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Elevating Women in SEO: The Industry Still Has a Long Way to Go

When it comes to truly elevating women, the tech industry still has a long way to go. Discover how you can be an ally for women in SEO.

Friday Focus

I was recently given the amazing opportunity to moderate the Women’s Elevation panel at the State of Search Conference in Dallas.

This session was created to give stage to and focus on women and their allies both in the tech industry and in other areas of our day-to-day lives.

It was an absolute pleasure to be a part of this important discussion! (If you’d like to watch our chat, Bill Hartzer created a Facebook Live video of the event.)

After the conference, I reached out to the amazing women who made up this panel to see if they would be willing to share their thoughts in a Friday Focus piece as I thought the points they brought to light were well worth sharing beyond the walls of that room.

I hope that you all find some knowledge, comradery, and inspiration in the following Q&A conversation I had the pleasure of sharing with these brilliant women.

But, before we jump in let me take a moment to introduce our contributors so that you can get to know them a little better.

The Contributors

Aisha Willis

Aisha Willis is obsessed with words and their power to create communities. She is curious about how those words are used to affect the built environment and systemic structures.

Aisha is a content strategist fascinated by digital marketing and 2019 marks her fifth State of Search.

She’s lived through some really uncomfortable things that make her comfortable speaking up and out for those who don’t have a voice.

Connect with Aisha on Twitter at @AishaAdventures.

Navah Hopkins is part of the Customer Success and Thought Leadership teams at WordStream. She began working in digital marketing in 2008, transitioning from SEO to paid media in 2012.

Navah Hopkins

Since that time she’s worked with SMBs and the agencies who serve them across the globe, helping them unlock the full potential of their budgets, as well as turn PPC into a scalable part of their organizations.

When she’s not working with clients, she shares lessons learned through international conferences, Google customer events, as well as local workshops.

She was named one of the top 25 most influential PPC marketers, and likes to pay it forward by mentoring future marketers at local universities.

When she’s not empowering customers or speaking, Navah loves gaming with her husband and playing with her rescue dog, HK-47 (star wars), and Ocicat, Chinook.

Connect with Navah on Twitter at @navahf.

Kelsey JonesKelsey Jones is a content director at Thruline Marketing and has written for outlets like Salesforce, Woobox, Taboola, and Moz through her business Six Stories.

She was also Executive Editor of Search Engine Journal for 3 years.

She has an adorable son that is one-and-a-half years old.

Connect with Kelsey on Twitter at @wonderwall7.

Beth KahlichBeth Kahlich is an SEO practitioner and trainer and is currently the in-house SEO for Alight solutions. She’s also a former president of DFWSEM.

She’s a proud Dallas native, wife to Dale and empty Nester mom to Wilson and Ben.

Connect with Beth on Twitter at @BethKahlich.

Now let’s get into the Q&A!


We talked about the importance of mentoring women in our industry. Is there anyone that has mentored you along your journey or that you would like to recognize for being an inspiration to you?

AW: When I think about the mentoring aspect, I would be remiss not to mention Scott Vann. He invited me to DFWSEM originally, this changed my path from being strictly PR-focused to digital marketing. I love integrated marketing solutions so I’ll forever be grateful for that.

There I met Beth Khalich, who often checks in with me and I was able to have my first industry job thanks to Lissa Duty reaching out to me.

I’d also like to mention Brandon Hurtado who is a personal mentor of mine who has walked with me through several difficult situations and helped me see my value as a content strategist and provider.

NH: I have been exceedingly blessed in my mentors (and how many who have invested their time with me), and I’d like to give a shout out to three:

  • Jon Boroshock (my PR professor at Emerson).
  • Purna Virji (the embodiment of what I want my career to be).
  • Melissa Fach (the pinnacle of balancing professional badassery with personal wisdom and priorities).

Each of these people has influenced me and what professional and personal choices I make.

Jon gave me the framework of how to create mentor relationships and how to think about the professional landscape. Purna is just unequivocally brilliant and full of grace/positivity. Melissa always finds a way to empower all around her.

All three of these amazing perspectives have had a direct positive impact on my career and I couldn’t be more grateful to them!

KJ: Jeremy Kuo, who is now the Co-Founder and Director of Marketing at Menufy, was the first person to teach me SEO when we worked at an agency together.

He was such a patient teacher and has been a great colleague to me throughout the years. We are actually collaborating together on some marketing projects for Menufy now, which is exciting.

Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land was the first person to give me a byline in the marketing industry in 2009 (!) and the co-owners of Search Engine Journal (Loren Baker, Jenise Henrikson, and Brent Csutoras) were great to work for and really gave me the opportunity to shine and grow in our industry.

BK: I have had some amazing mentors in my career – but I want to recognize the late Michael Marshall for his friendship and mentorship.

Michael was a quiet expert in digital marketing that was super kind and encouraging – especially as I was starting my training business back in 2012.

We also talked about the power of being an ally to women, whether you be male, female or non-binary. If you could suggest one thing that an ally could build into their day-to-day lives to help promote equal opportunity and access for women what would it be?

AW: There is so much value in listening. Often I feel I have to repeat myself multiple times and I am still not heard. Yet another person, typically a man, will come through say the same thing and then it’s heard.

In these situations, noting that the idea or statement was brought up by someone else in the room is important.

Also, in one-on-one situations, it is ideal to intentionally attune yourself to actively listen to the other person.

NH: Being an ally means outwardly celebrating those who do good who may not get recognized, as well as advocating for those who may not have a voice.

No day should go by where you don’t say at least one good thing (publicly or in a private meeting that will positively impact a less privileged colleague) or defend a less privileged colleague.

By turning it into a habit, being an ally will become as natural as breathing (which is the goal).

KJ: Look out for small instances of discrimination that most people don’t notice and go out of your way to change the situation as best you can.

If a woman/minority gets interrupted in a meeting, interrupt back and say “I’m sorry, you were interrupted. What were you saying?”

If someone asks you something inappropriate (or they do it to someone in front of you) ask, “Why do you want to know?” Simply pointing out transactions of discrimination in our everyday lives can go a long way.

BK: Whenever you are in a meeting or having a discussion with multiple people – try to give credit to your team members for their contributions.

Even if their contribution is a brief conversation – people like to be recognized.

We discussed the importance of women supporting and encouraging each other rather than competing with each other. What are ways that you check in with yourself to be sure that you are uplifting the women around you in the workplace?

AW: I tell myself we each add value to the team/organization and if I think of it any other way it can add unnecessary strife. I try to connect with other women in the workplace to cheer for them and help in any way I can. And I ask for help.

I also have to remember everyone does not share that perspective. I try to have conversations where I put my cards on the table and say I’m not here to compete negatively.

There’s a good healthy competition that helps each person become better and that’s the only thing I’m interested in. It’s not easy either, especially if imposter syndrome wants to tell me otherwise. But it’s worth the fight.

NH: I make a point to suggest women earlier in their career for thought leadership opportunities that would normally default to me, as well as share (and help with pitching) external conferences.

While there are times I selfishly want the opportunity, if I know another member of the team is qualified and hasn’t gotten a shot yet, I’ll make a point to bring them up as an additional voice (or potential replacement voice).

KJ: In meetings, if a woman is quiet (especially if she is new to the company), I ask for her opinion. I try to involve people in lunch plans and ask for their advice on things happening around the office.

Making people feel welcome and involved helps turn an environment of competition into a collaborative one.

BK: Being responsive, polite and upbeat are my three go-to strategies.

Not that we don’t have bad days – but instead of letting circumstances control me – I try to turn to positivity and create that environment for my workplace communications.

We took a look back to draw attention to the positive changes we’ve seen in our industry over the years when it comes to empowering women. What would you say is the biggest forward-moving area that you have witnessed in our industry on this subject?

AW: I’ve only been in the industry for five years, but the fact that State of Search and DFWSEM are intentional in seeking out women speakers and providing a platform like the Elevation Breakfast is huge.

It’s been inspiring to hear the speakers stand before a mixed-gender group and call for better representation. I’ve watched attendance at the event grow each year and I always hear excellent feedback about how attendees, no matter their gender identity, feel empowered afterward.

It is my hope that is translating to change when they get back home.

NH: It makes me so unbelievably happy to see the percentages of speakers at tech-heavy SEO/PPC/Marketing conferences trending towards 50/50. Hopefully, we can keep this trend going internationally!

KJ: Just talking about it more, whether it be on Twitter threads, Facebook, or at conferences like the women’s elevation panel has helped a lot.

And many initiatives to get more women speaking in the industry, like and are helping to raise visibility for women in the industry.

I have had people in person and online say “I hadn’t even thought about that before.”

Which is exactly all we ask – just think about it! This opens the door to more change and inclusivity.

BK: More job opportunities for women in digital marketing. Recognizing that digital marketing is not just a technical role but also a creative role that’s a great fit for anyone with passion around the subject.

We also talked about the areas that still need a lot of improvement when it comes to equal opportunity and respect for women in the industry. What would you say is something close to your heart that you’d really like to see change for women?

AW: I know there is much attention given to this in general, but our industry should lead the way in equal pay. This should not even be a question.

There should not be a wage gap between the genders nor between race/nationality, but it still exists.

Family is incredibly important to me and having a stable, fair income can help us care for our families or live better lives outside our familial obligations.

Times are different, in some families that woman is the “breadwinner” and single-parent homes exist.

This notion of having multiple gigs to make it in an industry like ours is ludicrous to me, so I’d like to see that area change.

NH: As much as things are getting better, there are still unfortunate misogynistic comments (“eye candy”, “she’s hot”, male moderators/panelists undermining or speaking over their female counterparts) are still very much present.

I look forward to the day when we all are celebrated for our minds, not what we look like.

KJ: Any comments at all about our appearance. I still get called “honey” occasionally or have comments made about what I look like. That has such a detrimental effect on women that I don’t think everyone realizes.

To diminish me or anyone else down to what we look like discounts all our hard work, our brains, and our experience that has gotten us to where we are today.

Just do everyone a favor and don’t mention or bring up anything about what women and girls look like! And for heaven’s sake don’t tell anyone they look tired or ask if they are pregnant. Just don’t.

BK: Respect for commitments outside of work. If you are fortunate enough to have a good boss who respects personal time that is great – but there is still an expectation of being “always on” in a lot of organizations – and that is not healthy for men or women!

What additional obstacles in the workplace have required you to be that much more resilient when facing your daily challenges?

AW: I could (and probably should) write a book about this. I learned a long time ago that no matter what someone says, to watch what they do. I have had supervisors who genuinely thought I didn’t understand the way the world works.

Case in point, any time I have asked for a raise, especially in the face of increased responsibility, I was told the new duties were “just part of my job.” Counterparts, however, received title and compensation changes.

I made a mistake and a supervisor looked me in the eye and told me, “I really thought you’d try harder with everything your people have been through.”

Mind you this same boss encouraged me to take more risks, but the time I allowed myself to be confident enough to try this was the result.

I wish more people understood I don’t run around remembering I’m a black woman or feeling the need to review everything through that lens because of me.

Anti-blackness (minimizing of people of color) is real and it, unfortunately, shapes more opinions and biases than many people want to admit. Even people who genuinely consider themselves allies can fall to these ideas.

There are times when I or another person of color in the office is the perfect candidate to represent the company at an event, but we are not chosen. It falls to a white counterpart often because they are seen as “more relatable.”

I have also been told that because I am a “double negative” (yes, that was the phrase used) as a black woman, I probably got so many things handed to me.

Contrary to the belief, I didn’t receive a ton of scholarship money for school for either of those reasons. If I have ever been the “diversity” hire, I’m not aware of it, but I know I’ve been treated as such.

And I’m aware of all this. These things take a toll on me and make it much more difficult to simply get work done. It’s frustrating.

And although I’m seeing changes and experiencing more empathy, for which I am grateful, we still have so far to go.

NH: My challenges revolve around oppressive male bosses who either made me feel bad about myself:

  • For making a mistake (playing hangman to figure out what my mistake was, getting in my face and telling me it was good that I was crying because it shows I care and know that I made a mistake).
  • For being good (telling me to hide that I got a promotion, telling me I’d “get more done if I didn’t care about credit”).

I’ve also found that my male counterparts get handed opportunities that I have to fight for, and sometimes passed over for.

It seems par for the course that when I say a thing people don’t really listen, but then ask me to solve the problem once it’s become worse.

Overcoming these challenges came down to making myself indispensable and integrated in several departments.

I also eat a lot of negativity in my day to day, and am blessed in my husband and partner who balances me out and empowers me when I doubt myself.

KJ: It has come naturally to hide mentions of my son and husband in my bios for professional events. This makes me both angry and sad.

I didn’t feel like I was discriminated against for my pregnancy directly, but I have several friends in the industry where that is unfortunately not that case.

I recognize that it is a choice to get pregnant, but as women (pregnant or not) we are entirely capable of still working and excelling in our field.

We do need a little grace postpartum, but we birthed a human, for goodness sake! And I promise you no one is harder on us than ourselves.

We don’t expect people to necessarily make accommodations for us, but just like anyone who has gone through a major life change (whether it be a death, moving, marriage, etc.), empathy can go a long way.

On the flip side, not discriminating against anyone for the choices they make or who they are is so, so important. This goes beyond pregnancy and no one should have to hide who they are in order to get work.

I feel like we still have a way to go with this point, but we’ve also come a long way.


Thanks to these amazing women for sharing their perspectives and experiences!

Let us keep the conversation going and all continue to work together to uplift the women around us, whether it be in our personal lives or in the workplace!

More Resources:

Mary Davies President at Beanstalk Internet Marketing

Mary began her career as a web designer in 2002 and quickly began to see the importance of SEO and ...

Elevating Women in SEO: The Industry Still Has a Long Way to Go

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