It was near the end of my contract when it happened. I had been working with the team for five months. I knew that he had a problem with me, but I kept a cool, friendly, and professional distance from him in the office.
I didn’t say anything when he asked to see review my work then presented my ideas as his at team meetings.
I didn’t say anything about his inability to lead and delegate.
I didn’t say anything, until that day.
I was sitting at my desk. The office was mostly empty. Including him and I, there were a total of four individuals in our little corner of the office. One of them sat across from me, and the other sat in the corner of the office behind me.
You never really know how to react to situations like that.
One second, he was standing behind me having a conversation with our co-worker who was sitting across from me. The next second, he had placed his hands on my neck. He intended it as a joke, some sort of comedy that used my body as a prop.
I told him to let go of me.
I told him to let go of me again. This time, I told him to let go of me because I was ticklish.
He let go.
I didn’t know why he needed a reason to let go of me, especially one as awkward as being ticklish.
I wish I could say that the story ends well. That there was some sort of accountability. But I won’t indulge you in fairy tales.
Over the next few weeks, a variety of explanations were thrown out. You have to treat some men like kids. It'st just a fun office culture. He didn’t mean it.
I didn’t come back after the end of my contract.
I was eighteen when it happened, and I don’t think about it much now. When I do, I get angry. I feel invaded and weak and used. Eventually, I get over it, and the war continues.
I had met him the day before my workshop during breakfast at the conference. As I mentioned earlier, it was one of the first conferences that I went to so I eagerly jumped on any opportunity to “network” with anybody. We chatted about his work and my workshop. Like most casual conversations, it came to a natural end, and I walked away to find a quiet place to work. He followed me to the high table that I found and sat in the seat adjacent to me. It felt a little weird, but I figured that I shouldn’t make a big deal about it. I focused on my laptop and tried my best to dissuade his attempts to start a conversation.
The next day, out of the blue, he sprung up behind me while I was in line at the breakfast buffet. It was unexpected, and I jumped a bit. He noticed but didn’t say anything. He asked if I was ready for my talk and I told him I was. I ended the conversation and tried to walk away. He tried to follow me again, not walk alongside me but follow me from behind. I decided to walk through a crowd of attendees to lose his trace.
I knew it wasn’t right. It crossed the line from friendly to predatory. I spent the rest of the conference trying to avoid him. I took different routes from each of the sessions. I arrived at meal lines during peak times so that I could hide amongst the throngs of attendees.
Ever since then, I’ve maintained a cool, distance to most strangers I meet at a conference. I’m sure that some individuals confuse it for arrogance or bitchiness or something. For me, it’s a line of defense in a world that constantly feels like a battlefield.
It was one of the first presentations I gave at a tech meetup. This was back when I was really into data science. I had given an introduction to machine learning talk and was mingling with some of the attendees after the presentation.
I fielded a few quick questions here and there until the line dwindled to one person. He carried a laptop with him and had a question about a code snippet that wasn’t executing due to a runtime error. I looked through the code for a little bit and pointed out his mistake. He thanked me profusely, and I recognized his thanks.
“Can I take you out for coffee as a thank you?” he inquired.
“No, no. It’s alright. I’m happy to help,” I responded.
“Oh no, I insist.”
“Thank you, but I cannot.”
“Are you sure?” he pleaded.
“Yes, it’s no worry.”
I played naive and sweet to his inappropriate persistence. I never saw him again. It was one of the first of many instances where men crossed the line between professional and romantic. It still catches me off-guard.
It’s one of those situations that adds unnecessary cognitive load. Here I was, thinking about work when I’m confronted with this awkward social interaction. I have to dedicate a lot of mental and emotional energy to figure out the best way to deal with that situation.
These stories are true. You might find some of them unsettling, some trivial, some infuriating, and some eye-opening. These stories and others are part of the tapestry of elements of my existence in the tech industry.
What do I need to deal with all of this? Some breathing room.