Harassment isn't new. It happens in every industry. It happens to and by men and women. But the technology field is arguably unique, not only because women are so grossly underrepresented, but because when it happens, it tends to happen publicly, over the Internet with lightning speed.
The speaking circuit in the tech industry harbors an entirely new set of issues because presenters are in front of an audience that has social media at their fingertips. The audience can say whatever they want instantaneously over Twitter.
Ironically, I heard about Sarah Parmenter on Twitter when Caterina Fake, the co-founder of Flickr and Hunch, mentioned how proud she was of Sarah for speaking out. I wasn't sure what she was referring to until I read Sarah's blog.
Parmenter is a well-known speaker, user interface expert and a regular on the speaking circuit. About six months ago, she was preparing to give a speech at a high-profile conference. What she didn't know was at the very same time another person (she doesn't know for sure if it was a man or woman) was uploading a fake porn picture of her to the Internet. The culprit proceeded to spam the feed on the day of her talk and also set up a fake Twitter account to ensure her employers knew about the pictures.
"When I say fake," she wrote in her blog, "I don't mean my head stuck on someone's body, but look-alikes." She told me in an interview that the pictures looked so much like her that her husband had to look twice at them. But they lacked specific scars on her face, so it was obvious to them that it wasn't even her face.
Sarah was devastated and started to write about it in her blog. She stopped short of finishing it, however, because she said she needed to process it before she could deal with it head on. Shortly afterwards, two things happened to give Sarah the courage to speak out. First, her mother died suddenly. She said that she had been through hell and back from that experience and felt she now had the strength to write about it. Second, she knew that there were too many females in the industry that were suppressing similar experiences.
"There were a couple of girls that had issues, minor issues and they weren't speaking out about it because they were worried that guys were going to think that they were being drama queens or something," Sarah told me in an interview. "So, I thought if I speak out about this, then it's possibly one of the worst things that could ever happen to a female --and it might make them feel like they could speak up about their stuff because it won't be as bad."
Kathy Sierra, a programming instructor and game developer, had her own experience with harassment a few years ago. In 2007, Sierra abruptly canceled her appearance at a conference in San Diego after threatening blog posts and emails surfaced. One blog post included an image of Sierra next to a noose. She wrote in her blog at the time, "I have cancelled all speaking engagements. I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same."
Whitney Hess, a user experience designer also on the speaking circuit, was called out on the web in a similarly harsh fashion. Hess gave a talk in Italy two years ago about how her strong opinions have helped her achieve both success and distress working in the user experience space. Shortly after that talk, she was personally attacked on the web.
The blogger wrote:
The most unfortunate thing about Whitney Hess, is she is really and truly not qualified to lead 3/4 of the things she is leading the in the UX community. This seems to be the trend of the UX community. Young little girls, being mentored by 'experts' in the field and enjoying the benefits of stardom.
Hess told me she saw that Relly Annett-Baker had written about her experience...
and that Leslie Jensen-Inman had opened up...
... and the silence slowly began to break.
Leslie Jensen-Inman wrote about how she was angrily confronted following a presentation she gave at a conference and went back to her hotel room alone, face to face with awful Twitter messages about her presentation.
"The tweets were not about the quality of my presentation, instead, they were about me being a woman. They were about my clothes and my shoes. They were about my curves and my hair. They were mean and petty," she wrote in her blog.
What seemed most upsetting to Jensen-Inman was the idea that future generations of women "would not be judged by the merits of their work, instead, they would be judged by their gender."
Parmenter told me that personal attacks that take place on Twitter and the Web is one of the main reasons why she believes more women aren't present at conferences.
"There's many questions around why there aren't more females speaking in this industry. I can tell you why, they are scared," Sarah said in her blog. "Everytime I jump on stage, I get comments, either about the way I look, or the fact that I'm the female, the token, the one they have to sit through in order for the males to come back on again."
And that's the real tragedy. Young women may be avoiding careers in technology because acts of harassment and sexism can be carried out globally and instantaneously. Now having permeated the professional ranks, cyberbullying is no longer a social media phenomenon; it's a vicious cycle. But, exposure may be the only effective way to combat the harassment. The strength that Sarah, Whitney and Leslie showed by speaking out about their experiences may encourage others to do the same and, in time, build a culture of camaraderie and professionalism that emphasizes capability over gender.