You know, putting yourself “out there’ on social media is a leap, for any of us. But for some of us, it turns out to be a risk that we didn’t intend to sign up for. This week’s guest is Sarah A. Parker. Sarah, if you don’t already know her from the #SMXChat community, is social media manager for UnionMetrics and a freelance writer in her own right! So, Sarah knows firsthand the challenges of being a woman in the world of technology and social media.

Let it be known that we approached Sarah and asked for her thoughts and input on this topic. The events of the last couple weeks regarding Ms. Ellen Pao’s departure from Reddit – and the veil of silence and secrecy that we try to disappear behind when faced with hatred, bias and bigotry. These are themes that have played out all over the news for several years – police bias against minorities, societal tolerance of racial bigotry, and blatant harassment of women in the workplace, especially in tech.

So here’s the set-up. Social media is a big universe that encompasses people from all walks of life – and all genders, races, religions and creeds. So we might think of it as a positive place that acts as a melting pot of ideas and opinions. And, in my experience, for the most part it is. Spoken as a middle-aged white male.

For many of us, though, social media is a minefield of potential harassment and, frankly, terror. Why? I wonder.  Well, I don’t know, but hear it here in Sarah’s own words:

“I’ve been lucky – and it’s depressing to have to type that, but it’s true when I read experiences from many of my female peers in tech or see the abuse hurled at prominent women on social media – I work for a company that really strives for equality in hiring practices, and as a team we’re pretty open about sharing our opinions and asking questions around different social issues that may not directly affect us, but do affect some of our coworkers. We’re not perfect, but this is definitely reflected in our values as a company and in our culture and that’s part of the reason I love working here.”

“That said I have been dismissed at other tech events before by men attending them; a memorable instance would be a young man treating me like a “booth babe” (the models hired to demo tech products at many larger events; they should be respected for learning to that in a short period of time anyway) at an event, assuming I couldn’t possibly know anything about the software I was offering to demo and asking to speak to someone more important. I’ve seen people ask our Co-Founder, Jenn, if they could speak to her boss or otherwise talking down to her about her own company, presumably because she’s young and female. Many assume our VP of Sales and marketing is the boss, because he’s a middle-aged (white) male. Most of the time this is pretty funny, but sometimes it’s depressing. And it’s not always done with insidious intent; a lot of this comes from unconscious biases we’re taught when we’re young that is also continuously reinforced by society, particularly through media.”

The interesting, sad, reality part of the situation is when the individuals perpetrating such behavior actually get what they want, as in the case of Ms. Pao. For the record: as of this writing, the reason for Ms. Pao’s departure from Reddit was not the barrage of hate messages from moderators but the company performance targets placed upon her by the Board of Directors. The story is evolving, even as we speak.

Again, from Sarah: “I’ve had some MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) trolls come at (me) on my personal Twitter account where I’m much more vocal about feminism, but I don’t deal with harassment nearly on the same level as more prominent women like Roxanne Gay or Jennifer Armintrout or Lindy West do (three of my favorite writers). They also deal with intersections of hate I don’t; fat-shaming, and racism too, for Gay. I think that’s an important part of this issue that often gets overlooked: intersectionalism. Women of color and women society perceives as ‘fat’ get even more vitriol thrown at them because they’re dealing with several layers of negative bias toward them.”

Lindy West actually interviewed one of her most horrible trolls, and it was pretty fascinating and enlightening to read: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/02/what-happened-confronted-cruellest-troll-lindy-west. 

Well this gives us a lot to think about. And to talk about. Let’s roll.

Q1) Inherent discrimination in the technology sector is obvious. Yet we are drawn to successful tech companies. Why?

Q2) It seems that organized harassment often leads to desired results. How can social communities influence such behavior?

Q3) Does a ‘mob mentality’ explain why a pluralistic uprising can unseat a CEO? Why do Boards succumb?

Q4) By not standing against social media harassment, do we implicitly condone it?

Q5) How might we stand by a friend or colleague being attacked on social media?

Q6) Have you, or a friend or colleague, dealt with social media harassment? How?

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