Sexism dot com: how do we stop the abuse directed at female web designers?

We investigate the vile misogyny aimed at the likes of Sarah Parmenter (above), which could also be putting women off joining the web industries.

“You’re a slutty bitch,” began a recent out-of-the-blue email to leading interface designer Sarah Parmenter. Follow-ups from the male web designer added she was “a bitch” and “ruining” the web industry.

This wasn’t a one-off — last year, Sarah contended with someone attempting to derail her An Event Apart talk by uploading faked porn images and trying to direct people to them by spamming social feeds. She’s not alone – other women in the industry have also been on the receiving end of vile, sexist abuse.

“When I saw the emails to Sarah, I was speechless – I don’t understand people who behave like that,” says Five Simple Steps publisher Emma Boulton. She posits it’s human nature to be unkind, and such attacks are probably down to the sender’s own shortcomings. However, she adds they are nonetheless “outrageous” and wonders whether “women who are funny, talented, bright and beautiful are being singled out because they have a certain kind of look”.

In other words, they buck stereotypes in a male-dominated field. “There are also plenty of attractive men in the industry, but they’re not singled out, ridiculed and made to feel they’re wrong for just being there,” she adds.

Standards advocate and founder Rachel Andrew thinks there’s “a fair bit of nastiness and jealousy,” in general; but, again, “when it’s directed at women, it tends to be voiced a bit differently”, in much the same way tabloids direct sexist criticism at women in politics.

“At Puppet Camp this year, a man in his 40s looked me up and down and said: ‘Are you interested in this?’ I can’t imagine he said that to all the men in the room.”

Rachel Andrew

In a future-looking industry keen to discover new talent, such attitudes are dangerous. Sarah maintains she now has a thick skin but “this sort of thing would have crushed me when I first started”. She worries women – especially young women – might keep their heads down rather than share their views on blogs and speak at conferences.

There’s still a sense of some men merely ‘tolerating’ industry women, seeing them as tokens; and although such sentiments can be combatted by “doing bloody good work,” she asserts women “shouldn’t feel they have to win men over”.

Emma wonders what the future holds for her daughters if they follow in the footsteps of their father, designer and speaker Mark Boulton: “Would they get singled out, due to being intelligent, funny, pretty women? Would they think they can’t work in the web industry or should act in a certain way?”

Sarah adds that men are also affected by this issue, sometimes “being afraid of their own shadows in front of women”. Instead of talking to them at conferences, they’re “scared of being the guy named and shamed for doing the wrong thing,” further derailing inclusivity.

If Sarah Parmenter’s really intending to ruin the industry, heading up top-notch UI design agency You Know Who is an odd way to go about it.

Sarah’s unsure how the sexism problem will resolve itself, and is critical that a common response is “people throwing their hands in the air and saying this isn’t an industry problem — it’s a worldwide problem”. This might be the case, but she argues “we have to start at home first, and our home is the industry”. Tackle sexism in the industry and that could spread outwards.

Regarding specifics, Rachel warns to “not go after people with pitchforks” and also to “separate the really nasty from the well-intentioned but inappropriate”, thereby “not destroying people due to a comment they didn’t realise was inappropriate”.

Ultimately, she thinks the solution often lies in calling people out — making it very clear as an industry that certain kinds of behaviour are inappropriate, “especially if they come from people with any influence”. For example, “we should not be giving attention or a platform to people who publicly have made derogatory statements about women”.

“At a recent conference, I saw loads of brilliant, clever women talking, meeting people and sharing knowledge. They’re not ruining the industry – they’re making it richer.”

Emma Boulton

Taking things further, Sarah hopes more men will respond accordingly in face-to-face situations: “It’s all very well being a keyboard warrior, but if we can take that tiny step and women feel the majority of men have their backs at a conference, that’d be a huge help."

Normalising that stance could also benefit those men who campaign accordingly, often disparagingly branded ‘white knights’ by those who don’t seem to think the industry even has a problem.

In the meantime, Rachel insists anyone who might be the subject of abuse must not put up with it: “Even if you’re not confident to post to Twitter and let the community deal with it, let someone know. If at a conference, speak to the organisers. If you organise a conference, ensure attendees know who they can speak to when suffering from abuse.”

And if you can face going public, Sarah says that will help: “The aim is to ensure no-one feels scared coming into this industry. By speaking about this problem, it gets circulated. People see it’s not gone away, and we should be finding ways to tackle it.”

Tiny CMS Perch, by, co-founded by Rachel Andrew. Also not ruining the industry.

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