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The State of Women in SEM

Published: February 24, 2012

Author: 3Q Digital

In the PPC Associates marketing department, we’ve been mulling over a project that highlights the 50(ish) most influential figures in SEM (non-SEO division). We’ve done research, taken straw polls, asked experts, posted the question on Twitter and Quora…and my big, premature takeaway from the endeavor was that SEM is one big boys’ club. You know the names: Danny Sullivan, Geordie Carswell, George Michie, and so on. And in most of the responses we got, there weren’t many women who came immediately to mind.
Well, this got my Title-IX knickers in a twist. I determined to get some good, expert, slightly enraged quotes about glass ceilings and gender typecasting and so forth. Since I haven’t been in the field long enough to work up a credible opinion, I began reaching out to some leading ladies of SEM to get their thoughts about why there aren’t more women in the field.
I posed some pretty crude hypotheses – it’s a math-driven field; the 24/7 on-call nature stinks for raising families, etc. – to see how many of them would agree to help me rouse a little rabble. But after enough of them chimed in, the story took a turn. Yes, most of the field’s pioneers were men. But the proportions started changing a long time ago.
For instance, when I asked Elisabeth Osmeloski, SearchEngineLand’s executive features editor and an SEO/SEM pro since 1999, what she saw as the biggest reason for the field’s male dominance, she didn’t so much answer the question as (politely) debunk it:

(Image credit: e-a-murray.blogspot.com.)
“To some extent, I do believe there could be some truth to the stereotype that the SEO/SEM industry (as part of the bigger ecosystem of web technology and computer science fields) is more male-dominant because of the pre-disposition of men to be more science- and math-focused,” Osmeloski said.
“However, if we look at SEO/SEM as a creative discipline, born out of the marketing, PR, and communications side of things, where the gender split tends to be more female-heavy, then I think the difference isn’t as big as we perceive it to be,” she went on. “I can also think of several women who started in search marketing as a way to support their families, as the flexibility of this career is suited to being a work-at-home parent.”
Case in point: PPC Associates’ own Susan Waldes, Senior SEM Manager and 12-year SEM veteran who works long hours from her home and juggles kick-ass account management with her mother-of-two duties.
“Obviously there’s the issue of fewer women in math disciplines, but creativity and intuition are really important for success,” said Waldes, who got her BFA from the Savannah College of Art & Design. “The data sets are often not of huge statistical significance, so with a lot of it you have to make judgment calls. It takes creativity – ad writing, thinking of new angles. It’s very much a blend. It’s odd – traditional advertising is thought of as more creative, and it’s pretty balanced in terms of gender. It seems like paid search hasn’t caught up yet, but my expectation is that it will go in that direction.”
Waldes also noted that a balance of men and women in social media, one of the fastest-growing segments of online marketing, bodes well for the future of women as marketing leaders.
As for current female stalwarts, Osmeloski cited Mona Elesseily, Kelly Gillease, Shellie ForiskaPatricia HurshKate Powell, Shelley Ellis, Rebecca Lieb, and Lori Weiman among those she considers most influential in today’s SEM. She also cited Allison Schwam, the in-house Global Paid Search Manager at Utah-based Skullcandy, Inc., as one to watch in the next wave of female SEMs.
Not surprisingly, Schwam’s view of the field’s gender balance is analytical – “I’m hesitant to support a point without knowing the stats; that’s the PPC in me” – but plenty optimistic.
“In my experience, men are more likely to be motivated by social dynamics and ‘winning,’ whereas women tend to want to know why they are doing something and if they are able to be successful at it,” Schwam said. “In my experience, PPC can be very detail-oriented and often involves a good bit of simply rolling up your sleeves and working hard. But there is also a clear-cut way to see if the program is working well or not. I think women who have a decent right/left brain balance have the natural inclination to excel at PPC.”
Schwam’s career is a good example of the progression toward more women in SEM; her mentor, Heather Fornataro, plucked her off the backcountry trails and into a marketing role at Backcountry.com. (Fornataro went on to start Powderhound Marketing – her official title, Queen of the Mountain, is a nice symbol for the future of women in the field.)
So…as it turns out, the rabble doesn’t need much rousing; there are women in SEM, more and more of them in leading positions. And the sentiment is that the longer this field is a viable one, the more these things will happen: colleges will offer SEM courses; senior SEMs will ascend to executive levels; content and creativity will have their say; remote moms will make millions and millions of dollars from their home offices. In short, the longer we go, the more equality we’re going to see.
Hillary Read, Marketing Manager

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