Women, speaking and online abuse

I am saddened but not surprised to read posts by my friends Sarah and Relly describing horrible abuse they have received online.

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.


Rachel February 5, 2013 Reply

Thanks for writing this Rachel. It really is great that you end with something like this as well: “To those women I say please don’t be afraid. There are a whole bunch of us who will truly have your back.”

As someone that’s started speaking in the last few months (and has also experienced numerous things I’d rather not speak out about at the mo) I’m terrified of these sorts of things happening to me – but it’s great to know that it’s first a minority that are responsible for those sorts of things and secondly, that wonderful people like yourselves and others are always there for friendly advice if needed. Thanks again 🙂

Nicole February 5, 2013 Reply

“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.”

I’m likely in the minority, but all this nonsense is motivating me to do more to raise my profile in the industry and seek out opportunities to give talks on design & development. Not because I want to be on the receiving end of misogynistic vitriol, but because I know I have a thick enough skin to deal with it, and I want to do my part to fight back and help create an environment where women don’t have to have a thick skin to speak up.

Matthew Pennell February 6, 2013 Reply

What saddens me most is that, although in some circles it can seem that everyone agrees that obviously all these things are terrible and shouldn’t happen, there are still people commenting on Sarah’s post – and willing to put their names to their comments – that hold, and deem worth sharing with the world, misogynist views and ideas.

One tends to assume that anonymous cowards who behave in such deplorable ways usually know that what they are doing is wrong. It’s so depressing to find that there are still men around who really believe those views are correct.

James February 6, 2013 Reply

Agreed on all points Rachel. If you enjoy what you do then you should be able to speak without fearing repercussions. Event organisers get speakers because of what they know not how they look and the vast majority of the industry are behind everyone, that’s how we learn by hearing different view points.

To those who don’t like women speakers a) if you think you could do better the try it, it’s not as easy as it looks and b) if you were speaking and someone commented on your appearance or family like that, how would you feel? It’s plain bullying at the end of the day. If your child or loved one was being picked on you wouldn’t stand for it so dont do it to others. It’s childish and the industry will happily carry on without you.

I do hope it doesn’t put anyone off because we are all behind you. I couldn’t think of a better industry to be in.

John Locke February 6, 2013 Reply

I’m glad that you and everyone else has come forward. There are still people who are frightened that they will “lose their spot” if they complain too loudly. Women, minorities, LGBT folks, just to name some. We like to believe that our community is better than the bulk of society, but for it to be so, we have to expose practices that are unacceptable.

The community as a whole has to protect one another from unacceptable behavior and harassment. I hope that others who feel they have had to stay silent become emboldened to tell their own stories. The only way to make things change is to stop pretending that things are perfect when they aren’t.

Courage and nerve to all.

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