Fighting Sexism at Digital Conferences

There is no doubt that the technology sector is more than averagely sexist. The reasons for this are multitude and too complex to explore in this blog post, but suffice to say that the technology sector – and the digital marketing sector, as a subset of the tech industry – is infused with a laddish attitude and enjoys pervasive and embedded sexism.

I find this rather unpalatable. I think the tech industry needs more women, and more participation from women. We shouldn’t abide by companies and conferences using objectified women as enticements and attention grabbers. We’re not stone age cavemen any more.

If you attend tech conferences – and I include digital marketing events among these – there are a few things you can do to help encourage the industry to become more female-friendly, which in turn will encourage more women to join the tech industry and enable the entire industry as a whole to grow and mature.

Avoid Booth Babes

If you see booth babes used at a tech conference, your best decision is to avoid that booth altogether. A second tactic is to leave feedback to the company utilising booth babes, telling them that their product looked interesting but their use of booth babes made you decide against considering their offering.

Some conferences use booth babes – or even Playboy playmates – as enticements, and whenever you see such a prehistoric mentality on display you should strenuously avoid the conference and let the organisers know their backwards approach to marketing ensures you will never participate in their event.

Insist on a Balanced Speakers Roster

Too often a conference’s speakers roster is dominated by men. While in some industries this is due to a lack of participation by women – though such niche industries are increasingly rare – in digital marketing we have no shortage of women doing great work. (One look at the State of Search bloggers panel will tell you that.) So there is quite literally no reason why a digital conference’s speaker’s roster should be primarily made up of men.

When you see a digital marketing conference agenda dominated by male speakers, you should question why. Ask the organisers about this, but don’t expect a meaningful reply, as most will answer vaguely (if at all) and dodge the issue entirely. The mere act of asking will hopefully serve to highlight the issue with the organisers, and perhaps make their speaker selection process a bit more gender neutral.

Don’t be a Dick

If you’re a man and attend tech conferences, make sure you don’t act like a dick. Women don’t attend conferences to pick up guys. They’re there to learn and network and exchange war stories, just like you.

Women’s participation in after-hours social events should also not be remotely construed as an invitation to flirt. No matter how drunk you get – and I imagine some of you will get very, very drunk – do your best to behave like a civilised gentleman.

An abundance of dickhead men trying to hit on women at tech conferences is sure to dissuade many women from attending future events. And that makes the event – and as a result the industry as a whole – poorer for it.

As long as there are small-minded men in tech we’ll have sexism in tech, but at the very least we should ensure such behaviour is openly discouraged and frowned upon. You can do your bit to improve the industry’s attitude to women. Doing nothing is not an option – it takes good people to act to make positive change happen.

It’s Event Week on State of Search!

It’s event week on State of Search this week! We are looking at everything around events, looking forward to SES London and helping you make the best choices you can make when it comes to attending, speaking or choosing your events.


This week is sponsored by Marin Software

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About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.

31 thoughts on “Fighting Sexism at Digital Conferences

  1. Well said Barry. I know Jane has been striving for equality at conferences for a long time as well. Not to make light of the situation, but perhaps some female eye candy might make for a more balanced conference?

    1. Sebastian I’d like to think that you don’t mean any offence with that comment, but nevertheless referring to female speakers or attendees as ‘eye candy’ is offensive.

      Female speakers and attendees aren’t there for decoration, or for your own or anyone else’s entertainment. They are there to participate. As Barry says:

      “Women don’t attend conferences to pick up guys. They’re there to learn and network and exchange war stories, just like you.”

      1. A perfect example of a terrible mixup in word placement… what I’d meant to say was “eye candy for females”. Hence the following more balanced conferences remark.

        1. I see you’ve edited “female eye candy” to “eye candy for females”.

          Just for the record I’d rather not see scantily clad males at conferences either (that would be just as awkward and inappropriate) but I appreciate the point your making 🙂

    2. LOL seriously, female eye candy? Sex, or eye candy shouldn’t even be part of the discourse. How about brain candy? Something to inspire evolved thinking. Ahh youth, still thinking with your gonads.

  2. Well said! I wrote to a car magazine once who I thought would be a little more professional than the Max Power type mags using half naked girls all over the cover – instead the editor published my letter in the magazine and proceeded to belittle me in the column inches below.

    I find it really awkward being one of a minority at a conference and if there’s just a few things that could be done to make it a bit better for us, that would be great.

    Thank you for publishing a balanced article with pointing fingers all over the place.

  3. I admire you for discussing the issue and absolutely agree with your points.

    However what us women in the industry really need to bridge the gender gap is for it to simply stop being a *thing*.

    For example, I love the SEO chicks blog and admire all their tenacity – but segregating the issue in this way only goes about to keep the novelty of ‘women in tech’ rife. And it is this novelty that creates the uncomfortable distinctions in the industry that can be seen at conferences etc.

    When there comes a point when being a women, and being in tech, is not even worthy of comment, is when we will see the inequalities end.

    1. Yes I fully agree with you, which is why I’m in two minds about things like ‘Top 100 Women in Tech’ as that is discrimination of the opposite kind.

      But until women are truly viewed as equals (and I fear that might be a while yet) this sorts of positive attention on women is probably necessary, and definitely commendable.

      Besides, the SEO Chicks are made of pure undiluted awesomeness.

      1. Indeed, but we’re not there yet. I agree until we are “truly” viewed as equal we have to keep banging the drum.

        My generation has been banging that drum for the past 50 years. I’ve seen “some” change, and until it’s no longer in our vocabulary, I’ll continue to bang our drum.

        On a different note, 1 Billion Rising is coming up tomorrow, I invite women & men globally to tune in.

    2. If we can find some men willing to write for a site that has “chicks” in the URL maybe we’ll change…we did have one guy in drag at least.

  4. Would love to share my views on this, (as I’m sure many people would but are too afraid to speak up), but looking at the comments so far it’s not a subject that people are willing to debate properly. Some people have very narrow opinions on what is acceptable or not, on how the industry really is and its debateable whether it should be such a hot topic that keep getting churned up. I’m sure there are many men and women out there that are biting their tongue like me to try to keep out of this debate.

    1. I don’t think we’re ever going to see the end of flirting or overtures… it’s part of the human animal. The part that irks me is to see women subjected to it
      a) when it’s obviously not appreciated;
      b) when there’s an assumption that it’ll be tolerated, even if unwelcome;
      c) in a manner that goes beyond what should be considered appropriate levels, REGARDLESS of the venue.
      Many women, if not most, eventually learn how to handle and defuse such situations. That’s good. But the REAL point is, why should it even be necessary? Acting toward ANY woman in a way that a man would consider acceptable if someone were approaching his mother or daughter should be the norm, IMO, not the exception.

  5. What timing, Barry! Great minds or serendipity? I just put up a related post on Level343 (I’ll resist the temptation of linking).

    I suspect that Sebastian was merely saying that if we saw some “Booth Dudes” in thongs, it might make the absurdity of using ample displays of skin to attract attention more obvious to the men at conferences. Probably true, but I don’t think it’s the direction we want to go in.

    I think there’s a lot more sexism at conferences occurring than most men actually recognize (is there a behavioral psychologist in the house?), even those that attend several events each year. Nobody notices a bird flying overhead – it’s “normal”. A flying pram, on the other hand, might get more attention, as something unexpected. Therein lies the problem, I think. Posts like this can only help, by shining some light on the issue.

  6. Three cheers for Barry! As far as the lists are concerned, I hope we continue seeing Top Women celebrated. Treated equal doesn’t have the mean “we are the same and there is nothing unique about any of us.” I hope some day we can get to a point where it’s okay to be a woman again. Right now we’re going in the other direction.

  7. Totally agree with the points about how we should treat each other at conferences and such, but I think if you’re going to throw wild accusations like “There is no doubt that the technology sector is more than averagely sexist…. the technology sector… is infused with a laddish attitude and enjoys pervasive and embedded sexism.” you need to have at least one statistic that backs this up. Having worked in numerous verticals I would say that sexism is rife in most, and whilst it’s not brilliant, the tech sector is actually more enlightened than most.

    1. Hi Rich, you are of course entirely correct, I should have provided references to back up my claim. Here’s one to point you in the right direction:

      Might I also add that the fact sexism is rife in other industries does not excuse, in any way, shape or form, sexism in tech. We should oppose sexism wherever we find it, but as this is a digital marketing blog in the middle of a themed ‘Events’ week, I chose to focus on sexism at digital conferences.

  8. may I just add a thing? the don’t be a dick” I would like to apply it to ALL participants , men with men, women with women, men to women, women to men. I’ve been to some conferences where speakers where like “don’t you even dare to come close to me , because I’m a rock star” . yeah? not seeing it. I’m just seeing a dick actually.

    good post Barry.

  9. Bravo, Barry. Spoken like a real man. After all, who wants to see their daughter as a booth babe? I’d say that women are hugely discouraged from being welcomed into the tech field, without most men even realizing they are creating that climate, which in turn promotes a “frat boy” sort of society that suppresses personal maturity and, ultimately, damages the careers of everyone in that particular downward spiral. Time to wear grown up clothes — even if figuratively — and show up to work (and conferences) as an adult. And thank you for shining a great big light on the elephant that’s nearly always in the room.

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