Yes, everyone online gets trolled. However there is often a difference when it comes to trolling directed at women. In Sarah’s case, someone has made a concerted effort to damage her reputation in her industry, at the very least make her so upset that she pull out of the conference she was speaking at. It is testament to her strength of character that she didn’t let it stop her. They made that attempt, not by criticising her work, but instead by using the age old tactic of discrediting her by suggesting she had behaved ‘improperly’.
Men have been using suggestions of sexual impropriety for thousands of years as a way to discredit women. It is an attack of the lowest order.
In Relly’s case the attack is aimed at a threat to her children, again homing in on a potential weak spot. Those of us who have been doing this for a while are well used to digs at us personally, but threats toward our children, that’s a different matter entirely.
Talk to any women on the speaker circuit and you’ll hear variations on these themes. The attacks on Relly and Sarah are perhaps more overt and extreme examples, however the same areas are being targeted when derogatory comments are made about our clothes or physical appearance. As if the most important thing about a woman is that she looks good.
If we look a bit too good then the suggestion is made that we are only getting speaking engagements because more powerful men are promoting us based purely on how we look. This idea based on the assumption that a woman couldn’t do well due to her own ability and hard work. If any male readers of this piece want to empathise with women in this industry imagine knowing that, after any achievement you are proud of, there is a sizable group of people who believe you only got to do that thing because someone wanted to sleep with you. That is the insinuation. It hurts. It is also insulting to men who are giving a woman speaker a platform purely on her ability, suggesting that they only do that due to an ulterior motive.
This isn’t unique to our industry. Pick up a tabloid and look at how women are described. You will see plenty of the age-old tropes of women as virgin, as whore, as mother, as crone evident there.
Name this for what it is. For millennia women have been trapped by their biology, by the fact that we are the ones who get pregnant, by the fact that we are in general smaller and weaker physically. Due to birth control, a society that no longer demands a woman stay indoors and raise a brood of children, and the fact that most work no longer requires physical strength, our generation has a choice. However the battle for true equality is not won until in our industry, and elsewhere, those elements that kept us literally trapped for so long are not being used to discredit us.
If a woman says something you disagree with on stage, ask her about it, write a blog post, argue against her point. If a woman does a poor presentation feed that back to the organisers. Just as you would do if it were a man on stage. However don’t you dare use her appearance, family, or just the fact that she is a woman as ammunition.
What saddens me most when we call people out on these issues is that inevitably we will frighten some women away from speaking or doing things to raise their profile. To those women I say please don’t be afraid. There are a whole bunch of us who will truly have your back. For every idiot in this industry there are a hundred fantastic people and we will stand together against this behaviour.