I’ve received nothing but kind words and support in response to this article. Thanks to everyone for encouraging me to share my stories. However, a few former colleagues have asked me if any of these incidents took place while we were working together. I’m making every attempt to articulate what transpired while keeping these events anonymous, but not so anonymous as to incriminate those who weren’t involved. That said, none of these incidents took place at G2/Refinery, Happy Cog, or AWeber.
Last week, Web designer Sarah Parmenter came forward about the gender-based harassment she’s experienced at conferences. Shortly thereafter, posts by Whitney Hess, Relly Annett-Baker, Amy Marquez, and others followed. I was saddened to read all of this, but I was not surprised. I can empathize. Women who put themselves out there are often the target of hateful, misogynist treatment. After all, women bloggers have endured sexually charged vitriol, including rape threats, since the dawn of blogging. Last year, Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a series of feminist critique videos about female representation in gaming. The hateful and threatening backlash ensued, including a photo of her that you could click to “punch” and watch her face bruise and bleed. Thankfully, I’ve never been the target of something this horrendous. But I have my own stories to tell. It is not easy to be a woman with an online presence, and it’s not always easy to be a woman in this industry.
Thanks to the inspiration of the women mentioned above, I’ve decided to share my stories, too. Until today I’ve been mostly silent except for confiding in family, friends, and a few trusted colleagues. I’ve been scared to speak up due to judgment, dismissal, accusations of lying, or worse. But now I’m setting those fears aside. I want to join these women in raising awareness about this issue. By remaining silent, we cannot enact change.
For the most part, I have been very fortunate with my experience at conferences. 99% of my interactions with conference folks, both online and offline, have been professional and pleasant. This is very surprising since I frequently speak about designing experiences for women, and as you know, any gender-related topic can easily attract inflammatory and hateful reactions. The fact that I’ve received so little backlash is very refreshing, and it gives me hope that we are in fact moving forward.
“Looking Sexy as Usual”
There is, however, one conference-related incident which dearly upset me. I spoke at SXSW 2012 with my colleague Brad Nunnally. Like many of us, I have a Google alert set up for my name, so shortly after the presentation, I was getting alerts left and right. Most of them were for very positive and professional reviews of the session, even those reviews that put forth constructive criticism.
Included in the alerts was a very unflattering photo (which I will not link to) taken of me during the session and posted publicly. It was taken from a very bad angle, easily adding 20 pounds to my actual appearance, as I was speaking mid sentence, blinking, and brushing back my hair. The caption read “Jessica Ivins, looking sexy as always.” Needless to say, I was crushed and appalled. What does my appearance have to do with anything about the session? Why was I being judged for how I looked? Why was my body being ridiculed online? I had done absolutely nothing to offend or disrespect anyone at the conference. At all. Why was this happening to me? To my knowledge, no photos of my male co-presenter were posted in this way. And while we are all susceptible to being judged for our appearance, women are especially susceptible.
“She’s Blonde and Coaches Cheerleading, So Decide for Yourself”
Last year, I attended a panel discussion on UX. One of the panelists presented clips from a user research study he’d conducted on an eCommerce site. The clips consisted of screen capture, audio, and the participants’ likeness. The room was very full, and there were easily 300 people in attendance if not more.
One particular clip depicted a middle aged woman with short blonde platinum hair. Throughout the clip, she stated that she couldn’t find the content she was looking for, even though it was present on the page she was viewing. At the conclusion of the clip, the presenter commented on this finding by saying “She’s blonde and coaches cheerleading, so decide for yourself.”
He was trying to be funny, and the good news is that very few people laughed. While this was not directly targeted at me, I remember feeling terrible for that woman. It was a sobering reminder that, even in a public and professional setting, women can judged and ridiculed.
Like my experience at conferences, 99% of the interactions I’ve had throughout my career have been professional and dignified. I’ve been blessed to work with a diverse range of smart and talented people, both men and women, who’ve shown me respect at all times. However, there have been some notable exceptions.
Bullied Into Doing Unpaid Contract Work
At a previous job, I was approached by one of the VP’s and asked if I wanted to do 10-20 hours of freelance graphic design work for someone outside of the company. I politely declined because I was very busy with my full time work. He asked several of my colleagues, who also declined for the same reason. About a week later he approached me at my desk and told me that he needed someone to do the work and that it would be me. I was in disbelief. This was not work for our company; it was for an outside company (conveniently a venture capital firm that had invested a lot of money in us). I politely declined again and told him that I was interested in helping out, but too busy.
I’ll never forget the look of death he gave me. He said, “This isn’t just anybody. This is so-and-so from such-and-such-venture-capital-firm that helped start this company. This is not optional.” He then told me to go to his office, where he shut the door, stared me in the face, and said “Don’t you ever challenge me like that out in the open again. You need to respect me. I’ve poured my sweat and soul into this company.”
I was terrified. He had every authority to discipline me or fire me. I fought back tears and told him I was sorry. I also told him that I was already working a 50+ hour week and that I did not have the time or energy for freelance work. He told me he didn’t care, that he always works 70 hour weeks, and that I had to suck it up. He also told me that I was going to do the work without charging them. He said I had the option of charging, but if I did charge, I better get it done sooner than later and not complain about having no time. So I said I’d do the work. For free.
I spent the rest of the day at my cubicle crying. I tried to avoid interacting with anyone else, but a few people saw me and said nothing. I went home and cried to my roommates. I called my sister and sobbed. I was terrified and humiliated. I felt like I was treated like a child. I knew I was being exploited, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so powerless.
I got the work done and delivered it. I made pie charts, graphs, and custom illustrations about how this venture capital firm shipped microchips to China for final assembly and then back again. This work had absolutely nothing to do with my full time job. At all.
It took me a good year or so to leave that job. I never went to HR or his superior. I stayed quiet for fear of losing my job, for fear of being accused of lying, or worse.
I am convinced that I was treated this way because of my gender. He chose to target me, not my male colleagues. Years after the fact, I told a few of my male colleagues (who worked with me at the time of this incident), and they were bewildered. They told me he had never treated them that way or talked down to them that way. To this day, I don’t know if they believed me or not.
When My Boss Told Me I “Turned Him On”
I was really excited to start this particular job. I was working with other young designers and developers who were passionate about doing great work. Our boss seemed pretty cool, too. He would take us to happy hour and crack all sorts of jokes all day. He was smart and driven, and I was learning from him.
At one point, my boss and I had to travel for business. We were chatting about all sorts of things on the plane ride out there, when he began to tell me that his wife just had their second child and that it was strenuous on their relationship. He said she had to breast feed about every two hours and that they had no time or energy to be intimate. It was a bit awkward, but I brushed it off as TMI and dismissed it. Then he told me that he was very attracted to smart white women. At this point it was getting weird.
The next evening after the work day, we went out for dinner and drinks. Unfortunately, he had a habit of drinking too much. The rental car was registered in his name, but I still made it a point not to drink too much in case I had to drive us home. By the time we headed back to the car, he was pretty wasted. He told me that I was very smart and driven, and that it turned him on.
I laughed. Not because it was funny, but because I didn’t know how else to react. I then realized he was about to drive us home, so I changed the subject by demanding his keys. Luckily, he handed them over. The topic never came up again.
After we flew home, I said nothing to my colleagues. I wanted to approach his superior, but I knew my boss would deny the incident (if he even remembered it happening, considering how drunk he was), and that it would be my word against his. I was even afraid to tell my boyfriend at the time, fearing it would just make things even worse, so again, I said nothing. I immediately began hunting for a new job and found one a few months later.
After I left that job, one of my colleagues said he told the rest of my team that he wanted to “punch me in the head” for resigning. During my last week at work, another colleague came forward and said that when he first told the team that I was hired, he told all of them “how pretty I was.” By this point, I was not surprised, but I was disgusted at the fact that he may have hired me based upon my appearance rather than my skill set. This colleague “wanted to warn me” about him from the day I started, but like me, said nothing to anyone. Not surprisingly, after I left, this same colleague ended up filing an HR complaint about him for an unrelated incident.
After I gave my notice, I told my colleagues I was leaving because I wanted to work with a more senior UX team. That was true, but of course it was not the only reason. A female tech lead who worked in a different department, a very nice lady, pulled me aside to talk me about why I was leaving and how they could improve the work environment. I suspected that the principal asked her to do this, thinking that I’d be more willing to open up and be honest with her than I would be with him or anyone else. She was such a nice lady, and she probably would’ve been empathetic and open to hearing the truth. She asked me about my boss, and I wanted to tell her everything. I really did. But I looked her in the eye and said “I enjoyed working with him. He’s really smart and a lot of fun, but I’m ready to move onto something else.” I was lying, but it was easier to walk away quietly rather than stir the pot.
I’m now at a point in my life where I ask myself, what have I learned from all this? How can I turn this experience into something positive? I have a few answers to that question, and one answer is to speak up. I no longer want to remain silent for fear of judgment or accusations of lying, or whatever other reaction lies in wait. I want us all, regardless of gender, to work together to prevent this from happening again.
You might also be wondering, what do the latter two incidents, which took place outside of a conference setting, have to do with harassment of women at conferences? The answer is, it has everything to do with it. Harassment aimed at female speakers does not take place in a vacuum. It happens because we collectively tolerate it, whether we realize it or not. You may also argue that these are a few bad eggs. I would agree that people are responsible for their own actions, but by witnessing these actions and remaining quiet about them, and by fostering the people who perpetuate them, they continue. Sadly, ignoring the trolls online won’t make them go away. And ignoring this issue as it rears its ugly head throughout our industry—whether it’s at a conference, on Twitter, or behind closed office doors—only allows it to continue. I’ve decided not to remain silent anymore. Please join me in speaking out against it, whether it’s happened to you or not. The next time someone brands a female test subject as a dumb cheerleader, I won’t hesitate to speak up about it. If someone tells me she’s been a target of gender-based discrimination, I’ll support her and encourage her to report it.
I would like to reiterate that 99% of my interactions with my colleagues have been professional and respectful, and I agree that we’ve come a long way over the years. However, we’ve got some work to do. Let’s band together, acknowledge that this problem exists, and work on fixing it. Let’s confront it when it happens. This includes everyone observing the incidents. Let others know that it’s not okay to target someone based on their gender, race, age, or whatever. Everyone in this industry, regardless of gender, will benefit from a respectful, healthy, and welcoming environment. Let’s make this happen.