When Sara DeWitt brought her infant to the South By Southwest Interactive conference last year, she felt most unwelcome. There were few comfortable places to nurse or change the boy in the Austin Conference Center, and the vice-president of PBS Kids' Digital, who had just finished her maternity leave, spent most of the festival in her hotel room. A child at the annual tech event was such a rare sight that strangers asked to take her picture. "Why would you bring a baby to something like this?" she was asked.
What a difference a year makes.
SXSWi is underway in Austin again, and DeWitt was there over the weekend, to host a session titled "How to Keep Working Parents In & Innovating." (I joined her for that discussion and you can read a summary of it here.) Although there are still no lactation rooms at the conference, this time the schedule was peppered with conversations about life, work and parenting, including Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jessica Coen discussing "Beyond Work/Life: Changing the Debate and Making Change" and a later panel called "Ok, Women Can't Have It All, but Maybe No One Can," during which Slaughter's name was invoked often, along with Sheryl Sandberg's and Marissa Mayer's.
Some of the most revealing insights about how things have changed, however, came during talks that were about something else entirely.
Elon Musk, for instance, the founder of PayPal, Tesla, and other companies that have made him a billionaire, was there to talk about space exploration -- and how his latest venture, SpaceX, could finally get humans to Mars. For most of his hour-long conversation with moderator former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, Musk fielded questions about business and physics, at one point showing a never before seen video of a SpaceX test of a reuseable rocket.
But the moment conference goers talked about all weekend came near the end of their talk, when Anderson asked Musk about his family. The entrepreneur is a father of five.
"Kids are awesome, you guys should all have kids. Kids are great," Musk said, while grinning at the audience. Then he added "I don't see mine enough actually. What I find is I'm able to be with them and still be on e-mail. I can be with them and still be working at the same time."
Cue shift in audience response. As Farah Miller, the managing editor here at HuffPost Parents described it "everyone had been hanging on every word and loving what he was saying and then 'whoa', they shut down on him."
Or, as another in the audience tweeted:
Elon Musk just lost the whole audience--formerly eating out of his hand. He has 5 children says they are great but hardly sees them.
— maja thomas (@digimaja) March 9, 2013
His interviewer sounded none too pleased, as well. Anderson said. "I also have five kids, and I don't do e-mail while I'm with them. It's not good for the children and it's not good for the email." (Zing.)
No worries, Musk answered, "I do have a nanny there, otherwise they'd kill each other."
A statistical breakdown of attendees at all three parts of SXSW -- tech, film and music -- shows that this year only 31 percent of the 25,000 who are down in Austin have children. Which is one part of what made the resulting chatter about Musk's priorities so gratifying. Two fathers, sharing a very public stage, and disagreeing about what is best for children.
As DeWitt knows first hand, a few years ago, Musk's answer would have brought a wink and a giggle. Just another distracted father, his audience would have thought, adorably unaware of his children. A few years ago, Anderson would never have challenged Musk. That the room chilled and the moderator was, to use Vanity Fair's word, "incredulous," is a sign of a welcome shift.
Several hours before Musk took the stage, Slaughter was talking about her piece of the re-ignited life/work debate, specifically her article in the Atlantic last summer, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All". It is past time for children to stop being seen as an impediment to committed work, and that distracted parents stop being treated as an acceptable norm, she warned. "Anyone saying to me 'my work is more important than my kids' I don't want working for me," she said.
A shift in our worldview has begun, she told her audience of mostly moms, but can't be complete until all of us, men and women, with and without kids get the message that "if you're caught up on your email, your priorities are in the wrong place..."
It was a small victory, then, when another audience entirely made it clear that message had been received.