SEO, Sexism, and Sales - I'm Not Your "Sweetie"

I was raised in a small town, in the small state of Idaho. Cows lived next door. In Idaho strangers wave like you’re old pals, and if you’re short five dollars, it’s probable that the clerk will let you go home to grab the five dollars - and trusts that you’ll come back. In Idaho people don’t lock their doors, and in general, everyone is pretty nice.

I grew up in a home where I was taught that I had the potential to do anything. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, but it was never presented as a matter of fact that women ought to stay home; it was simply her and my father’s choice. I was never treated differently for being a “girl”. I am a third degree black belt; throughout my life I would get in the ring with boys far older and heavier than myself. I never once heard in all my time competing that because I was a girl I shouldn’t be allowed to fight boys.

Today I work at Page One Power, a startup SEO link building firm in Boise, Idaho. I was the first woman on the sales team and I have never been treated differently; neither flirted with, nor treated as incompetent in comparison to my male colleagues.

I was utterly shocked when I attended my first sales trade show in New York. I was treated not only like a piece of meat, but also like I had no place in this world of business. I was catcalled, shamelessly hit on, and had men emailing me (from my business card) asking for dates, affairs, and one night stands… all in this “business” setting. All without a second thought to my refusal, and blatant “no’s”. Not one of those men would listen to “no.”

I didn’t know what to do.

  • I wasn’t sure what I needed to put up with in order to keep my position.
  • I wasn’t sure if this was normal.
  • I wasn’t sure if this was my fault.
  • I wasn’t sure who I should talk to about it.
  • I wasn’t sure if I could handle this. No level of education could have ever have prepared me for how I felt in this exact circumstance.

In any normal situation women learn how to dismiss men: on the street, in a bar, gas stations, etc. Generally a few impolite words, hand gestures, or even just ignoring them will do the trick.

I had a feeling that none of those were appropriate in a work setting, and I had never been taught how to fend for myself in a formal setting. Being honest, I have never been the sort of woman that was quiet in my belief, thought, or action; especially not in a case where I felt completely out of control, and violated. Needless to say, this was an entirely different environment that required a different sort of reaction.

For the first time in my life I felt so very lost and out of place.

It took going to my first trade show, in a male dominated industry, to feel like I really did not belong. I've taken classes on feminist theory, I’ve read feminist manifestos, and historical autobiographies ranging from the suffrage movement to the bra burning, hippy, forerunners for gender equality… but I genuinely had never considered myself a “feminist.” What? Feminist? No… I like men. I think men are nice.

But now I understood.

In a “right to work” state I could easily be dismissed for “acting out of turn,” “being too brash”, “assertive” (notice these qualities are often synonymous with being a leader; were I a man all of these words would increase my office likeability; aka make me a boss, not just “bossy”). I was not willing to sacrifice my first job out of college, just to put these men in their place.

Did I deserve to be treated like this? Was my dress too short?

Thinking like this only further propagates sexism, wherein I should feel responsible for a man being disrespectful; it must be my fault that he has no manners!

If I am being completely honest, I wasn’t sure how to address this situation - I certainly didn’t want to be perceived as the weakest member of the team. I didn’t want my boss to think:

  • Is this going to create drama?
  • Why is she being so sensitive?
  • Do we have to watch over and protect her?
  • Is it a disadvantage to have a woman on our team? Can she handle these situations, and are they going to be constantly coming up?

I didn’t want to be the weak one.

Real Stats About Gender Inequality

The fact is men still run this world. Of the 195 independent countries in the world only 20 are led by women. A record “high” of 24 of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are women (a little less than 5%). In 1970 American women were paid 59 cents to every dollar a man made. By 2011 we have gone up 18 cents… Forty years and inflation of bread and eggs have seen a larger increases than income equality between the genders.

“There’s no doubt that women have the skills to lead in the workplace. Girls are increasingly outperforming boys in the classroom, earning about 57 percent of the undergraduate and 60 percent of the master’s degrees in the United States. This gender gap in academic achievement has even caused some to worry about the “end of men.” But while compliant, raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace. Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself—traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting. This may explain why girls’ academic gains have not yet translated into significantly higher numbers of women in top jobs” -- Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

If you wouldn’t call your male colleague “sweetie”….

It’s surprising how many men--both trade shows and on sales calls--refer to me as honey, sweetie, darling (and the list goes on). I don’t even let my husband call me pet names - under what circumstance should some random man call me sweetie?!

A general rule of thumb: it’s not appropriate to call a woman a pet name if you wouldn't use the same name to refer to a male colleague. Pet names are generally demeaning.

The worst of all is being defined by your gender. I can’t tell you how many times that potential clients have told me “you’re pretty good at sales, for a girl”. No. I am good at my job because I strive to be the best at everything I do. I am not better or worse at my job because I am a “girl”.

My perspective: women do not want to be treated differently than men in the workplace, and that applies to all situations. I don’t want to get the job/ promotion (etc) because I am a woman. I certainly don’t want to not get the job/promotion because I am a woman.

That reminds me of a Hilary Clinton interview, where the newscaster asked her what designer she wears. Mrs. Clinton was there in her role as Secretary of State, and quickly asked the newscaster if he would ask a male the same question. And that is exactly the point. Be tactful - if you wouldn’t ask a male colleague, don’t ask a woman.

A Good Wife, A Good Mother, and Great at My Job

I have often been asked in other professional settings if I plan to return to work after I have children.

Would you ask a man if he planned to return after his partner had a child? Now, sure, I realize that anatomically I will have to be the one to give birth, etc, etc. But it's 2015, and the US, like many first world countries, should provide their workers maternal and paternal leave.

By providing both paid maternity and paternity leave we would set the societal norm that the family system is a two-part system. We would set the precedent that childcare is in the nature and best interest of both the mother and the father, not just the mother’s responsibility.

While I am busy fighting for paid maternity leave, or even unpaid extended maternity leave, it seems crazy to imagine a United States that would promote a dual childcare system in the household. Yet the benefits far outweigh the costs.

It should be expected that after giving birth I would be gone for a bit, and that my husband would be an equal partner raising our child, thus gone for a bit too. It doesn’t make sense that in a nation that has progressed that women would be the only one to bear the burden of raising children. It should never be a thought or an inkling to employers that anyone should/or is going to choose between a career and children. I can be a good wife, a good mother, and great at my job.

In 2009 there was a comprehensive review of governmental, social science, and original research that led to the conclusion that children, parents, and marriages can all flourish when both parents have full careers. The data plainly reveals that sharing financial and childcare responsibilities leads to less guilty moms, more involved dads, and thriving children.

This same study also found that women who both work and have a family have lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of mental well-being. The rewards of shared responsibilities includes greater financial security, more stable marriages, better health, and generally increased life satisfaction. Unfortunately this same study showed that men in leadership positions that do not have a spouse working outside the home are less likely to promote women who choose to work while having a family.

By teaching our young girls that they can work and have a family life, without fear of judgement, making a wrong choice, overreaching, or failure, we can have a healthier society as a whole. Women would be free to pursue professional success and personal fulfillment - just as men have been doing for decades. Only then will we see strides in female leadership, resulting in an overall change in societal norms.

Booth Babes, Structured Sexism, and Misogyny

Walking into the convention center at my first trade show I immediately saw beautiful women everywhere - I hadn’t realized that there were so many women interested in this field! Much to my dismay, these women were actually hired to “draw attention” to their booth, and actually knew very little about online marketing. In fact, most studies show women only make up 20-25% of the industry.

They were “booth babes.” (Nothing says sexism like…. buy a woman to exploit here).

No matter how much progress we have made in the business world, we still live in a structure in which the societal norm is men handle business, and women are paid to look pretty.

The message this sends to women and our children is that brains are only desirable if the woman happens to also be a babe. The world of business retains its boy’s club mentality proving that being LinkedIn simply isn’t enough - instead women need to wear a revealing outfit and lean in.

And that is exactly how I was treated at my first conference. Separate, surely not equal, and only there to be flirted with. A centerpiece. The more it happened, the more my confidence dwindled. The message it sent is that no matter how hard I have worked, no matter how much I learned, no matter how well I do in sales - I am an outsider. It tells me that there is no space for women in this field.

Booth babes also send a message to men. Their presence signifies that it’s completely fair to treat women like a visual aid. That men are welcome to make bawdy jokes, and that women colleagues would probably make the company more money - if they just sold themselves... short.

So women flee the STEM scene, allowing for the field to propagate with more and more like minded men - men that don’t notice the underlying sexism of booth babes. That don’t notice that we have no maternity leave. That don’t notice that there is no bin in the bathroom to throw away tampons.

* According to The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, Misogyny is defined as: "a central part of sexist prejudice and ideology and, as such, is an important basis for the oppression of females in male-dominated societies. Misogyny is manifested in many different ways, from jokes to pornography to violence to the self-contempt women may be taught to feel toward their own bodies."

On this trip I received email after email from creepy men... who refused to take “no” for an answer. I would give out my business card hoping to make a work connection, and instead receive an email asking for a one night courtship.

“Hi Ashley, it was a pleasure meeting you today. I'm just here until tomorrow, staying on Central Park West. Want to go out for dinner with me later and talk more? I'm going to live it up a little tonight, feel free to join me :)”

Confronting Sexism Directly

Upon my return, I researched hundreds of cases similar to mine… except worse. Women being threatened with rape unless they quit participating in the tech field (especially prevalent in the gaming industry).

I was flustered. I was annoyed. I was a little scared of being fired if I brought this to the table.

So I made a presentation anyway (yes, this is a tendency of mine… I will blame it on my EFTJ assertive personality score, Sagittarian nature, or inherent feminist heart), and I decided to give it to a very small group of some team leaders and project managers; mostly to feel some sort of relief and to start looking for a new job if it came to that.

I will tell you: I was amazed and destroyed at the same time.

Many colleagues did not realize it is normal for women in the industry to make less money for equal amounts of work. Some of my male colleagues helped me research statistics, helped me grow on feminist theory, and knew loads about the topic.

Many of my colleagues had no idea that women were being treated this way in plain sight.

I was asked by one of the managers: “When men treat you that way- why don’t you tell them you are married?”

I don’t blame him for asking - that seems like a sensible solution. But by saying I’m married, I am portraying that my answer of “no” is not enough. That this man should not respect what I say, but should respect another man’s presence, instead. I will never use my husband as an excuse, and I will teach my daughters, and my friends to follow suit.

Until we give ourselves the ability to stand up for our own thoughts, goals, objectives, and objections, how can we expect others to?

I was amazed, and filled with gratitude at the end (no I didn’t get fired). They reassured me that I will not be fired for providing a witty remark, or for letting a man at these shows know that he has crossed a boundary. One of my managers went as far as to let me know that he would call the company to let them know how their sales associates were treating others. They assured me that my company will back me up in these situations.

And that means more than you know.

  • Without saying it, they let me know that this situation did not make me a “weak” team member.

If anything, it will give me the tools to be more confident in my abilities regardless of my surroundings.

  • Without saying it, they treated me with respect and dignity.

They let me tell my story, without treating me like someone who can’t take care of themselves.

  • Without saying it, they instilled confidence in me.

I was confident I could actually remain working for this company when I need maternity leave, without fear of losing my job if I need an extra few weeks.

They allowed themselves to digest the information I presented, questioned what they could work on individually, and how they could improve as a company to prevent misogynistic attitudes in the workplace.

It was wonderful to hear. I was overwhelmed with a sense of deeper respect and loyalty for my colleagues, for my management team, and for my company.

It would be nice if this hadn't happened at all. These are the growing pains of a new graduate, a new company, and an industry with a female minority, and unfortunately there are similar incidents happening every second to other women.

It’s unfortunate that I have to feel grateful for a basic sense of security in my workplace.

This will continue to happen until the industry makes some big changes.

I have grown from this experience. I know that my presence on our sales team is vital, and different from what my colleagues, male and female, can offer.

I will not be afraid of these situations again, but to be honest, each time a show comes up, I get a little nervous inside - but at least now I know that I can stand up for myself, and that my company would prefer not to do business with these kinds of people.

And when our sales team grows, as we have more women on the team, I will help to educate them on how to handle these situations. With the help of all of my colleagues, male and female, we can help to fight this culture of misogyny and male dominance in our industry.

If more companies would discuss these issues, make internal changes to promote diverse leadership, and then take strides in promoting a no-tolerance stance, then our industry could really grow to be inclusive and a safe place for all ideas to flourish.

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Ashley Penrod