Back when I was leading a marketing team at AWS, I witnessed first-hand the best and worst of gender dynamics in tech. My team produced events and exhibits for startup founders. At one event, a global tech conference in Lisbon, we hosted a large exhibitor booth and show-floor theater, where our technical evangelists and solutions architects would present and demo cloud services. Hundreds of people attended the demos onsite, tens of thousands watched them on our livestream on Twitch.
My team had the event handled—my job was to ensure our partner teams were supported and to be Brand Cop. All staffers interacting with attendees in our booth or presenting had to wear a branded T-shirt or hoodie. No exceptions. And not having a clean T-shirt was a non-excuse: We maintained a supply in every size, for every staffer, for every day of an event, and then some, at all times. I still have a stack of branded black T-shirts in my closet; my kids have nightshirts for the rest of their childhoods.
One of our solutions architects, a woman, had come to the booth the first day of the conference in a drapey cardigan that covered about 70% of her body. I tossed her a T-shirt and pointed to our on-site dressing room; she reluctantly entered and came out sans cardigan, wearing the T-shirt, looking less enthused than she had a few minutes before. She joked that she felt like “a hot dog in this thing,” which I thought nothing of at the time.
Her presentation seemed to be going well; the audience was engaged and taking notes on paper or their devices. There were no technical glitches in the demo. I checked the Twitch livestream to ensure we were broadcasting, and that’s when I saw the insults, in the stream chat:
“…fat bitch…get off the stage idiot…” and other insults to both her appearance, intelligence, and expertise.
I asked one of our event managers how could we make it stop; she said that, unfortunately, this is not uncommon when a female is presenting. And with the sheer volume of inbound comments in chat, it’s impossible to moderate them in real-time.
I felt awful, and guilty for, in effect, feeding this poor woman to the java wolves. I was naïve to think we would all be treated the same in the public online arena.
I suppose my naiveté stemmed from having spent over 10 years building my own startup—an online media and marketing company that served female digital influencers and the brands that needed them. My company employed 80% women before it was acquired. And we had built what was at the time the largest conference for women online. Our mantra: Bring It! All body types and sexual identities, all political affiliations, all ages, all levels of technical prowess. Any XX- or XY-chromosomed creator was welcome, provided you respected everyone in the community and adhered to our editorial philosophy of open, non-inciting communication and civil disagreement.
We were the players and the cheerleaders of our game; misogyny never even made it onto the field. I had, I suppose, lived in a Utopian bubble, where we rose on our merits and ability to lift others.
To be sure, online misogyny is nothing new. When we first launched my company, BlogHer, in 2005, we created waves by, in effect, taming the Wild West of the blogosphere, which was littered with political and sexist trolls. One of the more prominent bloggers in that time, programming instructor and game developer Kathy Sierra, had been senselessly physically harassed online to the point of her permanent withdrawal from the blogosphere. I had been confused by Sierra’s situation: She was a thoughtful researcher, a scientist of user behavior. She wrote about her work with no offensive personal or political commentary. Why would someone like her receive death threats? When we hosted 300 bloggers at that first event, we hadn’t planned on having to ensure physical safety along with a working internet connection. I had to request no photos be taken of a trans blogger speaker to ensure she wouldn’t be identified by bigots that terrorized her online, and we ensured that none of the crowd that gathered around a prominent momblogger were on a shortlist of her documented harassers.
The problem I had been more familiar with and determined to solve was rectifying the inequities in economic opportunities for women online. We had originally built our conference as a counter to another prominent blogger conference that attracted a majority of male investors and entrepreneurs. Emerging female bloggers were commonly regarded as cheap, effective propagators of word-of-mouth endorsements. And our community were fed up with being asked to serve up inauthentic messages and host bad ads for little to no compensation. We set out to compensate them fairly for their work and to create a flywheel of influence that would improve the quality of the opportunities that came to them. Advertisers and investors were well-aware of the purchasing power of women and their online advocacy. It hardly surprises me now that, at our first conference that sunny day in Santa Clara, California, the few men who attended were largely entrepreneurs and investors; some even asked if we’d considered raising a round of funding.
We ended up securing venture capital and proving women online were a commercially significant market, but, ironically, not always to the benefit of women online. After our Series A round of funding I chatted with a prominent parenting and politics blogger in our network. She had asked for advice on a recent engagement with a major media company that had asked her to become a regular contributor. When she asked about compensation, the company said they would be glad to make her an affiliate, and she could earn money off sales she made for the company from the ads on her content. She asked me: How could I have done this negotiation differently? She had wanted to be paid upfront for her work, not on opportunistic sales commissions.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. I can’t count the number of major brands who could not understand why we would not take free product (in lieu of money, which underwrote two thirds of attendee costs) for sponsorship of our events. To be sure, some of the women in our network became wealthy monetizing their work, but many long-tail creators simply tired of the hundreds, thousands of requests outnumbering the legitimate opportunities. When programmatic advertising overtook high-yielding, premium advertising, they put their aspirations of supporting themselves on their content on ice.
The presumption by well-funded entities that swag, free promotion, and fun parties with colorful drinks were all women online required, I found, extended well-beyond my BlogHer days. After my exit, I was often connected to founders by VCs who asked me to help their portfolio companies with growth strategy, apparently out of the kindness of my heart. These were not quick and dirty phone calls. One founder met with me in person on four or five occasions and asked me to interview her team and provide a strategy document. When I asked about formalizing the relationship with a consulting contract she was flummoxed. She wrote me an email apologizing for wasting my time. She had assumed mistakenly that I would help her build and execute a marketing strategy for no comp—pay or equity—whatsoever. “I would ask your rate, but I’m sure I could never afford you,” she said. I thought, it would have been nice to have been asked.
A COO of a digital media company discussed with me a role helping to build his company’s network of contributors. This played to my strengths; I pulled together a plan that showed how this could be done, from a product, marketing and partnerships perspective. He asked if, instead, I could transition high-traffic creators from my previous platform to his. I explained that, post-acquisition I couldn’t legally solicit creators still in my company’s network. And it didn’t make sense to anyway; he needed to build one around his platform’s distinct community and value proposition. But, it turned out, it wasn’t my experience building networks that he wanted; he had been hoping I would hand over the mythical keys to the millions of readers from thousands of creators it had taken more than 10 years for my company to amass. In the end, I was to learn, there was no role. I’m not sure there ever was.
Another early stage founder wondered why I wasn’t interested in taking a “more than full-time” role at her early-stage company for a fraction of my previous comp. And she wouldn’t consider a flexible, part-time arrangement. She asked me, “haven’t you already made your money?”
I found it interesting that some of the worst perpetrators of capping opportunities were other women. But then, they may not have known any other way. Perhaps a manager limited their mobility, or told them in so many words, “this is what you are worth,” and normalized women as the Bargain of the Web. And once one of us takes nothing for something, we all are expected to follow suit.
Going back into operating roles at emerging tech companies I experienced a new flavor of misogyny: resentment of non-technical women. Going into these roles I recognized that product leaders and developers often held heightened status. And I purposely sought out roles where I could learn new skills, but I hadn’t anticipated the level of acrimony directed at me for the expertise I already brought to the table.
I had joined a global management team of an emerging tech startup that was 75% female. The company had a flat org structure with a leadership “circle” suggestively setting strategy, but as it scaled, so did the need to embed experienced operators to build playbooks and processes and establish KPIs. While I was interviewing I had heard rumblings that one of the developer relations leads on the team was not a fan of having me—a “middle-management marketer”—heading his team. After I started, leadership called him out for harassing me and others. In adjudicating his case with HR, he insisted that he would only answer to our male CEO and have another male DevRel peer present. Not I, his territory leader, nor the group leader, all women, all marketers, were invited to participate.
In another role I worked with a senior developer peer who continually questioned my programs as not technical enough for a developer audience. Hoping to establish a better rapport I organized a planning session, flying members from both our teams from other US cities and abroad to plan program objectives, components and execution. It was time well spent, I thought. Later he sabotaged the program that he helped to co-create, lobbying against launching it and escalating the issue when I insisted on moving forward with our plan.
A female colleague who had also struggled and transferred to a different team explained her experience this way,”if you are different, they just won’t work with you. And they’ll keep it up until you are gone.” I wondered to myself, different how?
In all cases my reaction was to work through the friction, stay open, not become defensive, and not get spooked. But when I read posts on Telegram from my (now former) developer team member threatening to physically harm me if I showed up with my team at a fintech conference, my husband suggested that, perhaps, it was time to call it.
“I know you wanted this,” he said, “But maybe it’s time to move on.”
In his harassing missives my former colleague had called out my experience building and exiting a startup as evidence of my inability to relate to him, or my plan to take over the crypto-world—I’m not sure which. I wish I could say I thought of Kathy Sierra, Brianna Wu, and many of the other brilliant badasses who broke new ground in male-dominated fields and were smacked around for it. He was upset at me for somehow succeeding where I shouldn’t have. I should have called him out; but I didn’t. I just thought, why on earth could this dude have a beef with me? I’m just a marketing chick.
I ended up going to the week-long conference. It wasn’t a political statement; it was my job.
I realize that, having experienced my share of wins in the tech industry, recalling these episodes can come across as quite rich. Surely not all of the men I’ve worked with were sexist obstructionists. Not every day I’ve worked in tech has been tinged with oppression redolent of The Handmaid’s Tale. In truth, no experience of mine even comes close to the level of discrimination, brutality, and dismissiveness many other women have experienced online. In every role I’ve had I have benefited from both male and female sponsorship.
But all of this post-traumatic unwinding began when I read this story in Protocol, “Meet China’s new gaming underclass” which describes the lifestyle of a peiwan, or what can best be described as a Digital Geisha—female consorts to male gamers. During the Pandemic this gig has enabled digitally-savvy, underemployed Chinese women to pay their bills, for a fraction, of course, of what male gamers, their “bosses” can earn.
“Only men are considered serious, skilled gamers,” Mengyang Zhao, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies China’s video game service industry, told Protocol. “However skilled a female gamer is, people generally don’t take her seriously, so women tend to hit a low wage ceiling.”
I felt sick for these women beholden to a system that will never allow them to fully realize their potential online.
And then I felt queasy for myself; could the disturbances I encountered in my own online career have occurred from my implicit refusal to accept that perhaps, I, too, am a Peiwan? Expected to facilitate, expedite, monetize the online world for others, but never expected to actually play the Game?
The draw of the Internet for me, some 20-odd years ago, was that it was an equal opportunity employer. It has given me opportunities this former print editor and writer could never have even dreamed of inside my previous, analog world. But it also revealed a virtual ceiling that, as much as I tried to deny its existence, has felt just as hard and immutable as its IRL counterpart. For all of our accomplishments, women have failed to disrupt a system built on low expectations of us. The ability to disrupt anything is its own privilege.
At our first BlogHer conference in 2005, a woman blogger stood up to the microphone and declared, “Mommyblogging is a radical act.” It sounded powerful and quotable. I hadn’t realized until much later it was also true.
This piece originally appeared on Substack, and was published here with permission.