• Paula Koller-Alonso

Part II: A Tale of Three Harassments — Patriarchy has no Gender

What it Feels Like to be Sexually Harassed at the World’s Most Prestigious Security Conference

A Metta Space Article Series: Part II of IV

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The patriarchy is a constructed system that has manifested itself over centuries via male dominance that suppresses and subjugates the other half (and may I say, majority) of the population: women. Therefore, in spaces that are dominated by this patriarchy — which, let’s be honest, are almost all spaces that we know — this female suppression and subjugation is generated. And it tends to be generated in what we call sexism: prejudice on the basis of sex.

Sexism was present all around the Munich Security Conference. In the amount of women versus men who presented; in the masculine rhetoric on defence and security of the “fatherland”; in the ways that male attendees talked to female volunteers. I myself felt and experienced this kind of sexism on an hourly basis.

I was talked down to based on my gender. I was complimented based on my gender. Things were assumed about me based on my gender. I was offered experiences because of my gender. And I was sexually harassed because of my gender.

And that’s the thing about the patriarchy — it manifests itself in all different kinds of ways. It attacks you from all around if you are the subject of its repression, its oppression, and its subjugation. But more than that, the patriarchy is a system that tricks you by its name.

© Shutterstock

Because the patriarchy has no gender. Whilst it is the rule (archy) of the patria (father), it does not necessarily mean that those upholding this system are men. It means that those upholding the system, also uphold the values and norms allowing the patriarch to rule over everyone. Which is exactly what I realised in this conference, as much as I realised the prevalence of sexism and sexual harassment.

As much as men can talk down to me on the basis of gender, women can also uphold the sexist system that discriminates against women, by blaming each other for the faults of being women. As much as men can make me feel disgust by talking about my body in a sexual manner, women can make me feel outraged by “reminding me” where my place in the patriarchy should be.

In my case, the manifestation of this female sexism came on the third night of the conference. During the weekend, I was allowed to work the so-called “Atrium”, the heart of the venue, in which many people come and go before going into the main speaker aula.

I had the pleasure of working with a young man (let’s call him John) who, like me, was also interested in politics and we had energetic discussions about gender quotas (“But we should really hire on meritocracy” — “Well, meritocracy is biased based on homophily”), socialism and the future of Germany. All in all, a great colleague with whom I got along well.

Yet, what I didn’t realise, is that my seemingly friendly behaviour and great working relationship with John, was actually being watched, noted down, and judged by other colleagues. Female colleagues. By the third evening, a female colleague and superior pulled me aside to talk to me about my work behaviour. I thought she was going to compliment me on the hard and good work I was doing. After all, I was working my 42nd hour at this point over the span of my third day.

Apparently, while I thought I was being friendly and making great connections, everyone had been gossiping about my conduct in working with John. Instead of praising me for making good connections and working great as a team, I was told that I should reign in the “flirting”. That’s correct. My behaviour was noted down as being too flirtatious.

The Bayerischer Hof — Venue for the MSC (© Falstaff)

I was told that I should really stop “flirting” so much, because it was reflecting poorly on my professionalism. In that moment, I realised that my niceties and my friendliness were being misconstrued as something more, simply because I was a woman. I was shocked. Outraged. Flabbergasted.

Not just because of the fact that I was being accused of “flirting”, but because this came out of the mouth of another female colleague. Shouldn’t she know how often we have to deal with our actions being misconstrued? I’m not bossy, I’m bitchy. I’m not assertive, I’m aggressive. I’m not friendly, I’m flirty.

It does not matter what you look like, what you sound like, or where you come from. Every woman has had to deal with some type of sexism at work. Whether it is a comment about your body, the tone of your voice, or your background. So why aren’t we as women, as female colleagues, standing together in solidarity, breaking the sexist pattern that attacks us based on our gender?

Because the patriarchy has no gender. Because someone who upholds the patriarchy does not need to be a man. Rather, it is someone who benefits off of the system the way it is in place. A female colleague might have had a tough time fighting for her position, and does not want another woman to take it from her. A female colleague might be jealous of another woman achieving what she has not yet achieved. A female colleague might have inherent sexism within her, that makes her believe not every woman can do the job.

Just as much as a man can be sexist, so can a woman. And that is the type of sexism I faced. Instead of my colleague taking the gossipers aside and telling them that spreading sexist rumours is making their professionalism look bad, she told me that my friendly behaviour was making me look bad.

But what really shook me once I had time to ponder this interaction a bit more, was that this female colleague had pulled me aside and was telling me this “in confidence”. On a “from one friend to the next” basis. Because she thought she was doing me a favour by telling me what other volunteers had been “gossiping” about, instead of shutting down their inappropriate work behaviour of talking behind another colleague’s back.

But in the moment I was so taken aback, I could not react properly. Instead my first reaction was: “Have you told him this too?”. “No, of course not”. Right. Of course not. It was only me, the woman, upon whom the responsibility of this “unacceptable work behaviour” lied. More than that, she made it seem like everyone was only gossiping about me and my perceived behaviour. No mention of John.

In the end I was left with an unsettling feeling in my stomach. I accused John of spreading these rumours, and he told me he had not said or heard a single thing about this topic. Which meant that by the third evening, I was the only one left feeling like I had done something to damage my reputation, while the man was left unscathe. Seem familiar? It’s called the patriarchy.


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

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