SEM No Longer A Boys Club?

Jacqueline Dooley sent me a link to a nice piece she did looking at what it was like attending SES back in 2000 — the very first New York show, and only the second SES ever held — compared to the massive event last week. From that, I spotted Rebecca Lieb’s Search Chicks piece, talking about how SES and search marketing is no longer a boys club.

It never was.

OK, I can’t pull attendee stats from way back then. What I do know, from those 11 years now of covering search, is that there has always been a strong presence of women commenting on search and search marketing. I especially know this because I’ve programmed all the SES shows in the United States since they started in 1999.

(For the record, no — SES NY was not the last SES that I’m running. I’m still doing the SES San Jose agenda. More on that here and here. And while I’m clearing things up, Search Marketing Expo is the completely separate conference series backed by my new site, Search Engine Land, with the first of many different events happening this June — SMX Advanced, that particular show for advanced search marketers).

Programming means I’ve generally selected most of the speakers, so I know there’s a strong proportion of women among them. In fact, I’ve (honestly) been planning a post-SES round-up to assess the number of women who speak at the show to better illustrate this. I got the bug in mind after seeing Gender diversity at web conferences from Kottke earlier this year. The percentage of women speaking at some of the shows he mentions are fairly low. SES should be much higher.

I actually did this exercise once before, back in 2004, I believe, when Andrew Goodman last wrote about this issue Some of the things he noted after SES San Jose:

Gender gap: A male member of the audience in one session (Creating Compelling Ads and Landing Pages, which had a 50-50 gender split if you include me, the moderator) made the important point that most panels are male-dominated and that the female presence at shows like this tends to be restricted to sessions dealing with writing. (Perhaps not entirely true, but that was one attendee’s perception.)

The audience and the panel couldn’t have agreed more! What seems to happen is that small to midsized startups are (more often than not) created by groups of young men who have an idea and drive, but little capital. Limited capital and high risk require high trust — in many cases that need for trust equates to what the pop psychologists used to call “male bonding.” It takes a long time, sometimes, for the hiring process to reflect more diversity.

The search marketing industry has happily reached the point where — although at any given time there might be more men than women at a given lunch table — it is not particularly male-dominated. 

As our postsecondary institutions are now graduating more qualified women than men, it would be bad indeed if this business were to have evolved into an anachronistic male enclave, but fortunately, it doesn’t seem that it has.

That’s not to say that companies like Google — which evidently has a diverse makeup in the middle and lower ranks — aren’t dominated by men at the level of ownership and control… but if the proportion of successful female search execs, and owners of and partners in search-related software and service companies, increases every year, we’ll be getting somewhere.

I bolded a key line, that back in 2004, you’ve got someone talking about how the “organic optimization” of more women in the search industry was already going on three years before it’s getting talked about by Rebecca.

Still, when Andrew’s article came out, I was surprised. I know that there are plenty of panels that were women dominated — and no, not just the writing ones. Indeed, I’ve had to roll my eyes a number of times when I’ve seen people declare they were on or saw an all-woman panel as if this was the first time it happened. I roll them because it’s not that rare of occurrence.

In fact, go back to the first SES event in 1999, and you had an all female session there — Shari Thurow, on Designing Search Engine Friendly sites. You also had Cat Seda and Dana Todd in the majority on the Buying Ads panel. Neither of those sessions are “writing” sessions. One is tech-oriented; the other is buying and selling. And Dana Todd in particular has continued to rule that Buying Ads panel in its various incarnations over time. For good reason, too — she’s an excellent speaker that knows her stuff.

After Andrew’s piece, I sat down and started counting. Here’s what I sent him back then:

“Gender gap: A male member of the audience in one session (Creating Compelling Ads and Landing Pages, which had a 50-50 gender split if you include me, the moderator) made the important point that most panels are male-dominated and that the female presence at shows like this tends to be restricted to sessions dealing with writing.”

That kind of surprised me, because I know I’ve had plenty of panels where they were woman dominate or even all women panels. So I really quickly ran through all the sessions where I could somewhat easily pull out that type of stat at a glance. I sort of ran out of steam on the details, but it’s interesting:

All male: 16
Intro To SEM
Consumer Research
Contextual & Non-Search Ads
Search Term Research
Lobbying For Your Search Marketing Budget
Personalizing Search
Organic Listings Forum
Link Building Basics
Advan ced Link Building Forum
Search Ads Beyond Google & Overture
Exective Roundtable
Converting Visitors Into Buyers
Competitive Research
Getting Local: Part 2
Advanced Search Term Research

Mixed, male dominant: 26
Coping With Growth (2 men, 1 woman)
Inside The Searcher’s Mind (2 men, 1 woman)
Broad Matching (4 men, 1 woman, 2 of men from G/O)
Views From The Street (2 men, 1 woman)
SE Ad Forum (1 woman (and lead speaker), 3 men — this also has been all women at times or woman dominated)
Search Detours: Beyond The Top 10 (1 woman, 2 men)
Search Marketing For Travel & Hospitality Sites (1 woman, 2 men)
Dynamic Web Sites (1 woman, 2 men)
B2B Forum (1 woman, 2 men)
Search Engines & Web Server Issues (5 men, 1 woman)
Search Marketing To Hispanics & Latin America (4 men, 1 woman)
Successful Site Architecture (1 woman, 3 men)
Ad Copy & Landing Page Clinic (1 woman, 2 men)
Balancing Organic &a mp; Paid Listings (1 woman, 2 men)
Trademark Protection Issues (1 woman, 3 men)
Meet The Shopping Search Engines (2 women, 3 men)
Link Building Clinic (1 woman, 2 men)
Link Building Clinic
Site Clinic
Site Clinic
Measuring Offline Sales & Conversion
Meet The Crawlers
Advanced Design Issues
Public Relations Via Search Engines
Site Clinic
Web Feeds & Search (but female was lead speaker)

Mixed, female dominant: 5
Redesigning Traffic After A Redesign (2 women, 1 man)
Shopping Search Tactics (2 women, 1 man)
Site Clinic
Getting Local: Part 1
Site Clinic

All female: 3
SE Friendly Design
Writing For Search Engines
Auditing Paid Listings

Mixed, parity: 5
Buying SE Ads
Creating Compelling Ads
Measuring Success (not including Q&A speakers)
Very Vertical: Search Marketing Off The Beaten Path (woman was lead speaker, most time)
Cleaning Up The Mess

So, yep, lots of men. But the stats are somewhat skewed. If I were to take only those from SEM firms, as opposed to search engines themselves, I think you’d find the industry is much more woman heavy. There’s lots of women running shops. Shari, Barbara, Anne Kennedy, Cheryle, Jessie — and it’s definitely not just that they get to talk about writing. But a search engine might send two male Q&A speakers, which makes a panel SE heavy. A really interesting look would be by speaking time. On some of the “male dominant” panels, it’s actually the woman that had the most speaking time or was lead speaker. Noted that a few places.

Overall, I’ve personally been heartened (that’s my word of the day) that the industry to me seems to have lots ofwomen involved. If anything, I just worry that sadly, it seems very white still. I’d love to see more diversity in terms of race in the industry — hopefully, that will come.

As I said, this has been on my mind to revisit. If you look at my closing comments to Andrew, you’ll see some of the important qualifications you have to make in figuring out the stats. For example, some speakers are entirely out of my control. If I have a panel made up of four search engine reps, whether they send women or men is entirely up to them. The sessions I can directly put speakers into might be super balanced, but the show as a whole could skew if the search engines themselves aren’t really representative.

Speaking time is also important. It’s common for a session to have a “heavy lifter” speaker that does most of the talking or setup, with discussion and participation from some of the other speakers. Just counting names and ticking off male/female doesn’t really reflect that.

Adding in moderators can do another skew. In most SES sessions, the moderators are playing knowledgeable traffic cop. We keep the speakers to timings, solicit questions from the audience, chime in from time to time but aren’t to me the main stars — the speakers are.

Like I said, I plan to come back and look at the final speaker line-up and tally some stats for SES New York. For the record, the most important thing — the main thing — I look for when putting anyone on any panel is either how strong they pitched or how well they’ve done in the past. But if I see a panel that’s shaping up to be all male, one entirely in my control, I will see if among the candidates whether I’ve got a woman that’s also strong that I can include. I’m a child of the 70s, where I learned (and fortunately so) that diversity is important.

That doesn’t mean I’d go with a weak woman speaker just to have a woman. But I do consider the makeup of a panel. Could I make it more diverse? Then again, Jill Whalen has always been on at me for the past two years to take part in the Organic Listings Forum that has long been a male affair. She’d kind of joke with me about it being an all boys’ club. But my response was that the boys — or more important, the speakers — had been doing well on that panel. I wasn’t going to move someone off solely to make it more diverse. For the same reason, she and Heather Lloyd-Martin have long done the Writing For Search Engines panel first and foremost because they’ve been outstanding at it. And I wouldn’t toss one of them off just to make sure there was a more male presence on the panel.

Speaking slots don’t define an industry on its own, of course. Right now, the power at search is heavily male dominated, in terms of being listed. The make up of crawler panels, the people who could make or break a site, does tend to be mostly men. Back in 2000 or so, it was women that ruled search. Seriously. The most important services that could make or break a site were Yahoo, LookSmart and the Open Directory — all human-powered. Srinija Srinivasan ruled Yahoo’s directory; Kate Wingerson ruled LookSmart’s. I’d have them on a panel, and it was poor Bob Keating of the Open Directory who really was odd-man out.

As for the search marketing industry, getting the stats there is even harder. But when this comes up, I always go back to the great booth babes debate after SES NY 2005. My take on that was that men and women alike in the search marketing space largely stood up and said having booth babes going after men was a largely stupid idea given that there were so many women in the industry.

One thing that’s clear is that women in search are being noticed more. I think credit for this especially does to Li Evans, who aside from celebrating her birthday today has especially found a niche in highlighting various women in search and internet marketing. You can read up on the profiles she’s been doing here, which also provides many more resources for women in the industry.

I hope this trip down memory lane has been useful. And for those vets like Jackie, I hope to see you at SMX Advanced in June, where we’ll have high level conversations, sessions and panels made up both men and women 🙂

Postscript (Feb. 10, 2011): This has come up again on the Outspoken Media blog, so you can take a look at the perception that things still need to change. I’d encourage anyone to read the post, as well as the comments. This was my own response:

I’ve always had women involved in the shows I program. I make a special effort to try and ensure the panels I organize include women, if I notice they seem male-heavy. I often remind other session coordinators to include women, as well.

This is probably the third time I’ve seen this issue come up in the time I’ve been doing shows (over 10 years now). Each time it happens, I take a close look to see how we seem to be doing with our shows. Overall, I actually think we’re doing pretty well.

This was my last write-up on the topic:

The very first ever search conference, as I reminded in that piece, had one all-female session, one female-dominant session, one male-dominant session and one all-male session — of the sessions that I had direct control to program.

The other two session depended on the reps that the search engines send. That’s something that often has to be considered when people look at this stuff. As a conference organizer, I don’t control who Google or Bing send.

I’ve got two panels at our upcoming SMX West show on personalization that will be all male. I don’t control that makeup. Those are apparently the right people that Google and Bing have determined to send, and they’re both men. In other panels during the show, search engines have sent women.

I went through our SMX West agenda, and here’s how the breakdown looks for the 50 editorial sessions I counted:

  • All-Male Sessions: 22 (44%)
  • Equal: 10 (20%)
  • Male-Dominant: 9 (18%)
  • Female-Dominant: 5 (10%)
  • All-Female 4 ( 8%)

I’d sure like the all-male sessions to be more equal to the all-female sessions, definitely. We’ll look further at that. But the overall conference isn’t all-male.

In fact, the all-male session figure would be greatly reduced if I counted the moderators, who are in most cases also the people who picked the speakers on those sessions. By the way, many of those all-male panels were selected by female session coordinators. Half our programming team is made up of women.

You can also slice-and-dice the figures in other ways. What’s the actual speaking time being given? I have one “equal” panel of two men and two women, but one of the men is only participating in Q&A. So is it really a female-dominant panel?

For me, the bigger issue if we’re talking diversity isn’t getting more women on panels. It’s been getting more people who aren’t white. There are plenty of talented people who aren’t white who could and should be speaking, but sessions – including ours – often feel pretty white.

Of course, the biggest issue remains trying to find the best speakers overall. That’s what people want. And it’s really easy to sit back and say there should be more of X gender or X race so there’s diversity, but there’s also an issue of diversity in viewpoints on just how to approach search marketing overall.

That’s also one reason we continue to stick with a pitch process and having multi-speaker panels, even though we’re in a climate of smaller conferences also pitching the idea of “invite only” or “solo speakers” as being advantage.

As a conference organizer, I’m aiming for all types of diversity. I want gender diversity. I want racial diversity. I want diversity of viewpoints on search marketing topics (enterprise speakers, small business speakers, solo practitioners, brand-based speakers, etc). I want old school vets, and I want fresh new voices who are talented to get a chance to shine and help others by being on stage.

I’ll keep working on all that. But I can’t say enough, it’s a huge help if people recommend others during a pitch process. We do an open call and allow anyone to suggest any session (and thus any speaker) before our shows. We can reach out more, but those who are really concerned on this topic can also reach out to us, too.