First published 21 December, 2011
“You, guy,” he said to my boyfriend across the table. “It’s not fair. You bring this girl here. It’s not fair.” We asked why not. “Because all women who come to conferences should be available,” he replied. Available to him. Throughout the evening, whenever he got the chance, he repeated that it “wasn’t fair” and that a woman like me shouldn’t be at a tech event if the opportunity did not exist for him to have some of me. He made it clear that he was finding it hard to control himself, and if a breakdown in his self-control happened, that would be unacceptable, but only because I had a boyfriend. This happened in London in late 2010.
Five days later, a woman at a tech conference in Atlanta publicly accused a male delegate of sexual assault. And you think, is it any goddamn wonder?
What would have happened had I actually been single, or if he had found opportunity to be alone with me? And would that too have been my fault for not coming along with a partner? If you show up alone and he tries to hurt you? All women who come to conferences should be available.
I began writing this blog post the day after the event took place, but was talked out of its importance by my own conditioning. Nothing happened to me. So it’s okay that he said that and that he travels the world (he is not British; he flew here for the conference) treating female conference attendees in that way? I find it hard to believe that I was the only person he’d ever spoken to like that. I talked myself out of it because I was scared.
At my second Pubcon, in December 2007, I learned that another attendee had said he was going to “hook up with me.” The people he said it to told him that was unlikely, as they didn’t believe I was single. The guy’s response was that he didn’t care, it was going to happen anyway, and I was going to like it. This one is closer to home. If you’re reading this because you know me through SEO, you know of this person. These are some of our own.
On both nights, I made sure not to let myself be alone with either of these people. Was it paranoid to believe there was a certain degree of risk from the unwanted attention? From the stories other women tell about their experiences at conferences, I don’t believe it was.
These are just two examples.
There is also the man who announced in front of seven or eight fellow conference attendees that he found it strange I claimed to be very happy having lived in London for two years, since there was no ring on my finger. Me being female, he said, made it hard for him to believe that I could be truly happy without being engaged or married. The people he said this in front of had paid hundreds of dollars in ticket fees, accommodation and travel to hear both him and me speak at a conference, and there he was – reducing me to a ring-hungry twit in front of them.
He apologised to me over email, saying he was only trying to find out if I were single. Which, clearly, he felt was appropriate conference banter as well. I never replied.
From many other conferences I’ve attended over the past five years, I have similar–albeit sometimes less eyebrow-raising–stories or being treated inappropriately, in one way or another, because I’m female. Many of us do.
It’s not as if people are silent about it, and it’s not as though it’s uncommon. When I worked at SEOmoz, my female colleague and I received the odd email from people who saw it fit to approach us inappropriately based upon our being women. And I can’t shake the frustration that there is nothing I can do about it.
What can I do about it?
I can decline to be featured in stupid posts about “the sexiest women in social media”, because it belittles my talent to have to tie it to what I look like, and belittles people further who aren’t deemed suitable for such acknowledgement, solely based on their appearance. When I declined to be in that post, the post’s writer clearly had no idea why I’d feel the way I do about it. In fact, he found it “hilarious”:
An apology for such a list is that “success is sexy” and acknowledgement is benign. But the author won’t feature people he or she considers physically unattractive, and someone shouldn’t be given press above her peers in a profession unrelated to appearance because of her face or her body.
To the small percentage of the population–and of our industry–who are not decent people, seeing ten women given press because of their looks helps to confirm that our presence at a conference is for others’ entertainment. To the man at Conversion Camp in London who told me over and over again that my presence wasn’t fair, because I was not available for him, my only worth was physical.
And I’ve been on the other side too, which is where I think this becomes less of a two-dimensional whine about sexism and more of an argument.
This is why public judgement and objectification reaches so far down my throat and twists my guts so hard. I’ve been on both ends of this shit. I’ve listened to how much men in our industry love going to conferences that used strippers as marketing tools and attendee bait, and I have compared my figure and desirability to those of the women in question.
Not that they ever would after this, but if I were asked to speak at an event like that, I’d turn it down. I’ve turned down a couple of events in the past for similar reasons. You think there are too few women at tech events, or you hear from organisers that they asked women to speak, but that they were turned down? Have you considered the environment you create? Is it exclusionary and primarily for the benefit of straight men? Have you managed to find one or two women who find it acceptable, and do you then hold those women’s testimony up as sterling proof that you aren’t doing anything wrong? Do you use the excuse that “it happens everywhere – look at the automotive industry!” as a reason why you shouldn’t be held accountable in your own back yard?
We keep reading about how the women used as bait make the conference so much better. It comes up over and over again. Regular girls are not plentiful enough, nor good enough company. When this post was originally published, it went up on the same day as another tacky video with Playboy girls front and centre. But the rest of us still receive our fair share of unwanted sexualised attention. Huh? Interestingly, this video has since been removed from the organiser’s website.
It sickens me that I even allow myself to do that! Do I not have high enough self-esteem to be proud of a body that put up with me through twelve years of competitive swimming, an activity that paid for a university degree and saw me represent my country and become its national champion and record holder? Am I not proud of a personality that is what it is after some difficult battles, accomplishments, agonies and victories from which I’ve emerged the adult I am?
Of course, I am. However, mine or other women’s prides aside, facts about our bodies or our faces or their comparison to any other woman’s have no place in our work or our industry. This stands, no matter whether I am judged as having lived up to an ideal, or not having achieved someone’s ideal of physical attractiveness.
And yet I read these posts and I associate with these people whether I want to or not, so the primal doubt climbs back up my spine and taps on the back of my neck. Which am I? Good enough a female specimen to be harassed and fawned over at conferences, emailed sexual requests and asked to flaunt myself in posts on the basis of my looks, or are my female industry peers and I so dowdy that a conference is seen as significantly more desirable if boobier, taller, curvier women are shipped in?
And a good solution is not for women to post images of whatever their sexual ideals might be either. It is not to jokingly suggest that we stage our own event with male strippers as our dancers and butlers. The answer is not for girls to waltz around Pubcon smacking boys’ bums in a pathetic attempt to reverse our lot. The solution is to stop engaging in abhorrent behaviour, whether at conferences, over email or elsewhere.
Harassment and assault happens to women in our industry at large, at our industry’s events and as a result of connections made through our industry.
It’s very simple. You’re smart enough people and good enough marketers and–I hope–good enough human beings to knock it off. Stop accepting sexualised female entertainment at professional events, and stop jointly insinuating that women like me are not good enough for you, but that you have the right to treat us as entertainment to which you are entitled nonetheless.