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Stalking in IT and how I stopped sexual harassment

I usually talk about product management, agile, and work-related culture. Unfortunately, there is no way to discuss culture while avoiding sensitive matters, like moral and sexual harassment.

In September 2015 I participated in an agile training and, as usual, was one of the two women in a class of 20. The situation is improving, though. I used to be the only one.

Afterwards, participants decided to exchange phone numbers to keep in touch through IM. I gladly volunteered my number, as all did. Why would anyone be against that?

What followed was a long series of unrequited attention from one of the participants, promptly responded with “look, you’re making me uncomfortable. Please stop”. Such explicit request should have been enough to make that man understand, right?

Of course not. He would alter talking about work and agile, his personal interests and asking about mine (while discarding them completely — for instance, he would insist on talking about how nice it would be to hike and do radical sports even when I told him several times I like staying at home and NOT practicing sports. His pick-up lines and “let’s get together” approach had an immense lack of empathy). This way, whenever I signaled he was crossing the line, he would say I misunderstood, even when he was asking for photos, which I refused, saying that was creepy — he knew me in person. Really? Photos?

After my refusal in sending photos, he decided it was a good idea to get them against my will, in my Facebook profile. He started posting them to me and making “compliments” about my appearance. Because yeah, that wasn’t creepy.

What people expect you to do when you tell a harassment story

At that point, most people think “why wouldn’t you take a more assertive action, from blocking him everywhere to pressing charges?” Well, that’s the problem with being a woman in tech: you’re outnumbered, and in every case I ever witnessed, no exceptions, the victim of harassment was at some point blamed for being stalked, and I didn’t think I would be able to deal with a witch hunt at the time.

What people expect you to do when the harassment story is about them or someone they know

So I put on my “be the change you want to see in the world” armor, and started explaining in the most professional way, why misogyny is a problem and what was wrong with what he was doing, only to hear him put himself miles away from “those sick people” that fail to respect women. I talked to my boyfriend about it, and he asked if there was anything he could do, but bringing another man in the equation would be to reinforce the problem, sending the message it was ok for him to harass a woman, as long as she didn’t “belong” to another man. That wasn’t good enough for me, so I had to find other solutions.

Everyday life, and worse for women in Tech

Eventually, he sent me another photo of myself, retrieved from Facebook, and commented “you like sex a lot, don’t you?”. I guess that was the rupture I needed. I told myself I could print that message and use it to defend myself if necessary, and I blocked him throughout social media. That obviously didn’t stop him, and he started sending text messages asking “why would you do this?”, “I didn’t think you were like this!”, to which I pleaded with him to get away from me, and when that didn’t work either, I said I had told my friends what was happening and if he didn’t respect my privacy I would be forced to talk to people in the training academy we met and in HR where he worked so he would stop.

When misogyny is at play, nothing you do is ever enough

And he stopped. For two months.

In January he sent messages through Facebook again (I had unfriended/blocked him, so I didn’t get the notifications, but I eventually found out about the messages), baiting me with “doubts” about some rape cases in Germany, asking if an unarmed man sexually assaulted a woman it would still be rape. I never answered. He kept sending messages every two months or so, and finally, due to some crazy update in Facebook, I got the notification and saw the whole history. Aaaaand I freaked out. This would never stop.

With a little help from my friends, I felt safe

So I devised a plan along with my few IT working female friends and my boyfriend. The key to stopping him in the past was exposure. So we would have to build on that to make him get the message.

I unblocked him and invited him to a group, including those friends. His last message said he wanted to talk, so I used his history of asking about agility and feminism as motive for providing him with a chance to absorb knowledge from experienced people — and that would have been completely doable if he decided to follow that path.

Instead he started the conversation by shifting the subject completely and telling my friends how he saw a “closed curtain” and that he wanted to help me deal with my family issues (that he never brought up during our conversations). He messaged one of my friends in private, painting a very disturbing image of myself as a troubled person that was in deep need of help, and himself as a concerned citizen, that had no romantic interest in me whatsoever, after all he had a fiancée.

Tell me more about that fiancée and how you’re a victim here

The important lesson I learned here and the hypothesis I validated was that when you are a woman in tech, you need support. Strength lies in numbers, and that puts all the odds against women in tech, because in a room with 18 men, the empathy will very easily fall with the male version of the story, no matter the screencaps, no matter the contradictions in his story or the fact that this exposure is awful for the woman as well. However, I put him in a group that knew what harassment looked like, and had experienced it themselves. For all the gaslighting he tried to pull off, for all the times he put himself as a misunderstood victim, my friends would try to reason with him in a non-agressive way and show they could see right through it. That gave me the psychological support I needed to counter each misdirection he threw at us with screenshots and proof. At some point we asked if we could send the message history to his fiancée, and also asked him how he felt. That’s when he started to say he was sorry, much in reaction to the suggestion of sending the messages to his fiancée.

After breaking his resistance in admitting there was a problem, empathy became easier. My boyfriend asked him if he ever felt stalked in the street, and he said no. Then he asked how would he feel if a man appeared in a dimly-lit alley wearing a shirt with his photo and saying “you like sex a lot, right?” He said that would be bizarre, and we finally got to tell him that wasn’t very far from what he did.

Friends will help you stand your ground

I may not yet be fully free of him and all the apprehension involved. I still believe he will resume some kind of contact. But I feel much more confident in being able to stand up for myself because of the support network my IT friends provided for me. So if you are ever in a situation like this, or if you ever see someone in that spot, remember: there is nothing more important than keeping that person sane. And the best way to do that is through non-aggressive, true empathic support.

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