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Gender Parity in SEO

by Eilish Hughes | 02.12.2020

Identifying and filling gaps is key to any successful SEO strategy. However, there is one gap that the industry has failed to address – the gender gap. For the last 10 years, there has been extreme stagnation in the growth of women in SEO with men outnumbering women 2 to 1.

For an industry that must be quick-moving and innovative by nature to keep scoring in the moving goal posts (thanks Google), it has been painfully slow in levelling up in terms of female representation and opportunity.

Don Draper, SEO Bros and Bravado

Like many SEOs, I had no idea that I would end up here. At university, I had the ambition to work in advertising, with an embarrassing inclination to modelling myself on Don Draper. Not Peggy, not Joan. I didn’t want to be a female supporting character in my career. I wanted to be the lead and decided that those archetypal macho Draper qualities were something I would have to adopt if I ever wanted to be an ‘influential person’ in my chosen industry.

The cigar-smoke-filled offices of Mad Men can seem a world away from the Silicone Valley-esque world of SEO, but there is a clear parallel. Both are dominated by men, and largely men who share more than a few of the traits that made Don successful – bravado, unwavering self-belief and a strong presence in a room or on stage. One of the best and worst parts of the SEO industry is the amount of shared of information. Case studies, successes and failures being discussed and debated on LinkedIn, forums and at events. This helps us move forward and continuously create better online experiences. However, the darker side to this is the peacocking that can dominate the conversation. Women’s voices are drowned out in all sectors and SEO is no exception. Not enough is being done to help women be heard over the voices of the men who are seen to speak for the industry.

Female SEO Role Models – Where Are They?

To begin to achieve gender parity in SEO, we need to see a change from the top – the platforms and events who lead SEO conversation. In a recently published list of the 140 most influential SEOs, just 36 were women. Being a part of the great networks that I am, such as Women In Technical SEO, and working with the talented women of Tug, I’m disappointed that in 2020 the ratio of men to women who are considered to be influential in SEO is so unequal. If we’re to attract more women into the industry, those who control access to the microphones and podiums need to do more to give visibility to women.

If SEO organisations see a lack of female applications to speak at events, then the platforms and networks need to reach out to the women they think should appear. To further close the representation gap, agencies and in-house marketing teams need to actively promote their female employees. If your female SEOs are consistently smashing targets, developing amazing content plans and figuring out the most frustrating technical problem, they – and their achievements – should be recognised.

Reward Diversity To Grow A Truly Expectational SEO Department

In De Leon and North Star’s recent study, there were multiple reports from women that they were being paid less than their male counterparts. If self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to someone, as is the case with many women notably due to the prevalence of impostor syndrome, then in SEO they may be passed over for promotions and pay rises. The people who are rewarded and paid more aren’t necessarily the best SEOS – they may simply be better at drawing attention to or talking up their successes.

In every SEO role I’ve had or interviewed for, the Head of Department has been male. It goes without saying that just as more women need to be on the line-ups for industry events, more women need to be promoted into leadership roles. This should never be tokenistic, so if you’re genuinely struggling to find reasons to promote your female SEOs you need to think about why they’re seeming to underperform. Is it lack-of training? Workload? Perhaps their learning style is not being catered to? Or, could it be that you’re measuring their ability against the wrong metric? What makes an SEO campaign successful can vary so broadly based on the KPIs set. Either a faster site, ranking for high volume search terms or acquisition of Featured Snippets from stellar blog content. This broad spectrum of success can mean that the more subtle wins and the quieter team members may be overlooked and not earn as much, or be promoted as often as, their louder colleagues.

Whilst there are the foundations of SEO that cannot be skipped, one of the most attractive features of working in SEO is that one can lean into a preferred niche. A diverse role requires measurements of success to be equally varied if team members are to be rewarded fairly. For example, typically, women are seen as having better ‘soft skills’: The ability to talk to clients, present ideas clearly and build relationships. No one could argue that these qualities are not crucial in any successful SEO campaign but because it is hard to quantify the value of these skills, though so important, they are often under-rewarded. Department heads need to be mindful of measuring success too narrowly and inadvertently preventing their team members’ progression.

To grow your teams, you need to identify their unique strengths and weaknesses. If we are to attract more women to the industry and see more women rise in the ranks, then their workplaces need to be places of continual learning and development. Internal and external training is one of the most obvious ways to develop teams, but I have found turning team members into the trainer is one of the most effective ways of ensuring real progress and development. Tasking your team, regardless of seniority, with training colleagues and leading internal presentations is an actionable way to empower your female team members and showcase their unique value to the department and company.

Creating Space For Diverse Voices in SEO

Male allies in achieving gender parity in SEO, as in the strive for gender parity everywhere, are crucial. However, other female allies are just as important. I was reminded of this in a recent conversation with a client, where she said that other women supporting and lifting each other up is one of the most effective ways to bring more women to the table. Women making space for other women is the leading way in which we’re making real moves to close the gender gap in the industry.

Here, I’ve addressed only gender inequity, but the industry needs to do more to improve diverse representation on all fronts, with better efforts in hiring and promoting people of colour, LGBTQ+ and SEOs from other minority backgrounds. It’s only through conscious efforts to be inclusive in our hiring and training and day-to-day management that we’ll really begin to see a more diverse, creative and innovate an industry that will ultimately be better for all of us to work in.