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Breaking Gender Barriers to Achieve Sustainable Digital Marketing

I’m a woman working in digital marketing — an industry traditionally known for its exotic beer drinking and Ping-Pong playing maleness. Just a few years ago, women only represented 30 percent of the online marketing workforce according to a Moz study. While we think that number has ticked up in recent years, the lack of femininity among digital teams across the country is still noticeable.

Why? In its infancy, digital marketing meant search engine optimization (SEO) — the fantastic wizardry utilized for getting websites to rank on Google — and an abundance of technical skill was required. Just like how girls shy away from classes focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), I posit that women have shied away from the science that is SEO.

The good news is that this is changing, with more women entering the field. But I don’t know if campaigns like Girls Who Code and ChickTech (getting girls interested in STEM) are responsible. With every business having a website these days, digital marketing has moved beyond the silo of SEO. Now social media and blogging can have just as much of an impact on a website’s ranking success as the technical side of website architecture and building link equity.

It can be tough for any industry, no matter if it is evolving, to become more gender inclusive. While there can be high barriers, ground can be broken, even where it appears most laden with concrete. Here are two pieces of advice to women eager to enter traditionally male-dominated industries.

Don’t Think of Professions as Gendered

Digital marketing wasn’t really digital marketing when I started in 1996. Working with what started as a small internet company, our focus was on crafting great messaging and then sharing it in the appropriate channels. So while I originally had no intention of working in digital marketing, I quickly found a fit after realizing the emphasis on building results from top-notch content.

Yet I was clueless going into it that the industry catered more toward men than women. Would I have even tried to break into the space had I known? Who knows. Ignorance truly is bliss in some instances. After a couple of years, it became clear to me that gender differences existed within different spheres of marketing. For some women the quality of their work didn’t always aid them in trying to score a promotion or bring in clients.

For example, public relations has been thought of as the woman’s marketing industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63 percent of public relations specialists are women. PR requires intense attention to detail, command of descriptive language and the ability to build relationships with strangers — traits that some argue are more developed in women. Digital marketing, on the other hand, doesn’t play nice. It’s highly competitive, sparring with other companies for rank on the Google totem pole. That inherent competition, paired with a necessary understanding of deep tech, has traditionally favored men.

Of course, being aware of differences and disadvantages is a good thing — it pushes us to change the status quo. But as soon as we associate industries, or groups in general, with a particular identity, our minds close from being able to break through to those environments. So, yes, acknowledge your societal disadvantages, but don’t let them dissuade you from your passions. Men, take up careers in public relations, and women, brave the choppy seas of digital marketing! Not because all industries should be perfectly equally represented, but because we need the diversity in how we think and how we problem solve.

Associate Yourself with Empowering Organizations

After starting my own agency and paving my own path, I was introduced to SEMpdx, a nonprofit trade group for search engine marketing professionals in Portland — the first of its kind in the area. I was welcomed into a network of thoughtful, progressive, open-minded individuals who catered to my needs as an industry trailblazer, as well as a woman in a male-dominated space.

Part of SEMpdx’s mission is to expand and promote the industry’s identity, and that starts with broadening the demographic of its members, board and conference presenters. After four years of serving as Membership Chair on SEMpdx’s Board of Directors, I now sit on the advisory board along with three other female digital marketing dynamos. We’ve rebranded our annual conference in Portland, Engage, scheduled for March 9, and I’m proud to say that nearly 40 percent of this year’s conference speakers are women.

It’s important to surround yourself with people and organizations that support you and actively pursue positive change. I now spearhead digital engagement at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and constantly ask those I work with, both men and women, to push the envelope and take risks. Moving forward requires stepping into unfamiliar territory, and I encourage people at all levels, but particularly employers, to constantly challenge themselves and the status quo.

There is no denying that the digital marketing industry is changing. There are more opportunities now for women, racial minorities and other demographics than existed even just five years ago. But in order to change the status quo even further, it’s important to look at where we started and address where we need to get better. At the end of the day, the more that women can ignore gender norms and engage with encouraging circles, the thinner the glass ceiling will appear.


Lisa Williams - Sustainable Digital Marketing

appeared in the Portland Business Journal on Mar 1, 2017.

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