The Real and/or Perceived Misogyny at Search Conferences


Hannah Smith writes about the need to talk about the lack of female speakers at search conferences.

We strive to have as fair a system as possible with Affiliate Summit with speakers decided by votes from the public and our advisory board.

I want to see the most well-formed speakers up on stage at any event I attend, and it seems crazy to me that any conference organizer would exercise bias rather than focus on quality.


The Door Doesn't Swing Both Ways

Just to be fair there is also discrimination in this space, Blogher for example refuses to let men speak at their shows, they are however perfectly fine accepting their money as atendees. 

Part of the problem may be women that are willing to attend...

... much less speak.

Without a lot of effort, I found numerous female conference attendees, a few of which had also been speakers, that were subjected to sexual misconduct at conferences. More than one of those instances involved physical threats. Several involved uninvited groping.
This isn't limited to search events... it probably happened the first time a woman showed up at a company sales convention. That doesn't make it right, and it certainly doesn't make it acceptable. It does appear, though, to make it invisible.
Barry Adams wrote a piece on this a few days ago:
I did, as well, coincidentally on the same day:
Several of the ladies I interviewed said that they will no longer attend "X" conference. Two said they will never speak again at ANY conference, precisely because of this.
A couple of organizers have also said that they don't receive many applications to speak from women, and one said that even invitations to women see a lower acceptance rate than those sent to male speakers.
It seems reasonable to me that such behavior might be a large part of the reason for that.

I can't believe

Do conference holders simply not know about any of this? With that information getting out again, it seems a terrible public relations situation.

It's an old problem, just getting fresh attention

I spoke to several women that attend various conferences regularly, and even though I knew things like that happen at conventions and conferences, I was dumbfounded at how often problems occur. Not just out-of-line propositions.. downright criminal assault.
Obviously, the biggest problem is that it occurs at all, but close behind that is the fact that women that DO complain or file charges are often made to feel like whores, just because they were in a bar with men, having some drinks.
If light is kept shining on it, eventually, maybe it'll no longer be ignored or winked at.

I agree

And perhaps some education. It may be a winky-winky thing to some, but the fact that it can so badly impact the woman ought to be factored in. This isn't just "boys being boys". It's boys breaking the law.

And, if no one will do anything about it, there are always the cops.

What I'd like to see...

is a conference policy that says "if there's a complaint, you WILL be ejected from the conference and banned frmo future attendance, and your name WILL be placed on a watch-list that is shared with other conference organizers." that's my more moderate idea... the one I'd most enjoy, though, would be some jerk getting a mudhole stomped in his chest for not knowing when to back off. If the stomping came from his intended prey, so much the better. ;)

We're not hearing complaints here

We've been running Affiliate Summit for 10 years, and I don't recall ever hearing a single complaint.

We would never tolerate anybody making attendees feel uncomfortable.


(I was replying to "What I'd like to see...")

And perhaps a word to the

And perhaps a word to the conference holders. There cannot be a "community" if the women have to watch out for threats and defend themselves.

I would think that conference attendance would lessen if the word got out to conference attendees. As to conference holders, shame on them if they're among those winking at each other.

As Noirin Plunkett said of her experience at an ApacheCon (yes, not an SEO event, but a geek event):

But I don’t give the wrong impression, and it’s simply not true that guys can’t read me right. I don’t want to be assaulted, and the vast majority of guys read that just fine. It is not my job to avoid getting assaulted. It is everyone else’s job to avoid assaulting me. Dozens of guys succeeded at that job, across the week. In the pub, in the stairwell, on the MARTA, in my bedroom.

One guy failed, and it’s his fault.

ETA: My heartfelt thanks to the Atlanta police for their sensitivity and professionalism.

Hi Doc -- sorry I was

Hi Doc -- sorry I was apparently typing while you were posting. I quite like your post. :)

Back to Shawn's orginal topic...

I think the sexual innuendos, propositions and assaults certainly deter many women from attending or speaking at some conferences. But Hannah raised some very valid questions about how female speakers are perceived at conferences that are (or have been) predominantly frequented by men. Just like the multitude of people that claim to not have a prejudiced bone in their body (we ALL do, to some extent), I think most men do have difficulty (even if subconscious) seeing a woman only as a person. If the woman is particularly attractive, it can be still more difficult. When it comes right down to it, we're subject to our primal instincts. It's the acting-out on those instincts that we can, and should, control.

If a male speaker voices a theory that a guy finds preposterous, he may think the speaker's logic is faulty, his DOE was flawed or that he's just an idiot. But if a woman voices that theory, is she a dumb blonde or a bimbo? Is a woman like Marissa Mayer automatically assumed to either be a bitch or to have slept her way to the top? My God! She's both successful AND attractive! She OBVIOUSLY must have risen to such heights for some other reason than simple demonstrated ability! ;)I think the next danger may be that as conferences start seeking and finding more women that are willing to speak, there wil still be some guys in the room that will consider them to be "tokens", because it gives them a reason to not recognize them as just people first. I've actually heard a male say, after a really great presentation by a woman, "Great ideas! I wonder which one of them wrote it for her" (referring to the two male partners of the company).

At some point, the value of a presentation should be rated on its content, not whether the presenter had a uterus or a penis - or is black or white, straight or gay, left or right-handed.

> wrote it for her

> wrote it for her

That certainly shows their limitations in thinking about people at all. It's time, I think, to move into a more enlightened frame of mind. And to realize that they're not owed sex.

And that sometimes bad things happen to bad people.


There are a few conferences that were mentioned to me in interviews that are considered safe, or even exemplary, Shawn. Just as there were a few that were considered infamous for numerous such occurences each day, of varying severity. One question I asked was what specific conferences fell on the dark side of that line, but I didn't have to ask which ones were considered safe... that information was volunteered.

I suppose that if some of the ladies were to start sharing their experiences even more publicly, perhaps as a list of the good, the bad and the ugly, it might prompt some of the less concerned sponsors to be more proactive. I'd hate to see that, as it could impact a lot of people that are blameless. That, and the fact that my information is all second-hand, is why I won't single out any particular conferences. For the record, Affiliate Summit never came up, on either side of the line, Shawn. ;) I would say this, though... the fact that you've never heard a complaint doesn't mean nobody has experienced an issue. Women know that when they complain about such things, they're ofter blamed in some way for it having happened. That's bullshit - I've seen it happen too many times, in rape cases, domestice abuse investigations and in sexual discrimination and misconduct cases. As a consequence, a lot of women are hesitant to give voice to it, even in severe instances, much less in minor altercations. We'll probably never know how many times it's happened and not been reported or complained about.


"sexual misconduct at

"sexual misconduct at conferences"

This has been a big issue at conferences in other areas. Basically, a "zero tolerance" policy has had to be put in place, which should be good practice for any conference. This means reports can be made in confidence knowing they will be treated with proper seriousness, and action taken that at the very least means the person(s) accused is ejected from the conference if found to be at fault - no matter how popular they are other with other attendees.

It's a sad surprise to see this applies here as well, but needs acting on immediately.

Brian - are you talking about non-criminal offenses?

I am not clear about this reporting system - something like harassment takes place and people should be reported to a conference, rather than police, or are you talking about other behavior?

How about if a person makes a claim maliciously? How is that supposed to be ascertained?

I would think

that the police wouldn't normally get involved unless there was some sort of unwanted physical contact. Perhaps even in instances of lewd propositions. But realistically, who is better able to judge whether she felt threatened in some way than the victim?

@Shawn, your point about malicious claims is valid - the possibility certainly exists. I think that anyone that makes a specious claim, though, could pretty much kiss their professional future in the industry good-bye. Hopefully, that would be sufficient to prevent it.

I also think that very few women would relish the visibility that lodging a complaint would bring, so it would probably happen mostly when the guy's behavior was seriously out of line. There are plenty of people around with bad taste... fortunately, few of them take it beyond words. To those that do, I offer no sympathy for the consequences.

This isn't a search conference issue

Michael, I've heard you use th at BlogHer analogy for many years now and I really wish you'd stop. Because it's not equivalent. After all these years I can't tell if you legimately don't see that or if you just like screaming it.  But it's hurtful. 

I really dislike these conversations because they're painful to have, but they're important conversations. I don't think it's fair to look at the conference organizers and say, "don't you see this happening?" or conference organizers themselves to cry, "this doesn't happen at our show". 

It does happen, it happens at every show. But I don't believe it is the specific conference's fault in most situations. Like Michelle Robbins said in a thread on the Aimclear blog [] , this isn't a search problem or a tech problem, it's a human problem.

There's a conference series I haven't attended in many years because the last time I was there I was sexually assaulted. Is it the conference organizer's fault this happened? No, it's not. Is it something I reported? No, it's not. Who wants that attention? Who wants that following them around in this everyone-knows-everyone industry? Who wants to be known for that?  I certainly don't. Maybe that's a fault of mine for not speaking out, but that's the situation.  

If you see something wrong, speak up when you see it.  Stand up for your colleagues. Don't let people make lewd comments or be inappropriate with someone. If someone looks cornered, ask if they're okay. 

This isn't a problem conferences have to fix (though if we could stop embarassing our industry with booth babes, that'd be swell), it's something we have to fix as professionals who care about one another.  At some point this industry will mature and maybe then we won't need threads like these reminding us not to disrespect one another.  


Lisa, I'm sincerely sorry to

Lisa, I'm sincerely sorry to hear that you were assaulted. That should never have happened.

You have a point about the conference organizers. However, if if were me, I'd would like to know that they take such things seriously and take some steps to prevent these things from happening. I would not like to have to think that they just wouldn't care.

Perhaps it's time for security people (or more security people?) at conferences.

Nailed it!

" it's a human problem."

Great discussion on Marty's post, that I'd missed entirely, Lisa. Thanks!

Obviously, the questions of women being "fairly" represented in the ranks of speakers, and not having to endure sexist treatment at conferences (search/marketing or other) are tied, and quite complex.

Experiences like yours should NEVER happen, regardless of the venue, and it's not solely the fault of the perpetrator, the organizer or the guy standing nearby that saw what was happening but chose to say/do nothing about it.

It's the fault of everyone. It happens because, for a lot of reasons, it's thought to be acceptable behavior. Until everyone, the victim, the organizer and the guy nearby, make it crystal clear that it's NOT acceptable, that there are consequences for such behavior, it will still happen.

Whether the focus is on speaker gender makeup or sexist remarks and actions, I think the cyclical attention the issues get is a necessary catalyst in pushing change. It certainly shouldn't be necessary... but it obviously still is.

I don't think it's the fault

I don't think it's the fault of everyone. It's definitely the fault of the person doing it. And some blame would fall on those observing but doing nothing. And on those who hear about it but do nothing.

This needs to be dealt with. If some of the attendees (or, worse, conference organizers) have a winky-wink boys-will-be-boys attitude of dismissal about sexual harassment (or assault), then that ought to be made known, so that women can protect themselves from this sort of hostile environment. Why keep it a secret so that they walk into it unawares? Let the world know that such-and-such conference has not taken steps to help protect women speakers or attendees.

I understand that conference organizers can't know everything that happens during a conference. They can let people know that harassment and assault will not be tolerated. And take steps if and when they become aware of what is, in reality, illegal.

Understood that this is a human problem. As a society, we don't blame everyone. We blame the perpetrator. And that's why we have laws, courts and law enforcement to deal with such things. If necessary, then we as a community ought to avail ourselves of them.

I don't disagree

I think we agree, Diane. I certainly put the lion's share of the blame on the perpetrator... I just think that enablers deserve a dishonorable mention.

Those that witness it and say/do nothing are sending the message that it's okay. It isn't. Those that suffer in silence are sending the message that they won't make a scene. They should.

I realize that it's easy for ME to say that a woman subjected to such behavior should make a scene - I'm not the one that will have to deal with the consequences. But the fact that there is even any hesitation to speak out is a reflection on all of us, IMO.

So yeah, the person that does it is the guilty party, but he doesn't stand alone.

Ah, I see what you're saying

Ah, I see what you're saying — and I agree.  (And I have to say I've been enjoying your posts, and appreciate what you have to say.)

Anyone who isn't aware that this stuff is illegal ought to learn about it. And some folks may find themselves listed at sites like Not the greatest move for one's future career path.

New instances, new conversation

After yet-another issue in the tech space, the conversation is back around. 

Hopefully soon these conversations will be irrelevant. 


Nicely done, Lisa, as usual.

Nicely done, Lisa, as usual. Keeping the light on it is the only way to kill it.

Interestingly, I got contacted by someone the other day, accusing me of "white-knighting". I would have thought it was obvious that at 60 years old (and VERY happily married with a shitload of grandkids), I'm not hoping to attract attention from any young lasses by putting on a sensitive front. If it appears that I'm sensitive to this issue, it's because I AM! I don't want to see my daughter or granddaughter, or ANY woman, have to endure this sort of crap.If any of the other men out there are hesitant to speak out in fear of being called out for white-knighting, I suggest they get over it, before one of the women in their life suffers this sort of degradation or worse... I think looking in the mirror would be pretty tough.

The issue affects cons in

The issue affects cons in general, and zero tolerance is the only way forward:



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