Sexual harassment allegations against SEO and tech rockstars
For the past several days, I’ve been watching real-time evidence of a narcissistic culture in the SEO Industry. These are the people who help your website draw in more visitors; one of the so-called “rockstars” is Joost de Valk, founder and CPO of Yoast (company which provides a popular WordPress plugin while also educating website owners on and helping with SEO practices). He has also just been appointed Marketing and Communications Lead for WordPress.org.
I first heard of the story on the WP Tavern, a WordPress blog, here: YoastCon Overshadowed by Twitter Storm: Joost de Valk, SEO Industry Leaders Called Out for Objectifying Women
From what I can gather, a few people have been posting and tweeting to bring attention to allegations against De Valk and other “rockstars” which they say have been ignored for years now. The allegations include sexual harassment and treating women like sex objects.
They pulled out a few tweets that sound bad, but which the intended recipient says was not harassment. The trouble is, however, that the whistleblowers are now being harassed online, called trolls, while in the WP Tavern comments, many people–mostly men–are scolding them and saying it’s not an issue. One–a man–even wrote:
Imagine a world where no men or women have any sex on their mind. One does not need to be a rocket engineer to conclude mankind would die off in about 40 years. And you beggars are programmers.
If there did not happen anything physical it is OK until anyone involved says it would be too much for her. Even if there happened anything physical is also OK until it was consensual.
So go and find a real issue please!
By the way there are women who hardly ever get noticed by men, i am absolutely sure that case hurts way more than being noticed.
UGH! There are so many things wrong with the above quote. First of all, the idea that it’s okay as long as it’s not physical–That reminds me of my ex-friend Richard saying that online harassment of me wasn’t “real” and I was being “ridiculous” because it upset me. Then, basically saying that it’s worse to NOT be harassed because you’re not pretty enough.
UGH UGH UGH!
Along with this is a total disregard of the fact that the allegations go way beyond a few questionable tweets from years ago. The independent news website The Overtake went more in-depth than the Tavern did, posting an article with the following:
The SEO-industry’s history is one steeped in gender prejudice, the objectification of women and sexual harassment.
One woman who was afraid of being identified said she had been ostracised and lost friends after calling out senior executives in SEO for inappropriate behaviour. Another described being pushed out of a company after refusing to visit strip clubs. The Overtake has also heard about incidents of alleged groping, sexual comments and other inappropriate behaviour, including rumours of a serious sexual assault in 2014 which was allegedly covered up.
A now-deleted review on job rating website Glassdoor mentioned an incident where a woman says a company CEO put her in a situation where she appeared semi-naked in front of colleagues against her will. The Overtake has seen the review but we have chosen not to reveal further details to protect the victim. –Giada Origlia and Katie Wells, Gaslighting–abuse–cover up–#Metoo is finally spilling out into tech
I’ve also been following the Twitter feeds of a couple of women in tech who are also speaking out about this, confirming that it’s not just something that a few guys made up to make the SEO “rockstars” look bad (an accusation which I’ve seen repeatedly). The women are speaking of an atmosphere in which they’re passed over for promotions and their contributions minimized because they are women.
And on the Twitter feed of one of the male accusers, I found this thread. On the feed of another accuser, I found this, linking to a Reddit post which read:
I have been at events in Germany where it’s happened. I’ve heard even worse reports from women at events in Germany where it’s happened – literally illegal, sexual assault stuff, and with no recourse and no followup. Until a few years ago, I was like you and would say “I haven’t seen that at all,” but when I started asking questions and paying deeper attention, I saw it everywhere. It’s heartbreaking. –Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz
A blog post from 2017 speaks of a “coding rockstar” who harassed and groped the writer. She was told to report him, but like many women, did not feel comfortable doing so. So then in 2017 she heard him say in a tech talk at a conference,
He started his talk with disparaging comments about women and their role in tech. He followed that up with a derogatory anecdote that his girlfriend’s job was to “do him.” He did not stop there, he went on to attack the group I work with, calling us whiny and making fun of our efforts to make websites more inclusive to people with disabilities. He mentioned (more than once) that he could care less about making his project more accessible to others. –Carie Fisher, There are Weinsteins lurking in every profession–including tech
After reading these posts online, the comments in the Tavern become especially egregious. I see so much gaslighting and trying to shut down the conversation, trying to shut up the whistleblowers. I’ve made a few comments myself, trying to alert them to how bad this looks to outsiders, but I’ve been completely ignored. (Ignore the woman–You mean, like they’ve been doing to the women who are victims of this harassment?)
But no, in the Tavern and in comments to the whistleblowers on Twitter, men (and one or two women) have been, basically, calling it a big nothingburger. While the whistleblowers and victims have been speaking out and saying it is indeed something and they won’t be ignored anymore.
And the allegations are hardly a revelation–The following was written in 2013, and I’ve seen videos of SEOktoberfest (now yanked from Youtube) proving this is true:
There is no doubt that the technology sector is more than averagely sexist. The reasons for this are multitude and too complex to explore in this blog post, but suffice to say that the technology sector – and the digital marketing sector, as a subset of the tech industry – is infused with a laddish attitude and enjoys pervasive and embedded sexism.
I find this rather unpalatable. I think the tech industry needs more women, and more participation from women. We shouldn’t abide by companies and conferences using objectified women as enticements and attention grabbers. We’re not stone age cavemen any more.
…Some conferences use booth babes – or even Playboy playmates – as enticements, and whenever you see such a prehistoric mentality on display you should strenuously avoid the conference and let the organisers know their backwards approach to marketing ensures you will never participate in their event. –Barry Adams, Fighting Sexism at Digital Conferences
Considering what I’ve seen on gaming forums online, I suppose it’s not so surprising: After all, when I was dipping my toe in such forums in the mid-00s, I saw lots of sexism, lots of “raep” jokes. That’s where I got the harassment I described above, which Richard dismissed as “not real.” That’s where you find a lot of techies, the ones who are likely to go into the industry. And then they wonder why there are so few women gamers or techies….