#MeToo in the humanitarian world

#MeToo. I wanted to respond to this IRIN article, and the call to action on the Women in Aid site with a story from the tech and social change field.

At a conference in Sofia some years back a group of social entrepreneurs, including me, went out to bars and on to a club. I was flirting with this Silicon Valley-based guy I’d met earlier that day, until this English guy we were with took me aside and told me he’d said some horrendous things about his intentions and that I should steer clear. It was friendly, well-meant advice delivered tactfully and I appreciated it, and took it. I avoided the dude for the hour or so we were still there until it became clear he was drunk and becoming belligerent about my avoidance tactics. My English friend and I ended up giving him the slip and escaping back to the hotel in a cab, but not before he’d thumped the hood of the car in anger. Back in my room I went to bed and was woken an hour or so later by the phone. Someone had given my pursuer my room number. I put a chair in front of the door, unplugged the phone and went back to bed, pretty shaken. I didn’t see him again, but got a DM from him a few days later. ‘Great to meet you, hope we connect again’ or something like it. I couldn’t believe the audacity. Maybe he just didn’t remember. But I remember that my hands shook again in the same way they had done in the cab, the hotel room, and on the way out the next day as I wondered if I’d run into him again.

I have many more stories like that. I got bitten on the ear in an elevator once by the CEO of another company. Two friends and I were drunkenly berated in a bar in Cape Town by a well-known researcher for not being attracted to him. And of course — we don’t know what gets said when we can’t hear, how choices are made, how we’re diminished and objectified in settings that are supposed to be professional, particularly in the work hard play hard cultures we inhabit. But I think more generally, working as I do at the intersection of tech and social change/humanitarian work, I see over and over again that the default is male, white, cis-gendered and heteronormative. Women, non-cis people, LGBTQ people and PoC are exceptions and tokens. This is reinforced by our HR systems, our presentation styles, fundraising approaches, management structures…

At a conference recently I was struggling to put my finger on the well-meaning tone-deaf cluelessness of the senior white males who were so dominant in totally insidious ways in a conversation that was supposedly about shifting power. The analogy I came up with is that it’s like they grew up reading Rudyard Kipling and are blind to the colonial and racist nature of the stories and the writing. They can’t even see it. They’re starting from a viewpoint that makes them incapable of reframing their thought and action to the extent they need to. They need to get out of the way and give space to others. Instead they talk about others while refusing to give up the spotlight, leadership positions, and dominance in the discourse. This has to change if these big problems are ever going to shift meaningfully. We can have compliance and consequences but until the attitudes that create this behavior and condone it become anathema nothing will shift.