Earlier this week, I was discussing with some fellow women speakers about unwanted advances we have received from other speakers. It sparked a discussion about how many notable speakers in this industry sexually harass, degrade, and generally make women uncomfortable at events. What upsets me is that these men keep being allowed to promote themselves, be on these lineups, and perpetuate their same harassment. Even worse, when talking to trusted friends of mine (who are men) about these stories—many of them were completely aware that these men were dirtbags.
As a result of these discussions, I tweeted a screenshot I had received from a male speaker with a decent amount of notoriety. The screenshot is of him saying he wanted to see me naked. He had acquired my number through a mutual friend. He had sent me many texts like this over the years, particularly when we were in the same city or at the same event. While I tried to politely decline his advances, he was in a position of power over me in this industry. He said he knew my bosses, he knew where I worked, and he promised he’d help advance my career. I felt it best to stay in his “good graces” and not be flat out rude. I now understand how wrong this dynamic is. For 3 years in a row at the same event, he bothered me. He tried to get me to come to his hotel room. He started to get angry with me and reply with things like “fuck you” and sometimes up to 8 texts in a row when I wouldn’t reply or would decline. We haven’t spoken for over a year, as the last time I saw him I finally had the courage and support system to be direct, cold, and tell him to leave me alone.
For the past year, I’ve been speaking at a lot of conferences myself. It’s been exciting, fulfilling work. I like speaking, I like teaching, and for the most part I like participating in this industry. In the back of my mind, I knew the day would come where I would have to share a stage with the man who harassed me for 3 years. And that day has come.
My first instinct was to ignore it. As every woman will tell you—we get harassed. A lot. And we’ve conditioned ourselves to ignore it, because if we didn’t it’d be damn near impossible to leave the house. I was going to avoid him, or politely exit conversations if he was around. Through the discussions the other day, and my own stance against abusers still getting to participate and continually harass women in this industry—I decided to stand up for myself. I emailed the organizers, telling them the situation, and that I felt uncomfortable and unsafe at the same event as him.
This event has a Code of Conduct. They even reiterated their Code of Conduct to me in our email exchanges. What they failed to mention, and what I’ve gathered through their 2 days of “trying to figure out a solution” is that they are extremely ill-equipped to act on it. Now, I don’t want to argue for or against CoCs. They help some people, they don’t help others. In this particular instance, I would have been better off to ignore the situation than I was reporting it.
Many people I know are event organizers. They’re wonderful people. I trust the event organizers that I personally know, and I know they’d have my safety in mind. It’s not an easy job, and I commend that they are able to pull off wonderful events. I would trust talking to any of them about a situation I wanted to report. Where I don’t feel comfortable is telling all victims that they need to report every situation. It’s a big, daunting, and emotionally taxing situation. Not to mention risky and possibly even unsafe.
The organizers asked me to detail more about our past, and it seemed promising. They said they took it very seriously. They seemed to respect and listen to me, and I was hopeful this would end with me feeling safe. Their response was this:
“I’ve discussed the situation with our HR department and we would like to propose the following:
[Conference] will contact [Harasser] to let him know that this has been brought to our attention. We will explain to him that we operate a Code of Conduct and that we take these matters very seriously. As a result, we will give him a couple of options:
1. Remain on the program on the condition that he only attends the conference on the day of his talk
2. Pull out of the conference completely
We recognize that it is our responsibility to ensure no one feels uncomfortable or harassed at our events but we believe the fairest solution is to keep both of you on the program but ensure you are not in attendance at the same time. This effectively means you won’t be able to attend the last day of the conference and he won’t be invited to the speakers dinner. Please let me know if you feel comfortable with this approach or if you have any questions or concerns.”
So, I reported an incident. I detailed someone who harassed me, provided receipts of the sexual harassment, and you want to then tell him I reported him and stick us in the same hotel? While effectively punishing me and not allowing me to participate in part of the conference because I was on the receiving end of harassment?
This doesn’t quite add up. This response was incredibly alarming for several reasons, the main being my security. They put me at risk and rewarded someone with bad behavior.
This feels like when I would get sent home in high school to change because I had a bra strap hanging out and it was “distracting to boys.” My education and professional development is not worth as much as the money that a name on a lineup will attract. Not to mention the harasser has the option to participate or not—I was given no options.
Regardless of if we attend the conference on the same day or even the same dinner, we are both speakers who are staying at the same hotel. Angering him by having him know I reported him wouldn’t end favorably for me. I did not feel safe. I do not feel safe. Separating us like kindergarteners on a playground doesn’t fill me with the confidence that my safety is a priority.
And not just my safety, the safety of other speakers and attendees. I would almost guarantee that I am not the only woman he has said nasty things to while at events. But you’re still letting him participate in this community, in your event, and promote himself. And he’s not the only one. This shit happens over and over and over and over again. And eventually, people “just know” who is a dirtbag—and no one does anything about it. Alternately, speaking out is incredibly risky. I will not name names of both the event and the speaker, because I fear for my own safety and potential legal repercussions. I wanted to share my experience because I know we can do better, and we have to shine a bright light on the awful things to find a solution.
We have a problem. A really big problem. If reporting someone does nothing, if organizers are not fit to deal with these tough situations, and if no one is warning others of those who endanger our community—we’re going to keep losing a lot of really great diverse voices.
I pulled out of that conference. That event has lost a woman speaker while simultaneously promoting a dangerous one. Many events will continue to lose good diverse speakers unless everyone understands that we, as a community, need to protect and look out for each other. And share the burden of taking out the trash.