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Speaking Up

Two days ago, a prominent designer named Sarah Parmenter published a post titled Speaking Up, in which she revealed the horrific harassment she has endured as a public woman in technology.

Sarah and I have spoken at the same conferences and share a lot of the same friends, and I have admired her ability to be so well-liked. I considered it her gift. I always assumed she’d never experienced any backlash from being outspoken and influential. I just figured she was better at it than I am.

When I read Sarah’s post, my heart sunk. I was sickened by what had happened to her, and though I’ve never known that particular brand of intimidation, I could identify. I wanted to scream, “Me too!” but I stopped myself, not wanting to “one-up” her or be perceived as using her struggles as an excuse for a bit of attention. You see, this is what women do. We stay silent because we’re afraid of how we’ll be perceived. We don’t want to come across as too masculine, too self-righteous, too assertive, too proud. So we diminish ourselves and our experiences; we want to be good but not too good, smart but not too smart, friendly but not too friendly. We’re afraid of being too much.

After seeing that two other women who I greatly admire — Leslie Jensen-Inman and Relly Annett-Baker — had posted their own stories yesterday, I realized that it was ridiculous of me to shut myself up once again. So here it is, the truth.

I have been the victim of harassment since I began blogging and tweeting in 2008. Almost as soon as I found myself with any kind of following, any sense of belonging within the community, people immediately wanted me out.

What I think has been different about my experience from Sarah’s or Leslie’s or Relly’s — or from any woman I’ve shared my story with who has shared her story with me — is that my predators have rarely hidden behind the cowardice of anonymity. My attackers are proud to demonstrate their attack. They have used their real names, their blogs and their Twitter accounts as platforms to declare their hatred for me. They have risked their reputation, their credibility, their status and their friendships for the higher purpose of taking me down.

I desperately want to name them. I desperately want to link to the posts they wrote and the photos they made, and make you see just how deeply they tried to hurt me, to destroy me. But that would be giving them exactly what they want. So I won’t.

Each time I’ve been vilified, I’ve been applauded for the “grace” and “humility” and “maturity” with which I’ve handled it. Because I didn’t fight back, because I didn’t stand up for myself, because I didn’t tell these people to go fuck themselves, I was considered to have done “the right thing.” My silence won me fans — believe it or not, it also won me clients (thanks for the exposure, vultures!). But by allowing their voices to remain unchallenged, their depictions of me became fact to those who held them in high regard. Their readers never got to hear my side of the story, never came to know the real me.

Over time I’ve noticed that people I once considered to be my friends began to distance themselves from me. People I had shared dinners with at conferences and spent late nights video-chatting with about client projects suddenly didn’t have the time for me. They wouldn’t sit near me during a session, they wouldn’t respond to me on Twitter, and they wouldn’t acknowledge holiday cards I’d sent.

To be honest, I don’t really blame them. I believe their change in behavior had less to do with actually believing the negativity that had been spewed about me, and more to do with not wanting to become the next subject of it. I attract haters, and they don’t want any. So they ran away.

I could go into how being persecuted makes me feel, what I’ve had to deal with as a result of it, what the psychology of this torment has been. But quite frankly, I think it’s irrelevant. I’m still here. I’m still writing my heart out. I’m still speaking at conferences all over the world. I’m still running a very successful business. I’m still in love with my life. I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

I can’t help how my good fortune makes another feel less fortunate; that has everything to do with them and nothing to do with me. When I meet a fortunate soul, I want to learn from them, not resent them. I don’t have the urge to hurt people. I strive to know people, to dig deep until I find out who they really are and how I can help them. That’s why I’m still close friends with kids I met in Kindergarten. That’s why I’m so passionate about working in the field of User Experience and evangelizing its message throughout technology and business. I work to expand my empathy every day and share those lessons with the world.

People have tried to shut me up. If they think their venom will make me go away, they don’t know me very well after all. Nothing turns me on more than being underestimated.

And it’s okay, the pain they inflict is fleeting. It only takes me a moment to see inside them, to perceive the origin of their hate, and to pity their misery, to hope they find a light in their life that will guide them towards happiness. This isn’t nonsense, it’s awareness. It’s strength. And I owe them thanks for helping me find it.

To anyone experiencing harassment, male or female, young or old, I implore you: don’t suffer in silence. Raise your voice. Tell your story. Open your heart. Find your power.

Be you. No one else can.

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  • http://mauvyrusset.com/ Richard Dalton

    Whitney, i’ll always sit next to you at conferences.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      If I don’t try to sit next to you first!

  • http://www.shizzling.com Colin Irwin

    I just Facebook ‘liked’ this article, not because I like it – in fact it saddens me to think that people could be so tiny minded and nasty – but because it needs to be shared.

    More power to you, Whitney.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thank you for doing your part to keep these voices alive, Colin. I truly appreciate your support.

  • http://www.lockedowndesign.com John J. Locke

    It seems there is so much just-below-the-surface harassment in our industry, something that really needs to be shut down. I’m glad that people such as yourself, Sarah Parmenter, and Relly-Ann are sharing your stories, because it makes it more real to those who may not see it otherwise. It’s sad, because there are so many talented and wise people who have knowledge to share, and are being dismissed or harassed, simply because they happen to be women. I wonder if there isn’t a bit of professional jealousy mixed in with the misogyny in some of these cases.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      John, thank you again for your kindness. Yes, in fact I do think it comes down to jealousy a lot of the time. Jealousy is quite literally the protection of ones own possessions and status. It’s a sort of involuntary reaction to feeling threatened. I personally do not understand how one person’s success threatens another’s, but I have learned that others believe it does…very deeply. I happen to believe in a world that isn’t a zero-sum game, where we can combine our resources together and both of us can thrive. Apparently they do not.

      If misogyny plays a role, I don’t think it’s something they’re entirely conscious of. And can women be misogynists? I have experienced bullying by men and by women. Yes, I believe some women still fundamentally don’t believe that women should sharing the spotlight with men, should have meaningful and successful careers, should be choosing to do anything other than raise a family. It’s becoming more and more rare, but it’s still there.

      • http://mediajunkie.com xian

        of course women can be misogynistic, just as a policeman of color may be racist, etc.

        glad you’re speaking up – I know it ain’t easy. I’ve been shocked at times at the vitriol flung your way, especially when it clearly seems to come from a place of professional envy (usually with a touch of turf-protection and an attitude of “you haven’t paid the dues I have so why should you get rewards I don’t get?”

        rock on, sister.

  • http://claydelk.com Clay

    It’s interesting that so many people in design and UX (i.e. standard bearers of understanding and treating people as people) can do such a poor job of understanding and treating all people as people.

    Thanks for sharing–all of you.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Clay, I’ve had the same thoughts many times. We stand for empathy and humanity in our work, and then turn around and treat people like garbage? It’s totally senseless and it can’t be ignored anymore.

  • http://www.6060.me Steve Ames

    Whitney – I’ve watched – through your blog – as you’ve built a great business and become a prominent person in the field. I’m so glad you’ve been able to gain strength through it all. Great job all around and thanks, especially, for telling your story and sharing Sarah’s. – Steve Ames, Elmore, Vermont

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Steve, thank you so very much. I can envision a world in which we’re all in awe and admiration of each other’s successes and accomplishments, and empathetic and supportive of each other’s shortcomings, where we don’t feel the need to hate what we don’t understand and destroy what we fear. Thank you for contributing to that world.

  • http://jimvoorhies.com Jim Voorhies

    It’s been quite a while since I worked for a company willing to send me to conferences, but one of the remarkable things I recall from them was the invaluable things I learned from people like Leah Buley, Jeffrey Veen, Rachel Hinman, and others who spoke at them. It never occurred to me to think less of them or denigrate them, or worse yet, harass them because some of them were women. I learned from them. That’s how it should be. Period.

    My ego and my sense of self-importance aren’t so inflated that I’m unable to learn from others, no matter how much younger or different they are from me. All of us can and do contribute to this art and science we practice. I tend to sit off to the sides and towards the back, so I might not sit next to you, but I’ll definitely learn from you and appreciate what you say at a conference, just as I do here.

    It is enraging that others would do this to colleagues. It’s probably a good thing I can’t hack worth a damn, because I could not be ethical at it in these circumstances. Thanks to you and the others for speaking up about this, otherwise many of us would not know it existed. I hope discussion will drive these people farther back into their caves where they belong.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thank you for your kindness, Jim, and for encouraging us to speak up. It’s the support and outrage of people like you that makes this all the easier to achieve.

  • http://www.zeldman.com/ zeldman

    Whitney: Thank you for your honest sharing. I’ve always enjoyed and benefited from the opportunities we had to work together, and you are a smart and caring friend. Have never understood the vitriol that gets publicly directed at you on the web and on Twitter. I don’t think those people know you—and I agree that rage, particularly rage directed at a stranger, reveals nothing about the recipient and everything about the hater’s inner misery. Like you, I have compassion for that misery, but that does not excuse the unjustified lashing out, or the silence that appears to condone it. Thanks again for this article. P.S. I will sit with you any chance I get.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Jeffrey, you know I love you and hold our friendship so dear to me. You have stood up for me when I needed it the most and have always given me the perspective I needed to move on. When negativity gets thrown our way, the obvious reaction is to realize that the offender simply does not know who we are. If they did, they would embrace us and work to understand us, as we all must do for one another. I’m lucky to be on your team, and to have you on mine.

  • http://jeffnamnum.com Jeff Namnum

    So, maybe a little naive or just oblivious, but reading this really blows me away. You are someone who I’ve learned so much from (mostly from stalking every BarcampNYC session of yours I could get to) that I have a tough time believing anyone could find a reason to be obnoxious to you.

    It certainly doesn’t erase the crap that’s been done, but please know I’m grateful for the moment Robert introduced us and then told me privately how smart you were, I’m grateful for you teaching those sessions on how to properly deal with customers (has saved me so many headaches) and the very few times I’ve gotten to see you live and in person I’m consistently taken with how genuine and friendly you are to the people around you.

    Fuck the haters.

    And thanks again for speaking out, hopefully this paves an easy road for my daughter.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thank you for such kindness always, Jeff. You have always had a smile and a hug for me whenever our paths have crossed, and your encouragement for several years now hasn’t been lost on me. Thank you.

  • http://www.thisisaaronslife.com Aaron Irizarry

    Thank you for posting this Whit! Reading these stories lately is infuriating, there is simply no place for it. Thank you for choosing to fight back, thank you for being transparent with your own situations and feelings about them.

    I hope to instil the same strength in my daughters.

    Also… I would love to sit with you at any upcoming event.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      You have never wavered in your kindness, support and compassion for me nor for anyone I’ve ever seen you interact with. You truly are one-of-a-kind and I have no doubt that your daughters are growing up to be smart, independent, resourceful, determined, trailblazing women. Much love to you.

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  • http://www.pixelingo.com Carolyn

    Dear Whitney,
    I have too much to say about this subject and not enough energy tonight. All I can say is thank you for voicing these things. I believe you. I BELIEVE YOU. I have fearlessly taken on powerful enemies in previous careers and causes, yet there are things I know about certain men in OUR industry and their attitude toward women that were blatantly revealed to me, and I realize the hopelessness of calling them out. I would not be believed. Being believed is such a huge thing. I remember things that have been said, that you refer to here, and so do many other people, and stand with you. We remember, Whitney. I’m with Jeffrey Zeldman. I, too, would sit with you anytime.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Carolyn, I hope you know how much I cherish your friendship and appreciate your constant support. You always have such uplifting words to share. Thank you for believing me, for remembering, and for caring always to extend a hand. You are a special soul.

      One thing I’ll mention though is that I have experienced bullying not just by men but by women. These women have typically only met me once in passing, are a bit younger, and tend not to have the audience that my male attackers do. But for some reason they are compelled to publicly display their hatred and condemnation for the very essence of my being. It’s disturbing to me that in an industry where women constantly need to lift each other up, they’re working to drag one down. Just as I do with male bullies, I wonder what is so wrong in their lives that they would exhibit this kind of behavior, particularly in public. Sometimes much later I learn of their mental instability, but other times they simply vanish into obscurity and I never get an opportunity to know them. I’ve learned deeply from these experiences and I can only hope they have as well.

      • http://www.shizzling.com Colin Irwin

        Interesting that you should mention mental instability..

        There is a tendency to assume that other people think and behave in broadly the same way, and the model for that assumed behaviour is one’s own world view.

        I have a friend with a child (now a young adult) who is profoundly autistic – he’ll probably never talk, he’s prone to violent (though not malicious) behaviour yet if you walked past him in the street he wouldn’t stand out as different.

        I came to the realisation that we’re all put together differently in the womb and have factors throughout our lives that further modify our attitudes and behaviour. However, we all look broadly the same – we’re in a human shaped package.

        The consequence of this is that we’re wide open to being shocked and hurt by people whose actions differ from our own definition of what is good behaviour.

        Whitney, I’m not excusing the cruel, even sociopathic, behaviour of people who choose to make public or anonymous attacks. Rather, I’m saying that part of the process of getting beyond being a ‘victim’ of such abuse is to realise that the problem lies fully in the hands of the perpetrator.

        Another major part of dealing with such people is, as you and others have done, to highlight the problem. The majority of people are empathic, and a consensus forms that enable behavioural boundaries to be clarified and, where necessary, for sanctions to be taken against perpetrators.

        Unfortunately we’ll never completely remove the problem, but we can go a long way together to minimise the rate at which it happens, and to help those targetted by abusers to realise that the majority of people are on their side and they should carry no blame.

        Sorry for this being so longwinded – perhaps you’ll appreciate why I find the 140 character input of Twitter to be quite limiting ;-)

        • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

          Thank you for your incredibly thoughtful comment, and for helping us all to realize our own failure to empathize with the needs, constraints, and intentions of others we likely do not understand. And please never apologize for being longwinded, there are some subjects that deserve this level of attention. Thank you again.

  • http://www.elisabethhubert.com/ Lis Hubert

    A very inspiring piece Whitney… thank you, so much, for writing it. You have forced me to think about the times in my own career where similar acts have taken place. I constantly realize how, in certain company, I am talked over, or my ideas repeated as someone else’s, how I have less clout at a table, or more and more. You have given me the courage to give these thoughts and feelings a voice of their own, and I truly appreciate it!

    You go :-)!!

  • Na’ama

    Whitney,

    I have attended one of your UX workshops a while ago, and one of the things that were crystal clear to me is that you are a strong woman. I coming across these stories, and others, just makes me constantly think – if these things happen, and have such a deep effect over strong women – just imagine what all the others are going through…

    Thank you for this post. It will surely echo and effect in more ways that you even imagined.

  • http://www.parttimevagabond.com Chris Cavallari

    Stuff like this enrages me. I want to loose a flurry of F bombs and other colorful language into the faces of these tools who make you feel this way. I want the full weight of each and every curse I levy upon them to sit in the back of their minds, weighing them down day after day after day until they realize it really was not worth it to do something so vile to you (and women like you). It’s time this bullshit from the tech community comes to an end.

    Please, do not ever…EVER…let someone keep you silent. I’ve done it before, and it doesn’t make you stronger. Yes, you may lose some clients, or lose some friends, but those people in the end are not worth your time or effort. Silence is not “grace.” Silence is not “humility.” Silence is not “golden.” Silence is the tool of those who wish to oppress.

    I only wish that when I was younger and was being harassed by peers, that I had spoken up more often, that I had the quickness of wit to respond eloquently to their jabs (for a 10 year old, that’s a tall order). But today, I am not very likely to suffer fools lightly, or at all. Neither should you.

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  • http://www.evoljen.com Jennifer Bohmbach

    As always, your sharing is helpful! You are an inspiration – you know you have always inspired me. It hurts my heart that people make these choices. The only way to stop it is to call it out, talk about it, share the stories. Thank you and I’d be honored to sit by you. ;-)

  • http://www.polaine.com Andy Polaine

    I’m so sad to read what you’ve written but so glad that you’ve written it. Writing that is drawn from deep down inside you takes guts. The reward is that it connects with people because they know the emotion is real. I know because I’ve only managed it less than a handful of times. Most of the time I’ve held back, too scared of looking stupid, if I’m really honest about it. The times I have been bold enough have resulted in receiving the most affirming and moving responses ever.

    The dark, flip side of connecting with those emotions in people is that some people don’t want to be reminded that they’re there. They’ll either recoil in denial and lash out or they’ll turn into rationalism fundamentalists and try and fact you to death. It takes courage (though much less) to say, “yes, I feel that too.” Those people don’t have it. But if you keep writing, maybe they will one day. It’s hard to have compassion for those people and in a Zen way one should. But sometimes I think it’s just fine to politely say “fuck you” and put your effort elsewhere. After all, it’s also Zen to let go sometimes and that includes friends that turn out not to be friends after all.

  • http://www.lynneux.com Lynne Polischuik

    Thanks for writing this, Whitney. For a long time I lived in a bit of denial that this issue existed, or that it wasn’t happening in the UX world–but upon deeper reflection and through posts like this and @sazzy’s things sort of crystallized. I’ve seen you treated or talked about many times in ways that no male speaker or professional would be treated. It’s bothered me for a while that talented young men are often held up as ‘wunderkids’ or prodigies, while talented younger women seem only to have their abilities and experience questioned. I appreciate you speaking up and I think the best thing we can do is to keep following your example and show girls coming up in this space all that is possible. Call out inequality, take seats at the table and keep putting ourselves out there. You really inspired me to do this, and I hope my example is positive for others as well. Thanks again for posting.

  • http://loricavallucci.com Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci

    Whit,
    You are an inspiration and role model for so many people – men, women, young, or old. Keep doing what you are doing. Haters are going to continue to hate because they don’t understand and only see what they want to see. They clearly don’t see the Whitney the rest of us know and love.

    You rock!

  • Sveta

    Whitney – thanks for sharing the story. I can relate to it, and I find it even more frustrating as a deaf person than as a woman. I’ve had to deal throughout my life with many people who have so many misconceptions about deaf people. It is also very frustrating when some people refuse to accommodate those like myself and to make us feel included, and they think that accommodation is some sort of entitlement without realizing how many things they take for granted (for deaf people, it’s the ease of communication and information access) and how important it is to have the equal access. One recent example is when I asked a video owner to make it accessible via captions, some commenter said that he would vote that all deaf people should be killed so that nobody would have to bother with captioning.

    I agree with you that it’s important to speak up. Even though I do not know you well, you have been my inspiration since I first started reading your blog, and it was a pleasure to finally meet you in person last fall. :0)

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  • http://www.josharonoff.com Josh Aronoff

    I honestly had no idea that this was something that happens. I understand that there’s misogyny in the world, but I always thought of the design and ux fields as being somewhat insulated from that. Especially online, I always feel like it’s inclusive with the exception of very few times…

    All of that being said, I think it’s important to address and bring up and I applaud you and Sarah and others for talking about it and being open about it.

    I have a daughter who is 2, and I want her to know that she can do ANYTHING and be ANYTHING that she wants to be when she grows up including be involved in and a part of the tech and design industry.

    We need to have mutual respect for everyone, if we’re going to elevate the work that we do.

    Lately, I’ve been learning Ruby on Rails and the community I’ve seen has always been so incredibly supportive. And I’ve seen development groups specifically devoted to promoting development to girls in high school and grade school and I think it’s great.

    I think that the men in this industry have to do a better job of being inclusive and cut the insecure machismo. It’s not funny, it’s off putting and it’s insensitive.

    I will be on the lookout for behavior like this on Twitter and in general and say something if I have to.

    Thanks again for you both for sharing.

    ~Josh

  • Jesse Podell

    First they ignore you,
    then they laugh at you,
    then they fight you,
    then you win.

  • http://www.humanfactors.com Guy Harvey

    Double tweeted to all our followers –
    Guy Harvey, Social Media Manager, Human Factors International

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  • Susan Leigh Babcock

    Whitney, Aside from the heinousness of digital harassment, I feel compelled to call out the heart-warming show of admiration, love, and support you are getting here in these comments by a group of highly literate and kind people. Your consistently generous attitude and valuable contributions to your professional community are well represented here. The Internet exposes troubled people who used to seethe mutely, but now visibly spew thei vitriol for all to see, evidently. And while you and these commenters have identified possible underpinnings and to some extent forgiven *them,* you rightly have not forgiven their actions. Thick skin, if one can truly develop it, doesn’t undo the lingering stink of muckraking. Personally, I’m shocked this kind of misogyny persists in our times and in these younger generations. If that’s a kind of naïveté, I’ll consider myself now enlightened, and saddened. Thank you for courage.

  • http://SongsTuckerWrote.ca Tucker

    I believe it was you who shared this video about Bossing Up with Nicki Manaj. What I find most telling is that even with how strong she is, at the end she’s still afraid of looking ‘stupid’ fir shaing her opinion. http://youtu.be/lpt8WkyW4Pc

  • Martha Orloci

    Whitney I am sad to hear that this nonsense is still going on. You are a smart motivated and talented woman. Keep doing what you are doing – scaring them. Brava.

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  • http://about.me/fabricioteixeira Fabricio Teixeira

    It’s unbelievable that there are people out there who are mean enough to do that. It’s kind of sad, at the same time. Thanks for sharing the story with us, Whitney. It takes a lot of courage, and most men I know would never be brave enough in order to do that. You have all my respect and admiration, now more than ever. Keep the good work :)

  • Josh

    I very much appreciated your input on the 5by5 Crossover podcast, especially the idea that being in the public eye has done more good than bad. That helps me with my own struggle to be ok with putting my work/self out there. Thanks!

  • Jessica Ivins

    Whitney, thank you for sharing your story. You are right when you say that we stay silent because we are afraid, whether that fear stems from judgment or blatant and threatening harassment. It is one of the reasons why, as much as I want to, I don’t blog. That said, I’m realizing now that only by sharing our stories can we enact positive change; by remaining silent, the problems will only persist. So thank you for speaking out. You have been such an inspiration to me over the years, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to know you.

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  • Kathy Sierra

    You already know how I feel about all this, so I’ll just add that whenever you’re at an event I’m at, that event just feels… better :). I’ll sit with you any time, though for selfish reasons… every time I do, it brightens my “user experience” of that event. You continue to inspire me.

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