The journey of going public (with sexual discrimination)
Talking about what no one wants to talk about
It has been one of the craziest and most unexpected few weeks of my life, all sparked by a ‘special’ email I received about a month ago. It included just over 10 words. Yet, the email itself and me deciding to become comfortable talking about it, has led to quite some public discussion.
What follows is a basic recount of my experience — but more importantly, an emphasis on using this incident to promote positive change that will minimize, not promote paranoia.
The email ignited a roller coaster of emotions. It was sent to me by someone that I had met at a networking event tied to a tech conference in Berlin.
On the surface, it felt like any other typical business encounter. We had a purely work-related conversation, including topics such as our respective professional backgrounds, where we were based, women in tech, and the importance of running companies lean as well as failing fast. All in, the conversation lasted for about 20 minutes during which we consumed a drink each and ended the conversation by exchanging business cards.
But when I came home later that evening I had an unexpected follow-up email waiting for me. I anticipated something to be awry when I glanced at the subject line which read “I like you a lot”.
This did little to prepare me for the rest of the email — which proclaimed: “Hey G. I will not leave Berlin without having sex with you. Deal?” followed by a link which included the sender’s professional details, reminding me that he was an angel investor and mentor. I required multiple confused double-takes to confirm that my eyes weren’t playing a trick on me.
Thick skin, but maybe not thick enough
Having worked in male-dominated industries for more than 6 years (finance and tech), I am used to a lot. And while perhaps not optimal long-term solutions, I have done just fine by avoiding certain kinds of people, or simply anticipating questionable behavior and calling it out when it does happen. This contributes to me usually not having any issues engaging with men in a work context.
However, this particular email caught even me off-guard due to its crassness and the given business context.
The feelings ranged from absolute disbelief, to shame and guilt over whether I had accidentally indicated mixed messages to him, to me feeling deeply offended and somewhat violated. And all along, I kept worrying that I was overreacting, it was ‘just an email’ after all…
I work extremely hard; so much so that I have lost several friends in the process of doing so, and even keep contact with my parents to a bare minimum. I do this so I can truly focus on my (albeit possibly untraditional) career goals. I am well aware that I am operating in a man’s world. For this reason, I have been partially compensating for this by attempting to leave no doubt in my professional dedication and efforts.
Yet, suddenly staring at this email that was crudely demanding sex from me, after a professional interaction, was a slap in the face and reduced my hard work to nothing more than my vagina…
Having to see this man continuously at the conference the next two days did not help. What did help ease my worries around this encounter being self-inflicted, was that I found at least one other woman who not only had received the exact same message but was also struggling with the same mixed feelings I was.
While I tried to avoid him during those days, there was a moment when he suddenly appeared next to me. I seized this opportunity to tell him: “That email was inappropriate.” He reacted by turning away from me, deciding his efforts were better placed striking up a conversation with my female friend standing next to me. He asked her how her food was that she had just picked up. We both instinctively turned around and just walked away.
These events would not let me go…especially, because I had previously experienced a similar situation that was not fleeting like this one, but rather had lasted over the course of an entire year. In hindsight, I wish I had called out this male colleague on his behavior. Instead, I remained silent for a long time and thus, declared it an acceptable way to interact with me. Back then, my default was to not take action, and it had not only left that situation unresolved, but also found a way of repeating itself yet again.
Never a victim
Friends that I initially told about the email all reacted very similarly — somewhat shocked (“Wow, that’s bad”), followed by silence. They felt noticeably uncomfortable talking about the topic, and I don’t blame them.
After all, there are few practical solutions a friend can provide beyond an awkward condolence. The current options for behavior that is not outright illegal are far too limited, as well as promise much more downside than potential upside. Amongst others, the onus remains on the woman to provide evidence, and we carry a big risk of being labeled as a troublemaker, or worse.
These reactions contributed to my worry that I was overreacting. But as I still was not able to stop thinking about what had happened, I started racking my brain on what I could do to deal with this inner conflict.
All along, I kept hearing Eleanor Roosevelt’s words in my head: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Easier said than done
Since I was unclear on the alternatives to doing nothing, I ended up with an unintended, very unexpected, multi-stage process which lasted for about a week. It was a mixture of me determining how inappropriate the email actually was, and an effort to crowdsource possible ways to deal with this situation:
I started out with an anonymous blog post, then talked about the incident in a closed Facebook group I share with fellow women in tech, followed by a post about the incident on my Facebook wall, which then consequently led to me sending a group email to the 8 accelerators he was mentoring at and a publication of which he was contributing to.
All along, I made a conscious effort to stay away from pointing fingers and instead focused on trying to find solutions. I also made the decision to not disclose the sender’s identity.
Nonetheless, each time I took action it felt incredibly uncomfortable and involved massively questioning myself, on top of taking up a lot of time and energy.
The power of social media
Yet, after every time I did take action, I felt stronger about continuing with my search for answers as more and more women came out with similar stories. In addition to spreading the story further via social media, there seemed to be something about me taking the initiative of launching a public group discussion, that made more individuals comfortable talking about their experiences. Sadly, most of these were stories of regret — as they had not taken action, but wished that they had.
There were just as many men who not only shared the sentiment but also felt even stronger than most of the women about the need to speak out. Some went so far as to suggest “Go to the police” and “You have to disclose the name.”
Only then, did I truly realize that I was not only silly for allowing myself to feel ashamed in that situation— but that I had an important responsibility to feel comfortable speaking publicly about what happened. All of this contributed to me sending the open letter to the accelerators.
After reaching out to the accelerators, I felt for the first time that I had done ‘enough’. I had made the accelerators aware of the occurrence of such behavior and the lack of ways to deal with it. At a minimum, I hoped this would at least lead to some internal discussions.
To cap things off, I confirmed in writing to the sender of the email that there was indeed no deal. He first wrote back with an apology — but followed it up shortly after with an email asking if we could be Facebook friends. This prompted me to remind him once again that his original email was inappropriate.
And this was finally the end of the story. Or so I thought…
The media gets involved
What followed was about a month of silence; until the issue came up again via a Twitter conversation. I was asked if I would be willing to share my story with a reporter. It did not take long for me to agree.
This happened right after a series of reports about how other women were not comfortable associating their names to their respective plights. These stories had worried me and I felt uncomfortable contributing to this unhealthy, albeit understandable trend — no matter the potential repercussions. All I was doing was ‘admitting’ to having received an email, wasn’t I? Why shouldn’t I be comfortable talking to him? I also felt ‘lucky’ that I wasn’t actively fundraising, hence, felt that I had less at stake than many other women in similar situations. This only increased my sense of responsibility to speak out.
When the reporter and I finally hopped on a call, I realized that he had done his homework; he had succeeded at uncovering the sender’s name. This was a major reality check. It became very apparent what I was committing myself to by talking to this man, by deciding not to be silent to anyone asking me about what had happened. I mentally prepared myself for the absolute worst, including the way the reporter might decide to portray me in his article. I had what felt like multiple mini heart attacks leading up to the release of his piece— but I never once questioned my decision to talk to him.
I was incredibly relieved once I first read his article and realized that he had not used this opportunity to misrepresent what I had said. Instead he pushed hard for bringing overall awareness to situations like I had experienced. His piece kicked off a series of follow-on pieces which also included coverage of the second woman coming out with her story, as well as the sender of the email then publicly apologizing and identifying his actions as inappropriate by going on record for saying: “I know it was wrong. What I did was stupid” as well as “I regret it fully and apologise fully.”
Most amazing support
I cannot thank everyone enough for the encouragements that going public with my story has garnered. I hope it inspires others to not only take action as well, after witnessing my story, but also to do so with even more determination than I originally planned.
With anything we do in life, there will always be critics. However, this can’t keep us from doing what we believe to be the right thing. As Ludacris wisely said: “Why tiptoe through life to arrive safely at death?”
On the topic of critics — I have to add that there is a big difference between solution-focused constructive feedback (always grateful for this) vs. outright attacks. In the case of the latter, what I experienced was that the vast majority of attacks did not make any logical sense and were nearly exclusively written by people that just seemed to be very, very angry. The first comments initially stung, but the more I thought about the comments and the motivations for sending them, the more the feeling returned that I was doing the right thing for the right reasons. I not only became immune to the attacks but my resolve increased with each one of them.
“It is not the critic who counts…” — Theodore Roosevelt
After all, it should be the actions that become taboo, not the act of talking about them.
NO thank you to paranoia
In the startup world, there aren’t fewer rules than in other areas of business. However, breaking rules can in fact be a necessity for startup entrepreneurs. Also, work and play overlap more often than they do in more traditional industries. These are things that add vibrancy to the industry and they are facets I personally love about startups.
Rather than this incident causing paranoia, it is my hope that it will counteract such by allowing us to become more comfortable with taking responsibility for actions and feelings, as well as communicating and listening accordingly — all with the purpose of finding solutions to the trickiest of situations, together.
We all make mistakes. But they can only become learning opportunities if we are comfortable helping each other identify them as such.
Socializing = important
One thing I am certain about, is that men and women cannot be completely barred from discussing work (if they are actively fundraising, or not) over a cocktail or two. This not only is commonplace for how business is conducted, but it is in these moments that business relationships can be truly enhanced.
This socialization allows individuals to connect on a deeper, more personal level, and it certainly is how many men are able to conduct business with each other. It goes without saying, that it is harmful for society as a whole if women are prevented from realizing their professional potential.
There should be room for love
Men and women are different. And there are certain behavioral patterns that are more commonly found in one vs. the other gender (partially purely due to evolutionary reasons) — but this can never provide an excuse for compromising behavior. Nonetheless, I actually believe there can even be a place for romance in a work setting. After all, we all know of the happy couple that met at the office. But a line is certainly crossed when sexual desires or gender bias impede the ability of another person to conduct business or feel respected as a human being.
What exactly defines inappropriate behavior then? This a blurry line, and to complicate things, it can mean very different things to different people.
I believe the following to be a general rule of thumb: If you would be mortified if your behavior was exposed on social media, it probably was not appropriate…
Thank you, Internet
I am still shocked about how many individuals have since played a part in this journey, all thanks to the power of the Internet and social media. The story took a life of its own that would not have happened without the existence of Facebook and Twitter.
We live in a truly uber-connected world, and it is up to us to use this to try to promote positive change. It is my hope, that in a year from now, we can say with conviction that this story will have done exactly that. I am certainly far from having all the answers and will never claim that I do. But I do hope that this series of events will contribute to all of us becoming more comfortable talking about this difficult topic, and moving forward, will provide a building block for us to initiate change.
While I believe this media-enabled public discussion was very important, this whole experience also opened my eyes to how backward we in fact still can be when it comes to women in the workplace.
In hindsight, I am shocked about the different thought processes that went through my own head, as well as how newsworthy my going public was in this time and place.
I hope we will have a lot more women — and men — speak out, in addition to having more straightforward ways to deal with such situations, so that a story like mine will no longer be news.
In terms of actual solutions, beyond more public discussions, I believe these will likely need to be aided by some form of centralized third party that both women and men can reach out to. I envision this third party having the responsibility to maintain a database, as well as determining what defines compromising behavior and potential consequences in the form of a protocol. I am barely scratching the surface of this topic in terms of solutions. However, rest assured that I have not only heard of several similar ideas being discussed but also acted on, and I am more than hopeful that we are all contributing to seeing real change soon — so stay tuned!
All thanks to you
While the focus in this incident has been on a few select individuals (including myself and the other woman who ‘came out’), I cannot even begin to emphasize how much of a group effort this has been. It were friends, family, strangers, YOU, who encouraged and supported all that has happened on this journey — be it in person, via email, social media comments, reading of the articles or this post, Tweets, Facebook likes, and so much more. None of this would have been possible without you. Thank you!
“Be the change you wish to see” — Mahatma Gandhi
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