Women in Marketing: 4 Sexist Things Said to Me at Digital Marketing Conferences

So last weekend at a gaming conference, a very supportive male friend asked me what kind of game I’d designed. I described the game — it’s a four hour feminist LARP (live action role playing game) about people in survival scenarios. While the events in the game themselves don’t necessarily focus on women’s issues, the design of the game enables and empowers female-identifying participants.

“Why does everything always have to be feminist? Feminist, feminist, feminist,” he commented.

And this guy isn’t a misogynist jerk — he’s backed me up in all sorts of situations, including ones in which I’ve been treated unfairly because of my gender.

But that’s the thing — I don’t necessarily want to define my experiences that way, but it’s undeniable. If I want to be assertive, then I need to consider how the world treats me. That’s all part of being a woman, and the game design narrative reflects that.

And as a woman in marketing, it’s something I can’t forget, especially when other people call attention to it.

A lot of guys, like my friend, just don’t hear it often. If they’re not actively saying sexist things, it’s pretty easy not to notice them, but they do happen — even in professional situations.

In fact, I’ve encountered more sexism in the marketing field than I have in others.

Why is There Sexism in Digital Marketing?

Marketing Used to Look Like “Mad Men”

Old-school print marketing and advertising are still the foundations of modern marketing. When you think about marketing back ‘in the day,’ what do you get? The father of advertising, David Ogilvy (a mastermind, but a dude) and fictional representations like this guy:

Back in the day, you could smash liquor with a land line in your office!

Marketers Are Hyper-Aware of Gender

Psychographics, demographics, buyer personae, and consumer affinities: these are necessary tools of the trade for the modern marketer. And the digital nature of content and advertising is forcing more of a push towards affinity marketing.

Marketers are now learning what us lady nerds have known for years: some women read comics!

The truth: social media frees us from the assumptions of gender, helping us to “dismantle the silly and demeaning stereotypes that we see in media and advertising,” as Johanna Blakley describes. And while your traditional male marketer may pretend to be a fan of disruption, he’s also got to struggle with the fact that he can’t immediately quantify everything neatly according to gender anymore.

Meanwhile, people (especially women) congregate naturally in affinity groups, recommending products to friends on Facebook. After all, we’re conditioned to be helpful and social, which makes us pretty well-trained word-of-mouth marketers.

Some Marketers Hate Change

If you want to become irrelevant in marketing, the best thing you can do is resist change. Whether you’re at an established international agency or a small start-up, you need to adapt to changes in the market — and technology.

Old school ad bros, though, are too caught up in their desire to “Make Advertising Great Again,” and it’s time they evolve or lose control of the power in the marketplace.

Marketing is Often an Extension of Tech: #WomenInTech Concerns

The technology field is male-dominated, and marketing for SaaS (software as a service), medical technology, consumer products, and more represents a fair portion of marketing in our rapidly advancing society.

The truth: women like tech, women enter tech, but they don’t stay. There are multiple reasons, but here’s one that won’t surprise any woman who has worked in technology fields: many women in tech don’t like their work environments. Sometimes the tech environment is hostile to women.

So What Happens at Digital Marketing Conferences?

Let’s just say I’ve heard some pretty horrible, graphic horror stories from a woman in tech at a SaaS company. She’s spent a lot more time than I have at these conferences, many of which are geared towards men.

Conference Culture: Work Hard, Play Hard

In digital marketing, most people subscribe to the ‘work hard, play hard’ theory.

One of my former colleagues works for one of those trendy fab places in New York with a beer cart and a nap room. (Spoiler alert: they give you a nap room because they expect you to pretty much live there.)

Plus, with social media, it’s harder to tune out and disconnect. That means digital marketing conferences are all about innovation, leads, sales, networking, and — you guessed it — fun. Sometimes the kind of fun centered around adult beverages.

That’s not inherently bad, or a recipe for frat bro culture, but it is something to consider if you’re a real shark lady sales rep like my aforementioned SaaS company acquaintance.

Even when roughly half of the attendees at a digital marketing event are women, I’ll often notice that most of the booth displays and swag items are geared towards men. That’s not inherently sexist, but it isn’t going to win as much business from the professionals who also happen to be women.

4 Sexist Things Men Have Said to Me at Digital Conferences

No, this isn’t out of context. Actual quotes. Real conferences.

1. “Check Out This Porn!”

Hey, I’m no Puritan — I get that online gambling and pornography are money-making sins to embrace when it comes to digital advertising! But it is kind of jarring to walk into a professional conference (not a jeans and tee shirt kind, but a business formal kind) to hear “Check out this porn!” right away.

And I get it — it’s totally related to the conference! But in this instance, it was clear that the reps at the porn ad-related booth were getting a (probably literal) rise out of specifically calling out to the women at the conference, clearly making them uncomfortable.

This was followed by a routine amount of boyish giggling.

In this case, the intent and the impact weren’t very kind.

2. “So You Don’t Actually Deal With Data, I Assume”

I admit it: I hate math. I’m not very good at it.

But I do worship numbers in the form of data that tells a story. When I say I work with content, a lot of the men at digital marketing conferences write me off, assuming I haven’t created data-centric content before.

Surprise! I have:

What I should have said: “Where do mansplainers get their water? From a well, actually.”

Many of them assume I just sit around all day writing poetry. (Well, mansplainers, I do also actually write poetry, but that doesn’t mean I’m allergic to data.)

Hmm. Maybe it’s not sexist. I should probably try speaking to them in iambic pentameter and see if that makes more sense to ’em.

3. “You Must Be an Admin Assistant”

Admin assistants are awesome. I used to be one! However, now I am not one. Like many women at digital marketing conferences, I have (and have had) moderate amount of decision-making capability, influence in business development, and the caffeine-fueled frenzy to tackle freelance work by moonlight.

So if I’m speaking to you about high-level content development, don’t go down the admin road, k?

4. “Let Me Tell You About SEO”

SEO-splainers and content-splainers are the worst. I’ve been at marketing conferences representing keyword software used specifically for SEO purposes, but I get the SEO 101. One man even tried to explain this to me in the booth for the software company.

I’ve gotten the same thing about inbound marketing and content. And it’s not an upbeat and enthusiastic, HubSpot-like explanation. It’s a total 101. Content kindergarten.

So What Do I Do About It?

That’s the hard part — because there’s still this obligation to be super professional at these things, especially as I’m there to represent an awesome company. Usually I let them give their spiel before I respond in kind, talking about my own background.

And sometimes they feel a little dumb once they realize I’ve been writing and promoting SEO content since they were in high school — or that I’ve been putting faith in the value of digital content while they were still clinging to their print newspapers and the like.

Most of the time these things aren’t said with malice. After all, these gents are here to sell stuff, not lose prospective customers. When worded delicately, this kind of reminder can help you — you know — grab ’em by the wallet and shop at a woman-owned business instead.

Women: Have you experienced this sort of thing routinely at professional events? Men: Are you aware that it happens? Let’s have a conversation in the comments.

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