I’ve always been what’s been described as “flypaper for male rage”. Being a woman on the internet with opinions will do that for you, and I have lots of them that I freely disseminate on my Twitter page. But it’s only since starting out in tech journalism that I’ve seen that rage really boil over.
Two weeks ago, I got a message from a friend saying he “owned” me. It turned out to be from a particularly ill-thought-out app called Stolen that allowed people to buy and sell followers without their permission or consent. I’d been added to it by someone who followed me on Twitter, and I was less than impressed. So I did what all tech journalists do: I contacted the company, spoke to the CEO, and rang him up for an interview about the app.
Said interview didn’t go well for him. I asked about the possibilities for harassment in his app, including the fact that men could buy women, racists could buy minorities, and people could write whatever they wanted on other people’s pages with no filtering or approval. Worse, the company would directly make money from harassment, since users could bypass the levelling up process and just purchase people with cash.
As a result of my concerns and the response to the article, the app was pulled by its creator. That wasn’t my decision, but the internet decided it was definitely my fault. In amongst the usual “censorship” rage and recommendations to kill myself was a photo. Of my Twitter avatar. Covered in sperm.
Every time I talk about the harassment I get as a female tech journo, I’m told men get it too. But I’ve asked a heck of a lot of male tech writers and I’ve yet to find a single one who’s been sent a photo of their face covered in ejaculate. It wasn’t a Photoshop. He’d brought up my photo on his monitor, and he’d violated it. The result for him was a suspended account (which, of course, wasn’t his real one – it had only ever sent that one tweet), while I felt sick for weeks and had to change my profile picture.
It doesn’t always bother me, though. When I started my women’s tech site – Gadgette – back in June 2015, the abuse came thick and fast. I was told women don’t know anything about technology, that our brains are wired differently, that the site would never work as “no one wants to advertise to women”. I took some of my favourite troll comments and turned them into a postcard that we use to advertise the site – when I’d finished laughing.
While Gadgette has grown from zero to over 150,000 readers a month in just eight months, the comments haven’t stopped. At a tech tradeshow, I was asked to flash my breasts if I wanted to see a new smartwatch. A CEO told me women don’t care about sound quality, only whether headphones will mess up their hair. I’ve been sent countless press releases about pink gadgets and sex toys, not to mention childrenswear, because of course a site for women can’t just be about tech. (I’m sure Wired gets it too…!)
At the moment, I get more requests to talk to the media about trolling and harassment than I do about technology. That’s the reality of being a woman in tech journalism. You’re never just a tech journalist, always a female tech journalist. You’re not asked to panels about tech, but panels about women in tech. Now, it’d be fair to say that as someone who runs a tech site by and for women, I should expect that. But I shouldn’t have had to start the site at all. Women and minorities should already have an equal share of voice in the UK tech media, and they don’t. Not even close. Making the site was the quickest way I could think of to redress the balance – it’s certainly faster than joining one of the majority-male publications and trying to work my way to the top in a system stacked against me.
Speaking of which, as often the only woman in the room, it always falls to me to call out sexism. There can be 50 guys in the room, and not one of them will say a word. This infuriates me, because it perpetuates the idea that if you invite a woman to your tech event, she’ll start causing trouble. Why can’t she just accept the blatantly sexist smartphone advert we just showed? The men did. Ugh, of course she’d kick off about the half-dressed models on our trade show stand, she’s a woman. Wow, did she really just call out our CEO on his harmless comments about “females”? Don’t invite her again.
I’ve been blacklisted by brands for calling out their sexism. I’ve been accused of making it up. I’ve been told it was just a joke or a compliment. I’ve been hit on, then insulted when I make it clear I’m present for professional reasons only. I’ve rolled my eyes and bitten my lip too many times because I can’t risk being excluded from the next product launch for being “a difficult feminist.” I’ve stared at the men in the room, willing them to speak up, praying they won’t leave it to me again. And I’ve spoken out again and again when it became clear they never would.
Ultimately, the people who’ve harassed me and women like me are part of the old guard. They’re not used to women in “their” field and they preferred it when it was just the men. To them, women are window-dressing or bed-warmers, nothing more. But it’s important to remember they’re part of an ever-shrinking minority, existing on the wrong side of history. They’re the last squeaks of protest at progress, and I won’t let them silence me. Their words give me all the fuel I need to keep working, keep fighting, and keep employing the amazing female tech writers I find (note to other tech publications: it’s not that hard). So for that, I’m thankful to them. Keep shouting into the void – it’s how I know I’m doing something right.