I don’t need to write a post about sexual harassment in the workplace. I already wrote one, 12 years ago.
Reading it back, I was struck by the paragraph I wrote about blurred lines.
I tried to remember what I was like, back then. I remember having chronically low self-esteem and a feeling of utter worthlessness. I valued every positive interaction that validated me in some way, even if it was borderline inappropriate.
I was in, then escaped, an abusive relationship at the time, but given I’m pretty bright and seem to be good at tech… why didn’t I feel like that was where my worth lay? Why was work also contributing, when it should have been uplifting me? I loved programming. I was demonstrably good at it. Why did I feel like playing into the expectations was the only way I could get ahead?
Oh, I remember.
Being told by a visiting professional in my A-level electronics group that I was “only there to hold the breadboard”. The lab partner who thought women should defer to men and couldn’t understand my behaviour. The students who tried to look up my skirt. The anonymous emails telling me how beautiful I was walking out of my lecture, describing my movements for some days. (Idiot got caught; it was sent from a university terminal.)
Then, at work.
The worst thing.
The guy who decided I was his wife, and referred to me as “wife” for about 6 months, even when our manager told him to stop (nothing else was done about it and I didn’t feel like I had any power). It still makes my skin crawl. I remember crying, a lot, thinking about the fact that I had to go to work again the next day. That was the worst thing. Having someone think they own you. Being worried, every day, about what else was going to happen. Feeling sick. Watching other people watch it happen and knowing they saw me powerless and afraid and frustrated and angry. That remains, many years later, the worst thing.
Worse than being groped in the street in broad daylight in Bath. Worse than being followed home through Camden. Worse than the guy who decided to lift my skirt up in Slimelight to see what was underneath (and got thrown out by the bouncers). Worse than the guy who tried to put his hand in my top in Bristol (no bouncers needed; I chased him out myself).
It’s always worse when it’s work. We don’t have to go to clubs. We don’t have to go out late at night alone. We do have to work, and there’s no escape. It’s worse at work, but this one was worse than all the others.
Worse than the swimsuit calendar on the wall with the swimsuits made only of body-paint.
Worse than the high-level exec who stroked my hair in the pub as I passed.
Worse than watching 7 women be made redundant out of 10 redundancies for “performance reasons”, in a company with only 10% female staff. (I performed well enough, apparently.)
Worse than being asked if I only got the job because I was a woman.
Worse than being quizzed repeatedly about gender diversity issues, just because I’m a woman. (My favourite: “Liz, what’s difference is there between a team with women in and a team without them?” “How would I know? I’ve never been on a team without a woman in.” “Really? How come?” Duh.)
Worse than having to tell someone with a topless woman on his t-shirt – at work – that it was making some of us feel uncomfortable.
Worse than being asked why I was out at a conference, and shouldn’t I be home raising the kids I choose not to have, because how else could any man find any value in me?
Worse than the tweet that said I only won a prize because someone was “stung by gender diversity issues and trying to redress the balance”.
Worse than having someone tell the crowd at the bar that “I’d better cover up my pint, otherwise Liz might want to drop rohypnol in it.” (This comment was freakishly out of the blue, I promise. We had no history of intimacy. We had no CoC either. He doubled-down when I told him it wasn’t funny. I have no idea why his head went there. It scares me more than a little. I try to avoid speaking to him these days.)
Worse than a long-term mentor telling me that I should “have more empathy” for that guy.
Worse than having someone touch my ass at the conference bar (kudos to the LASCOT conference organizers for the sensitive handling of that one; CoCs rock).
Worse than all the other things.
It was a long time ago, that worst thing.
I keep thinking that maybe I’m lucky it wasn’t worse.
I keep thinking that maybe one day I’ll be old enough that it will stop happening to me.
I keep thinking that maybe the world will be better, and it will stop happening to anyone.
12 years later, it hasn’t stopped.
Maybe I need to write a post after all.