Feb 5, 2013

Speaking up, it's time

As he raised his voice, he stepped closer and closer. His face was twisted in anger and he was shouting at me. We were at the conference reception that followed my presentation. He was less than two inches away from my face. I stood there frozen. I was in shock. Another guy, stepped in and pushed the angry conference attendee away from me and helped me escape the situation.

That was the most awful moment during the most awful conference experience I've ever had.

I've only shared this with family, close friends, and a handful of other speakers who are women. However, with Sarah and Relly speaking up about their experiences, I feel it's time that I speak up, too. 

I'd like to think that my experience, Sarah's experience, and Relly's experience are isolated incidents. They are not. There are pockets within our industry where a culture of hate exists. Places that allow men to belittle women and women to feel shame for the actions of men.

I'm 5'10" and I grew up in northern New Jersey. In other words, I don't intimidate easily. However, at that reception, at that conference, I was scared. I've tried to understand why I haven't shared this and other incidents publicly. It boils down to shame and fear. 

I left the reception and the conference thinking that maybe I did something to deserve to be treated in such a hostile manner. I really thought, maybe I brought the snide remarks and angry spew my way. It pains me to write this because of course I didn't do anything to deserve to be yelled at or to be physically threatened. 

After the reception, I went back to my hotel room. I sobbed. I read every tweet about my presentation and wept. 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.

I wept not only for me but for every woman in and every woman about to enter our industry. This is what they would face. They would not be judged by the merits of their work, instead, they would be judged by their gender.

As I sat crying in my hotel room, I responded to every single ugly tweet. I couldn't think of what else to do. I was polite, yet firm. I didn't sleep at all that night. 

To my surprise, I started to receive apologetic tweets. The next day at the conference, the guy who had gotten in my face the night before, apologized to me in person. The conference organizers pulled me aside and said, "we've talked to the one guy who was tweeting the really awful stuff and told him if he tweeted one more inappropriate thing that we would return his money and escort him out of the conference." 

I learned a lot through this experience. I learned we have a long way to go in creating a welcoming culture within our industry. I learned we all need to do our part to change the culture that currently exists. I learned to ask better questions about the events I'm asked to speak at. If I don't personally know the conference organizer, I ask questions about the culture. I only speak at events where I feel there is great respect for all speakers and all attendees. If I even sense that there is a culture of hate, I will not speak at the event. In essence, I've become more selective about where I spend my time and who I share my professional thoughts and findings with.

I volunteer at Girls Inc. in Chattanooga. I talk with young girls, usually between 11-14 years old about the professional opportunities that exist for women. I let them know that there is an entire world for them to explore and participate in. I hope that by the time they are speakers at events, that we've all spoken up, stepped up, and created a new culture—a culture that supports all people based on their work and contribution to our industry. 

It's our responsibility to leave our industry better than we found it. For me that means sharing this experience, supporting young women, and participating in events like Converge SE, A Web Afternoon, and the IA Summit—events that cultivate a thoughtful environment of acceptance.

What does “leaving our industry better than we found it” mean to you?