Part I: A Tale of Three Harassments
What it Feels Like to be Sexually Harassed at the World’s Most Prestigious Security Conference. It can happen to anyone, anywhere. But it’s never too late to speak up about it.
A Metta Space Article Series: Part I of IV
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The University of Pennsylvania has recently stated that the Munich Security Conference is the world’s best think tank conference. For over 50 years it has been a standing tradition to hold talks on international security policy in the heart of Bavaria, Munich. The conference invites over ‘450 high-profile and senior decision-makers, thought-leaders from around the world, including heads of state, ministers, leading personalities of international and non-governmental organizations’ — and me.
In 2018 I was offered the opportunity to be a volunteer at this prestigious and high-ranking conference. I read the prospective attendants: Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden, Christine Lagarde. As an International Relations student, I was awe-struck. How could I say no to the opportunity to see these people in person, to hear them speak, to be in the same room when historic speeches are being made?
After a high-level security vetting process, and phone calls, I became a volunteer. I was thrilled. It was to start on February 15th, and I was booked for the whole weekend. I flew home from London, where I was studying at King’s College, got ready in my business attire, woke up at 6 am, and made my way over to Bayerischer Hof, the venue for the weekend.
In all my glory and pride I flashed my ID card, saying I had all-access to the entire premise. I won’t lie, it felt amazing having that kind of power. But that kind of power waned very quickly the minute I realised who I was. The minute I was reminded of what I was: a woman.
The Normalisation of Sexism
It was in February 2018, at the Munich Security Conference, that I was first made aware of the normalisation of sexism and sexual harassment at work. Because I experienced it. It started off what might, to many, seem “innocent”. What Metta Space calls the “grey areas”: staring or leering at my body and remarks about my intellect based on my gender.
But the sexism became louder as I began talking with the other volunteers who were working there, the majority of which were soldiers, or veterans, from the Bundeswehr (the German Army).
It was, as they loved to tell me, a manifestation of an “old-boys club”. From recently uncovered stories in different military bases around the world, we already know that armies do not have the best reputation when it comes to preventing or tackling sexual harassment. And the consequence of this normalisation of sexism and harassment in their ranks, was truly demonstrated to me at the conference.
Because I started to realise the deep-rooted sexism within the conference’s hierarchy speaking to some of these men. Speaking to them about my career, the conference or politics, comments were thrown at me, such as: “Well, you must have it easy, a pretty thing like you”, “Wow, four languages, that education, and that smile? You must have men lined up”.
Taking out my tool of deflective mechanism, that many of us women hold in our back pockets, I remained polite. Instead of calling them out on their sexual harassment, bias and blatant sexism, I did the classic polite chuckle or giggle, and diverted the conversation with: “Well, it’s not my looks that got me where I am”, or “Well, I’ve been blessed to grow up trilingual”. Better to deflect than to outright approach their sexism head on, right?
Unfortunately I was not aware yet of how wrong I would be. How this sexism would manifest itself in more than just biased and misogynistic comments. How this sexism would convert into sexual harassment and discrimination based on my gender. How this sexism would make me go from excited to desolate.
And I wonder to this day if maybe, just maybe, I would have outrightly approached and called out this sexism head on, from the very beginning, I would not be telling this story today. But unfortunately I won’t know. Because instead, I have been taught as a woman, that “boys will be boys” — even if their behaviour makes me feel disturbed. And that it’s better to stay silent than to “stir up trouble”.
And due to that learned behaviour, I have, alongside the rest of society, contributed to the normalisation of sexist behaviour, which often manifests itself into sexual harassment. But it’s time to fight back. I don’t take it as a coincidence that my first year of attendance of the MSC followed the year that the #MeToo movement changed the world.
Because it subconsciously gave me, and many women, the strength too, to take sexism by the horns, and fight against it. So this is what I’m doing today: fighting against sexism at any conference, at any workplace, in any environment, against any individual.
To read the rest of this story, await the next part of our series.
Written By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of Research & Development at Metta Space Edited By: Eleanor Manley, Chief Technology Officer at Metta Space