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The big winner at SXSW this year: Women

  • Keynotes at this year's SXSW conference were evenly split between men and women, unlike other major tech conferences.
  • Private conversations with attendees also revealed that men at the show are paying more attention to female entrepreneurs.
  • Even rapper Ludacris acknowledged the change in a shout-out at the Vevo party.

Guests attend Bumble Presents: Empowering Connections at Fair Market on March 10, 2018 in Austin, Texas.
Guests attend Bumble Presents: Empowering Connections at Fair Market on March 10, 2018 in Austin, Texas.

The most talked about topic at the South by Southwest this year wasn't a company or a trend: It was women in tech.

Official keynote speakers at the Austin tech, film and music conference this year were evenly split between men and women. Though it's hard to tell exactly how many women spoke about tech-related issues because programming is fluctuating and tech topics crossed all 24 tracks, a source with knowledge about the situation said there were notably more women and gender-focused sessions than in prior years.

"Increasing inclusion and gender parity 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 and all genders," said a SXSW spokesperson.

Melinda Gates' SXSW interactive keynote was dedicated to Time's Up, the moment against sexual harassment -- and men in the audience took it seriously.

"Men were asking questions about how they could support women in the workplace," said Jennifer Beall Saxton, who founded on-demand stroller and car seat cleaning repair service Tot Squad.

Another female tech executive noted a stark difference from CES, which drew criticism this year for not including women keynote speakers.

A different female executive noted Uber's gender inequality issues have served as a #MeToo moment for the tech industry, forcing companies to rethink how they were treating their female employees.

"These are conversations that bring consciousness and change, and I think that is a wonderful thing," said Nola Weinstein, Twitter's global head of culture and experiential.

Twitter has hosted a women in tech event at SXSW for the past four years, which has grown bigger each year. The company is dedicated to making a platform where 100 percent of women can be seen and heard, as well as feel safe, she said.

"There was a time when women at certain levels felt they had to bring others down," she said. "It's been evolving over time, and people are paying more attention on stages, in conferences, and in boardrooms."

Over the last six months, Twitter has a seen a 50 percent increase on its platform in conversations around women's rights, Weinstein said.

'More likely to write bigger checks'

At an annual fashion tech cocktail hour which had been previously dominated by women, Saxton noticed for the first time male investors attending the event. It was great news for Tot Squad because she often found the male investors she pitched would say they didn't deal with these childcare issues, and would have to ask their wives. Now that they were alongside women investors in the room, they were hearing the benefits of her service from other venture capitalists.

"And it makes them more likely to write bigger checks," she said.

Austin-based Bumble hosted a "house" focused on empowering women in their relationships, business connections and friendships. Inside the event, which was produced by agency Preacher, there was an elevator to practice and record a short pitch about a business concept, as well as an executive desk people could sit behind and take photos at. One stage dedicated to romantic relationships, but also two stages dedicated to female friendships and career advice. The company said it saw a 120 percent uptick in Austin use of its Bumble Bizz vertical after the event.

"We are a female-focused tech company that created a product with women in mind -- our team is over 85 percent female, which is so rare for businesses activating during SXSW Interactive," said Bumble director of marketing Chelsea Maclin.

Bumble is one of a handful of tech companies founded by a woman with a female CEO, she said. She also noted the entire executive team is women. The agency it chose to work for the event, Preacher, is also led by a female CEO.

"As a company, we believe in women supporting other women, ending misogyny, encouraging online accountability, and empowering all people through kindness and respect," Maclin said. "Professional leadership and development for women is such a priority for our team and our users. Our brand was founded on the idea that women can make the first move, and this translates into business as well."

Tech companies weren't the only ones shifting their tone.

After performing his song "Area Codes" — with its famous refrain "I've got hos in different area codes — performer Ludacris stopped himself and made an announcement on stage.

"Forget about the hos," Ludacris said. "Where are the beautiful, successful, sophisticated, independent women? We got movements and s--t."