Beauty and the Invisible Beast
Growing up with Sexual Harassment
When I was a junior in high school, two boys from my almost entirely male robotics team broke into my bedroom and took pictures in sexual positions naked on my bed. They tried on my bras and underwear, played dress-up in my sleepwear, and caught it all on camera. As a parting present, they set up my figurines and stuffed animals to hump each other.
When the photos made their way to my phone, I was at robotics practice with the team. They texted them to me and paid a freshman to videotape my reaction, which wasn’t pretty. As soon as the lab settled down, I ran away to an empty math classroom and cried for hours. I remember sitting there, unable to figure out why I was upset. When I was done crying, I picked myself up, went back to practice, and continued as if everything was okay.
At the time, I was 16 and pretty innocent. I was the youngest captain of Massachusetts’ largest public school robotics team, and I didn’t have time for silly things like romance (oh, how times have changed). I’d never been kissed (simmer down, peanut gallery), much less had sex, nor did I spend much time thinking about these things. Seeing these photos was jarring and surprising, but more importantly, hurtful. They were hurtful in a way I wouldn’t understand until years later, as I grew up and acknowledged their implications more and more.
I never reported those boys because I didn’t know what sexual harassment was. I didn’t know that I had justification to report them. My male co-captain told me that there was nothing anyone could do for me because what happened wasn’t necessarily bad. That I needed to grow up and move on. I respected him immensely, and so I listened and did just that. It is one of my biggest regrets.
That summer, I finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of flight. Unable to pay for lessons, I took a line crew job at a local airport and spent my summer fueling, washing, waxing, and maintaining aircraft in exchange for flight time. It should have been a dream come true.
It should have, but it wasn’t. Countless days as I drove home from the hangar, I found myself crying over something that I didn’t understand, although it was something that I’d felt before with the photo incident. I felt alienated, put down, and alone. During my first week I pulled up to a hangar in the fuel truck, only to be turned away because “No f*cking way is some chick fueling my plane.” One of the flight instructors (who was later fired) constantly talked about women being nothing more than strippers and prostitutes.
Aviation is one of the most sexist industries I know of. Less than five percent of commercial pilots are women, and it’s not hard to see why. The sexism is in your face and aggressive; the stories my aviatrix community share belong in horror movies.
My summer at the airport would later save my engineering career. My experiences on the robotics team were finally put in perspective, and sexual harassment was now at the forefront of my mind. Suddenly I looked back and understood that so many of the comments, subtle actions, and negative gestures I had taken personally were really just a more subtle form of sexism.
I graduated high school and went on to become an engineering student at Case Western Reserve University. I was resolved to be the best engineer that I could become, no matter what anyone had to say about my womanhood. I founded a tech startup and learned what sexism looks like in the business world. I’d always enjoyed “feminine” things, like Disney princesses and fierce winged eyeliner, but now my femininity was an act of rebellion — I could be a successful engineer and entrepreneur in spite of being all the things that stereotypes say I shouldn’t. Women can be powerful, no matter how they choose to present themselves.
So it was with great disappointment that shortly after my Kickstarter was funded, I found myself the subject of a number of disgustingly sexist Tweets:
That’s a pretty tame one, comparatively speaking.
Or better yet:
And because a picture’s worth a thousand words, there’s also an edited photo of me with drawn in devil horns, nipples, and arrows pointing toward my boobs, with the caption, “SUPERCILLUOUS [sic] SLUT.”
Slut shaming is just one weapon of many I’ve found pointed at me. Women who are too feminine — if not seen as weak or inept — are frequently assumed to be using their bodies and their “feminine wiles” to seduce or sleep their way to the top. It’s the ultimate tool used against women — villainizing feminine qualities and creating a perceived norm where the only way to do good, honest, work is to scrub it of all femininity.
I refuse to “act more like a man” in order to achieve legitimate and respectable success in the professional world. I happen to be someone who embraces her femininity and feels powerful in cute shoes and sparkly makeup, and I don’t see how any of that makes me less of an engineer. My Twitter critic chose to use this against me.
The account was made anonymously, but a court subpoena (and several months of back and forth with Twitter) has revealed it was a fellow female engineer who resents what she perceives to be my success at the expense of her own and the success of other hardworking women.
Hearing these sorts of remarks from someone who has undoubtedly endured her own fair share of hardships is disheartening, and a cruel reminder that even women who are ambassadors for prominent women-in-tech organizations are not immune to the hate speech we frequently find ourselves victims of.
Part of the issue is our societal focus on gendered accomplishments. Who was the first woman in space? First woman to fly across the Atlantic? You know who Grace Hopper and Marie Curie are because they’re women — otherwise, they would simply be prominent pioneers known only by others in their field. If we are only celebrating the first woman to accomplish something, we can’t be surprised at the draw to tear other women down.
The culture of dominance and aggression towards women is so pervasive that even competent, self-empowered women can be drawn into the trap of attacking each other for their accomplishments. My anonymous Twitter critic isn’t my enemy here — the real enemy is a culture that forces us into competition with one another and conditions us to believe that one woman’s achievement is another’s failure, a culture that normalizes scrutinizing a woman’s sexuality over her work. The truth is that we all rise or we all fall together; infighting will only make us lose sight of what’s important.
When I read those tweets for the first time, I felt like I did the day the robotics boys violated my personal space, or the day I was sent away from the hangar for being a girl. I felt like a fraud, that I didn’t deserve the things I had — despite having worked endlessly for them. Luckily I have practice at dealing with harassment — I know when to stop reading the comments section, how to ignore creepy messages, and to turn to trusted people for help — but not all women do. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if this were my first time.
Despite this all, I have nothing but love for the women-in-tech community that I met the Twitter harasser through. These women have given me the support I needed to launch my company, the strength and confidence to build it, and the endless love I needed to pursue it. As I traveled across the country raising money for my startup, women I’d never met opened their doors and offered me their guest beds and couches. They connected me with engineers to hire and shared and supported my Kickstarter campaign when I needed them most.
It’s not just women either — there are countless male allies and mentors in my life I couldn’t be here without. My first investor defended me as a fledgling founder when much of the Northeast Ohio startup ecosystem scoffed at a 19-year-old biracial girl starting a tech company. My academic advisor has gone to bat for me many times as my university has learned to grow into a place where student entrepreneurs are genuinely welcome.
Although my initial reaction to these Tweets was one of sadness and anger, I have since come to realize that this is most likely a woman with good intentions whose energies have been misguided by an adversary that we share. I am troubled that misogyny is so pervasive that it takes poisonous root even in the minds of women, but we can’t afford to let that divide us. We need to keep moving forward, making our own choices, and celebrating one another so that we can all fly together.
Call to Action
If you read this and felt moved enough to do something, here are a few suggestions near and dear to my heart. If you can, support the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) by either adding them as your Amazon Smile recipient or visiting www.ncwit.org, and be sure to encourage any high-school aged women in your life to apply. NCWIT has been one of the most supportive and influential networks of my career.
If you are an accredited investor, put your money where it matters! If you don’t have the confidence or expertise to invest in individual companies, invest in funds that do a good job of maintaining a diverse portfolio. I’m of course biased towards Flashstarts of Cleveland — my first investors and the one in Ohio willing to take the risk on my crazy idea. Not only that, but their investing team is majority female and I graduated in their accelerator class with four female founders, one black male founder, and one white male founder. They take incredible care of their founders — even offering to safely house me when the Twitter harasser published my address encouraging strangers to rape the girl living there. Other funds (older and larger) that I’m a big fan of are 1517 (this is their Medium account) and Drummond Road Capital — also based here in Cleveland. Both have women on the investing teams and diverse portfolios.
About the Author:
Xyla Foxlin is the Founder and CEO of Parihug, a company focused on integrating emotions and technology to create a fuller digital experience. Parihug launched a Kickstarter campaign in April with their first product, Pari, internet connected plushies that let loved ones hug each other from thousands of miles away. Xyla is also the host of Beauty and the Bolt, a youtube channel with the goal of sharing that #BrilliantIsBeautiful. She lives in Cleveland and attends Case Western Reserve University.