#MeToo as a Woman in Technology
Where do I start? I never wanted to write this story and I’m going to ask for your patience if this blog isn’t as polished as I would normally do. Instead of a braindump, this is a heartdump and I hope you’ll bear with me.
As always, this does NOT represent any organisation or entity other than myself. Note that THIS IS A TRIGGER WARNING and if you need to talk to someone, there are plenty of organisations that can help.
You can tell a lot about a girl from her shoes. Some women have too many pairs. I used to wear high heeled shoes that looked like the shoes above. Fun, delicate and feminine. I call this phase the ‘Before Girl’.
Then, something happened to me. Something bad. My ordeal lasted for about seven hours. I don’t want to recall the details; I will just leave it there. To this date, I am not really sure how I got out but I got help from a passing cab driver who thought I’d been hit by a car and he took me to safety. The ‘Before Girl’ died and she was left somewhere dazed and in the cold; the ‘After Girl’ was born.
Unlike the young lady who wrote her letter here, I didn’t have a cyclist or two to help me. I’m further on in life than she is, from her story, and I wish her the absolute best and her bravery has inspired me to speak here. She has been a lighthouse for me. I never knew the identity of the taxi driver but I am forever grateful; I do not believe that all men are bad, and I do think of him sometimes because he reminds me that there are good people out there.
So what happened after? It impacted everything. Probably the most visible change you’ll see are shoes. I began to wear shoes that meant I could run far and fast if I ever needed to, to get away. So I started wearing flat shoes or trainers or Doctor Martens. I do wear heels sometimes but I usually have ballerina wraps in my handbag; a silver pair or a black pair.
I decided that I was no longer going to live my life in fear; I’d had enough taken from me already. I don’t want to live my life in fear dressed up as practicalities. So I realised that my strength had to come from me. I did lots of things, namely, try to become the ‘Before Girl’ again and not the ‘After Girl’ that I’d become.
About 8 years ago, I started to speak at technical events because I wanted to tackle my fears head on: standing up in a room full of men, everyone looking at me. So my first session was one hundred people, and since then, I’ve spoken all over the world, and my largest in-person audience was over six thousand people. I did lots of technical community work and I began to find my home there; I found friendship, and men who treated me as a person and an expert as I proved over and over again that I could teach and be relevant. I stopped being this afraid thing. I also learned from other people and I found some healing from my experience, simply from being part of the technical community.
I want to deeply thank the informal tech community of Microsoft and the Tableau community for giving me the opportunities that you have, and for helping me to find some healing there from the mostly great people I met. I have given a lot, but you have given me far more than you will ever know. Thank you.
I didn’t want to write about it at all, but my hand has been somewhat forced. I talked to a few people I trusted, in confidence, because the current thinking is that you should share and talk about your experiences. We live in an Oprah society; we are all supposed to talk about things. That didn’t work for me at all. I soon found that my confidence was broken and that this story was being talked about. I didn’t want my struggles to be my story. I want to talk about my failures, achievements and successes instead.
After I realized that my story was out, I felt more stricken than I’ve done for a long time. I felt I’d travelled to a different country, and came back speaking a language which nobody else knew and it was my only way to communicate. I didn’t know how far my story had feathers which carried themselves on the wind, and I’d never be able to catch all of the feathers. I felt isolated from the community where I had been working to heal myself and try to bring the ‘Before Girl’ back to life again. So I decided, after months of deliberation, just to front it out and here I am. The #MeToo campaign helped me, and I hope that this will help you, too.
When you tell people that you’ve been attacked, they look at you differently. There is a ‘look’ that people seem to give you and you know that’s what they are thinking about. There are two voices inside your head, as a victim; the first voice talks about the facts and what happened, and those facts absolve me. The second voice talks about what society thinks of you; how you were to blame, how you are tainted, and how you will always be guilty and ashamed, and held accountable. It’s at this point that my mind throws up a lot of turbulence. I was worried that people would hold the second voice about me, but not the first; not the facts.
So when you are in a state of fear, and I can only speak for myself here, you end up freezing and your limbs become weak and your hands can’t move and your eyesight dim like you’ve been rubbing your eyes too much, your ears hurt and the world goes silent. Thing is, at first, your mind-numbing, screaming fear is that you are going to lose the war over your body. Then, you do. In horror, you watch yourself lose the battle over your own body. Your fear shifts and moves on. Your new fear is that you are going to die. There is always another rung to fall down.
If you have ever wondered what you think about when you are sure that you are going to die, then I can tell you with some certainty that you can only think of your loved ones and the loss that you are leaving behind, and how much grief that they are going to suffer and how changed they are going to be and how much you really really love them.
Truthfully, all that’s left of us at the end, is who we hold tight in our hearts.
So, after all that, the ‘After Girl’ was going to have to adapt. I’m still me and I’m still there, underneath it all. I still want to be part of the community and talk tech and share my passions for what I do. It’s a big risk to be seen as the authentic ‘you’ but I am taking this risk; I won’t lose anyone I’ve already lost, and I won’t gain people I don’t have, right now. It’s zero sum. What I will have, however, is that I’ve risked being ‘seen’ in order to try and do something good with this experience. Ultimately, I can’t win but I have to make the choices that are right for me.
I saw the #MeToo campaign appear and I thought it is finally time to knock this on the head. I want people to know I’m okay and that I’m still here and I’m still me. If I was going to have a nervous breakdown, I’d have done it years ago. I didn’t want this part of my life to be used as some confirmatory bias that I’m not okay, and potentially turn out to further isolate and even inadvertently discredit me. I have had my lesson in human cruelty and I got through it, and I’m much stronger than people seem to think.
So I’m getting out in front of it so that I take back some control and that people will talk to me about it, and not about me. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the #MeToo campaign. You have helped me feel less alone.
Honestly I don’t want my struggle to be my story, and I’m not sure how else to handle it. I’m fed up hiding and I’m fed up trying to catch feathers and I hope I can move forwards from here. I realized that I could live authentically as an imperfect person who wasn’t broken, but still shine brightly, casting out more light because of it. I’m hoping that other victims will find strength in themselves to keep going. I’m hoping more women will see that they have a home in the tech community too. I’m here, and you can be, too.
I’m also hoping that this will encourage new speakers. People sometimes tell me that they are ‘afraid’ to get up and speak. You’re not afraid; that’s privilege speaking from people who don’t really know what it means to feel fear. You might be nervous but you’re not in fear. If you want to speak, think about me; if I can do it, you definitely can.
I want to move past this, so let’s talk a little about what’s next for me?
I’m trying to set up a Diversity Charter so tech community orgs, such as user groups, can show that they are truly welcoming to people of different backgrounds.
I’ve also become attracted to thought leadership and I do industry analysis as a freelancer. I’m still interested in this part.
I’ll continue speaking for as long as people want to hear me.
Diversity is important to me because it means I can try to find something good with what’s happened to me. I know what it feels like to be powerless and have your voice taken away from you. I know how it feels to have a second voice talk over the first voice; hold onto that first voice. Ultimately, I want to be able to find some meaning. I’ll never be able to apologize to the women that were attacked after me since I was not the last in a line, it seems, and their experiences are a burden which I partially bear because I could not find the strength to speak out. If only I’d been more successful in getting my voice heard, their pain might never have happened. I’m doing it now because my voice is all I have. I want to try and make something good out of it. Diversity makes sense to make because it’s all about trying to make sure that everyone is included and they aren’t isolated from doing a job or a community activity that they love. And techies do love technology and everyone’s inner geek should be welcome.
What should you do if this happens to you?
These are just my opinions and they are given out of concern for your welfare:
Get yourself safe. Get away. I was too injured and distressed to do anything other than let the taxi driver help me into the car. I had no phone and my bag had disappeared so I had no money. I don’t recommend that you do the same thing; that’s just what happened to me. Call the police. They will never criticize you for it and neither will anyone else. That’s what they are there for. Use your cell and photograph everything.
Call the Police and get medical help and every bit of evidence you can. You got this. Police Stations are the loneliest places on the planet. So when the police are looking at you across the table, they ask you things like ‘why didn’t you fight back then? If you didn’t fight back then you didn’t really say no, did you?’ remember that they are dialling up the second voice by playing around with the first voice, and that’s why so few cases go to court. This is what happens — people mix the first and second voices. I hope that, if you go to the police, you will keep that in mind and you will will make sure that the first voice ring true and that your ‘Before Girl’ gets to speak. And take someone with you, if you can.
There are plenty of organizations that can help you e.g. In the UK, you can call the national Rape Crisis helpline (run by our member Centre Rape Crisis South London) on 0808 802 9999 between 12 noon — 2.30pm and 7–9.30pm every day of the year for confidential support and/or information about your nearest services. Put the number in your cell phone; if not for you, for someone else. Just in case. Oh, and that goes for guys, too; one of your female friends might need help someday.
If it’s a tech community event, tell the organisers but make sure you are safe first. Tell a friend. I put the police first since they can also help you out. PASS have the Anti Harrassment Procedure and I think that’s one of PASS’ greatest achievements. I think that other community events could adopt it although I’m not speaking officially for PASS here.
Don’t be hard on yourself. You got this and you’ll find unexpected friends along the way.
As for me? And maybe, one day, I’ll get back into high-heeled shoes for keeps.
The ‘Before Girl’ has gone and this is her obituary, but the ‘After Girl’ understands what it means to value life and the importance of leaving something good for other people.
Originally published at jenstirrup.com on November 8, 2017.