alike. (…)
I’ve heard some of the speakers took offense at our “sexist” tip cards. To those speakers, this all-female high tech/clean tech PR firm says no offense intended and offers up this one additional piece of advice – not taking ourselves so seriously can be a good thing in life. Try it.
It's certainly true that everyone has different levels of what's acceptable, and what's not, when it comes to discussions and jokes about sex and gender. In fact, the first two people to bring it up and express offense were male speakers, each from different parts of the industry.
Some people may claim women smart enough to be in tech should be "beyond this" - as in, "beyond being offended by this."
But tech (and tech media) is still an old boy's network. And if you think it's not, then you're not paying attention.
I think that if a woman wants to make her living by shortening her skirt, that's her prerogative. Telling me what length my skirt "should" be may seem like a harmless joke (though it's a very, very old and boring one to begin with).
But get it straight: should's are what keep us in the tech ghetto.
Incidentally, the word "sexist" was Ink PR's addition to the conversation, not mine. But I'm glad they pointed it out.
The idea that what keeps half the population "interesting" is a short skirt is not only sexist, it's so deeply denigrating that it appalled everyone who talked about the cards - SxSW speakers of varying genders and orientations.
It posits the argument that there is one thing about a woman that "keeps things interesting."
It pretends that I can't look at you as a speaker, think My god, she's hot and still, "despite" that, listen the hell to what you say.
A woman who's sexually desirable may or may not have good ideas - the two things are irrelevant to each other.
I am a 5-year SxSW speaking veteran. My skirt will be as long or as short as I feel like making it, thank you very much, and if that's the only thing that "keeps things interesting" for you when I talk, then you missed a train that left the station quite a few years ago.
And whatever does or doesn't make me "interesting" to you: you ignore my ideas at your peril.
Image via Ink PR.