Part IV: A Tale of Three Harassments — The Aftermath
What it Feels Like to be Sexually Harassed at the World’s Most Prestigious Security Conference
A Metta Space Article Series: Part IV of IV
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Three tales of harassment. Three tales of sexism. Three days of the Munich Security Conference. I was beaten. Or so I thought. Sitting in the cloak room crying, not understanding how everything had gotten this far. Not understanding why this environment was so toxic. Putting the blame on myself, thinking I had been too flirtatious, too outspoken, too forward — disclaimer: sexual harassment is never your fault!
Luckily, there was one nice volunteer who walked into the cloakroom that night and saw me. Visibly upset, he asked me what had happened. Embarrassed about the other two stories, I told him about the last act of harassment I had experienced with Harry. He told me to sleep on it, to not confront it when I’m visibly upset and could be seen as “weak”.
However, he did encourage me to come back the next day. This was after I told him I wanted to quit then and there. Because, sidenote, this is one of the classic aftermaths of sexual harassment: those who have experienced it, often quit, seeing it as their only resort. And that is a direct consequence of the lack of control this working environment has over sexual harassment. We believe the environment will treat us, the harassed, worse than the harasser.
This volunteer therefore encouraged me to confront the harasser myself. He told me that I had to muster up the courage to tell the man who physically sexually harassed me, that what he did was inappropriate, unprofessional and completely unacceptable. He especially told me that I had to be the one to tell him — because this way he, the older seemingly more powerful man, would understand that he cannot treat the young, seemingly less powerful woman like that. Ever.
That next day, with a massive headache and a nausea I could feel to my toes, I mustered up this exact courage, and confronted my harasser. His response was a classic “I was so drunk I don’t even remember, I’m sorry”. It did not seem genuine, it did not seem truthful. Instead, he seemed embarrassed to be reminded that he tried to hit on a girl and failed. His apology? He tried to introduce me to every person in his network, as if that would make up for his behaviour.
As for me? Yes, I felt empowered, of course. I had stood up to a harasser, a sexist, a misogynist. But I still didn’t feel like I had stood up to the whole system yet. The entire weekend I had been faced with sexual harassment, sexism, misogyny and discrimination. My body and mind felt defeated, as I had to fight off one harasser, one sexist, one misogynist after another.
I felt that while I had ensured that possibly one man does not act in this way with the next female volunteer, I saw the others who would continue this behaviour. The journalist. The female colleague. The other male volunteers.
Instead of just telling off one man, I felt like I wanted to make sure that no other woman would ever experience what I had experienced. I felt the need to protect these other individuals that might face this kind of sexism, discrimination, harassment.
I will say this though. About 5 months after the conference, I spoke with the supervisor of the volunteers. He asked me about my experience, and I told him about my story with Harry. He was completely taken aback, not believing what he was hearing. Of course, on the one hand, that surprise is good, because it means the person who has a position with more power would not think of acting in this way himself.
But on the other hand, it meant that he had no idea what was going on right under his watch. That he was not quite aware of the consistent sexism, discrimination and harassment that many of the volunteers, and I am sure attendees and journalists as well, were experiencing. And that is dangerous. Because that nourishes and fosters the exact environment in which sexual harassment can occur.
Which is why I am here today. Four years later. Still deeply affected by the trauma I went through. Still worried about the women who face the same harassment and discrimination as I did. Still feeling breathless and anxious just thinking and writing about the experience. But still feeling like this story is important enough to tell, believing that by speaking up, by telling my story, other women might relate and share their stories too.
But apart from sharing stories, raising awareness, and empowering others, a further reason why it is so imperative to talk about sexual harassment, is to ensure that a system will be put in place to train employees on what harassment is. On what is appropriate, and where they have to draw the line.
To encourage employees to speak up and report, no matter how small the incident. Because if it feels wrong, it is wrong. To check up with employees after they have left the conference, asking what their experience was. Collecting and analysing that data.
But none of that was done at the Munich Security Conference, and I think it should be done.
Because isn’t it ironic that in the largest security conference in the world, one woman can feel so unsafe? Isn’t it ironic that whilst state leaders discuss how to securitise their defence, women have to be putting up their self-defence mechanism to avoid harassment? Isn’t it ironic that whilst ministers argue about the best weapons system, women are pulling out all their weapons to fight off sexism?
Because that is what we do. Instead of feeling safe, we put up our arms. And not just our physical arms when we have to push someone away or off us who is sexually harassing us. Our metaphorical arms. Our deflective mechanisms, our politeness, our covering up to not look too sexy.
When instead, we should be arming ourselves with different weapons altogether. Our self-confidence, our respect, our dignity. Our rhetoric to call out sexist behaviour. Our speeches when we report sexual harassment. Our power, because we are women who will not be silenced.
So what now? I want to make it clear: I wrote this article not to necessarily expose the sexism that occurs at conferences, such as the MSC. We know this occurs. Unfortunately, every space that is filled with male dominance is also filled with these kinds of occurrences.
Rather, I wrote this article to give a personal detailed experience of how sexual harassment can manifest in these kind of spaces. Because when you experience sexual harassment you start seeing it differently, perceiving it differently, defining it differently.
Those who have experienced it, are far more perceptive to it. But it isn’t even just the harassment. It is the consistent sexism that we, as women, have to deal with on a daily basis. For the simple fact that we are women.
The Munich Security Conference is one of many examples in which these instances occur. We need to understand that the problem is deep-rooted, and needs to not just be addressed and dealt with once it manifests, but be prevented and proactively eliminated before it occurs.
We need to have systems in place to ensure that this, and any kind of harassment and discrimination, never occurs. Not just because it can have legal and financial consequences, but because it causes trauma and affects people’s well-being, performance and work.
But, in the end, maybe one good thing was born from this experience — I’m now the Head of Research & Development at Metta Space, a Deep Tech B2B platform eradicating sexual harassment from the workplace.
Thank you for reading, and we hope to have empowered and encouraged you to tell us your story. #ShareYours
Written By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of Research & Development at Metta Space Edited By: Eleanor Manley, Chief Technology Officer at Metta Space