Sexism In Tech: We’re Not Making It Up


So it’s time for a conversation.

No. Sit.

It’s my turn.

In January, aimClear started a discussion about why females don’t speak at conferences. I’m not sure what answer Marty was expecting, but I have to wonder if it was the one he got. Was he surprised by the comments from women saying they don’t attend because they don’t feel safe, because they’ve been yelled at, or because they’ve felt uncomfortable?

I’m not sure.

On the heels of that conversation, Doc Sheldon asked men if they were part of the solution or part of the problem.

Barry Adams wrote about fighting sexism at digital conferences.

And Threadwatch talked about The Real and/or Perceived Misogyny at Search Conferences. You can read those comments for yourself. But let’s set the record straight, there’s no “perception” of a sexism issue in the tech industry.

There just is one.

Despite all the attention these issues have received recently, the above is a conversation that took place on Twitter on Friday. Laura Fitton, Inbound Marketing Evangelist at Hubspot, was speaking at a Growtalks event in Toronto. Meir Bulua, attending (I assume), noticed her Hubspot-branded dress and attached it to a comment about her body. He probably found it clever; Laura did not. She found it disrespectful. And she should have.

Because it was.

I remember being at a popular conference, sitting amongst my colleagues, and having a gentleman attending put his hand on knee while asking me what company I worked for. I remember the same man then removing his hand only to put his arm around me. And leave it there.

I remember being alone in the elevator with an employee of popular conference and being asked if I wanted to go back to his room to “have a drink or something”.

I can’t recall specific times where I’ve been “accidentally” groped while attending search events held in crowded bars because it’s happened too often.

There’s a conference series I haven’t been to in years because of an incident I’d rather not have happen again.

These occurrences aren’t rare or unique. And as isolated incidents you’re almost compelled to write them off as “things that happen in bars” or “things that happen when people drink”. But I’d like for you to remember I wasn’t groped while at a bar on a Friday night in downtown Albany. I was groped while at a professional event where either myself, or my employer, has paid thousands of dollars for me to attend and/or speak.

This shouldn’t happen. And we need to stop tolerating it.

The silver lining here is that by defending the women in this industry and not turning a blind eye to the things that happen, you’re helping the industry as a whole.

Not only will creating a safer, more welcoming environment encourage more women to speak and attend events, but it may just go a long way to fixing that perception problem we face as SEOs and marketers.

Let’s be honest, SEO agencies still aren’t always welcome at the big people table. We can chalk that up to SEO being misunderstood, to those darn snake oil salesmen tarnishing our reputation or whatever else we like to tell ourselves. Some of it actually has merit.

But maybe some of it is because our professional events are drunken parties, held in bars, where people are often escorted out for lewd behavior and where half-naked women either hang from the ceiling or where their job is to walk around serving drinks. Hey, I’m no prude, I don’t wear my gender as an excuse (it sure as hell hasn’t stopped me from anything) or believe in “a man’s job”, but maybe there’s a maturing that needs to take place in our industry. One that raises the standards and the game for all involved.

It’s funny to see that so many of the “renegade SEOs” of yesteryear now hold high-paying positions at large, very corporate organizations. They’ve grown up. Maybe the rest of us can, too.

The first step in others respecting SEO is for SEOs to respect themselves.

In the comments of aimClear’s post, Michelle Robbins states this isn’t a search problem. That it’s a human problem. And as always, she’s absolutely right. But maybe by changing the environment, we’ll also change the people and the behaviors of those people.

I don’t want to not attend nighttime events in fear I may be inappropriately touched or spoken to.
I don’t want to have to check the conference speaker list to decide whether or not I’ll be safe to attend.

But that’s where we’re at right now. Where women leave the field when they’re constantly told to “lighten up” about abuse. And that needs to change.

How do we do it?

Raise Awareness

The conversations we’ve been having are an important first step. If you weren’t aware that a problem exists, now you do. Stop brushing it under the rug. Don’t blame it on the women or belittle their experiences. Don’t tell them to deal with it. Don’t assume they’re looking for attention. Listen to what they’re telling you so you’ll be on the lookout in the future.

Address it

I said in the comments over at Threadwatch that I don’t believe any of this is the “fault” of the conferences themselves. I certainly don’t blame them. Most of them were likely unaware.

But if you’re listening you’re aware now.

Be better about putting guidelines in place to show zero tolerance for harassment or inappropriate behavior. Train your staff to be on the lookout and how to handle situations. Respect female attendees by not letting booth babes walk the expo floor and not hanging women from your ceiling and calling it entertainment.

Seek out women for panels. I know they need to pitch more and they need to fight for those slots. I 100 percent agree with this. But do your part, too. This idea that men outnumber women so largely and that’s why they’re not represented is absurd. Stop perpetuating it.

Danny Sullivan recently tweeted they were looking for women to speak on a specific panel at SMX [Sorry, I can’t find the tweet now].

This helps.

Everyone else? Look out for one another. Don’t be blind. Don’t ignore it. Don’t write off a woman complaining as someone looking for attention or being a baby. Despite the attention-whoreishness of our industry, I can tell you this is not the attention we are looking for. No woman wants to be known for complaining about harassment. If they’re complaining, that’s how bad it’s gotten.

And ladies, stop the woman-on-woman hating. We need to support one another. Not bring each other down. The men don’t do it. We shouldn’t either.

Be Vigilant

Don’t give this issue lip service. Don’t comment on or tweet this post if you’re not going to do anything.

I may be biased, but I believe our industry is made up of some of the smartest and most progressive minds out there. Which makes it even more mind boggling we’re still having this conversation.

Let’s stop this conversation from coming around again by no longer needing it.