“What is this, church camp?”
Adventures (Minus the Sleepovers) in Sexism in Education Technology
I’ve had a version of this blog post in my drafts for almost a year now. At the time of my sexual harassment and assault, I was too ashamed and frightened for my and my company’s reputations to admit what happened to me. In light of recent events and the #YesAllWomen movement, I have decided to share my story.
In June 2013 I attended the International Society for Technology in Education conference (ISTE). While there I was sexually harassed by a male speaker and sexually assaulted by a male exhibitor. One is a popular conference speaker who is frequently featured as one of the most influential people in EdTech on Twitter. He’s also a principal. The other man is the founder and CEO of an educational technology company that raised one of the largest seed rounds in EdTech history. Perhaps you have read his feature in Forbes.
Sexual harassment at tech conferences is, unfortunately, a relatively ubiquitous experience for women- and it has the decent press coverage and anemic codes of conduct to prove it. Sadly, I’m used to attending tech events and having moves made on me after insisting for the hundredth time I was not just the significant other of an attendee, having inappropriate comments made about my appearance, or receiving backhanded compliments regarding my intellect and appearance. I was, however, shocked when I experienced some of the worst sexual harassment and assault I have ever encountered at ISTE.
Part of the shock is because the education sector is dominated by women. Based on a 2011 survey, 76% of public school teachers and 52% of public school principals are female. Of the 13,000+ ISTE attendees, the largest demographic was teachers (29%). Those figures made me mistakenly expect ISTE to be a female-friendly space.
I later checked ISTE’s policies. I guess they didn’t feel that they would need a line about sexual harassment. Although it should be implied by their policies for “treating other members of the ISTE community fairly and with respect” and “communicating professionally,” that was not what I encountered.
The night before ISTE started my colleagues and I went to a bar for the ISTE Unplugged (a pre-conference un-conference) after-party. At the after-party copious amounts of alcoholic beverages were consumed by all.
I saw a man I knew from another conference and we started catching up. It became clear to me that the conversation was taking a turn when the man said, “The last time I saw you I must have told you about 18 times I was single, but you kept blowing me off.” I swore he never told me that, but even if he had and I hadn’t reciprocated, he should have gotten the point.
“How old are you?” I asked him.
“How old do you think I am?” Red flag.
“34?” I guessed, hoping that the age difference between me (then 21) and him was narrower than I thought it was, so that this interaction would somehow be less inappropriate.
“Sure, we’ll go with 34.”
By the end of the night, he pulled a very intoxicated me to a side hallway to talk privately.
“You should come home with me,” he said.
[I honestly can’t remember what our conversation was about for the next few minutes because we kept getting interrupted, and because alcohol.]
“No, I’m going to go home.”
“You’re too drunk to drive home.”
“No, I’m going home now,” I said as brushed passed him. “I want to leave now,” I hissed to my colleagues. We left the bar immediately and I drove home (which was a terrible idea, and I should have never done so in retrospect) because the idea of driving under the influence was less scary to me than staying at that bar being badgered into going home with him.
The next morning I woke up to a DM from him: “Can’t believe you ditched me ☹.” I soon ran into him in a hallway. We proceeded with pleasantries like asking how each another were feeling after the raucous night out. After we both had expressed being exhausted, he declared “We should take a nap.” I said, “I’m so tired, that’s really tempting. But I’ll just get some coffee and I’ll be fine.”
He shook his head at me and laughed, “You’re not understanding me. We should go take a nap.” Oh. “My hotel is right around the corner. We could go there, take a nap, and then come back.”
“No, thanks,” I said.
“I’m not like that. I’m not in college anymore. I try to make good decisions.” [Note: My college activities- even bad decisions- didn’t involve sleeping with people, but that’s beside the point.]
“Why would this be a bad decision?”
“Because it’s not me. I’m not like that.”
“Come on,” he said, shaking his head “what is this, church camp?”
Clearly, the man had never been to church camp.
“I’m not going to sleep with you.”
“Why not? I would rock your world.”
“I’m sure you would, but I still won’t.” [Note: sarcasm]
“[Groans] Come on.”
“I’m not going to do it. I’m leaving now.”
I walked off fuming. After that conversation, the tension was so palpable that a colleague semi-jokingly remarked: “Either you have to fuck him, or kill him; there’s no way you two can co-exist.” I laughed about it, chose to do neither, and spent the rest of the conference actively trying to avoid him. We ran into each other leaving the conference. “It was good to see you,” he said half-heartedly. “Yeah, you too,” I mumbled. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other since.
As I was standing outside the convention center waiting to help my friends pack up their booth, a man I had chatted with about his company approached me and asked if I would be interested in grabbing a beer with him that night. I said yes, we exchanged contact information, and went our separate ways.
That night, we met at a restaurant and talked over a couple of beers about some of the major challenges in EdTech, fund raising, and our personal startup journeys. When the restaurant closed (since everything in downtown San Antonio closes early), we went to a dive-y metal bar he insisted was open and a good place. We got another round of drinks and talked about cultural differences, startup life, and politics. After round #4, I started to fell unwell. Drunken sickness was coming. I went to the bathroom, threw up, rinsed out my mouth, and returned to the table. He had ordered another round. I cracked open the beer partly out of politeness, and partly because I was hoping the beer would wash out the bitter acid taste in my mouth. I attempted my best to continue the conversation, but after five minutes of nodding, deep breathing, and worrying “If I open my mouth to respond, will I throw up?”, I excused myself and went back to the bathroom to continue my routine. When I reemerged from the restroom I found him sitting at the table with two oversized shots of whiskey. “I can’t drink this,” I told him. “I should go home.” “We can leave once you take the shot” he said. I grimaced, took the shot, and immediately went back into the restroom. As we walked out of the bar, he said “We should get you some coffee.” I agreed, and asked him if he knew anywhere that was open. “I know a place, just trust me.”
As we wandered around the Riverwalk for what felt like hours, I asked him “Where are we going?” “My hotel,” he said, “It’s nearby and they have a coffee bar.” I kept following him. I was so intoxicated and ill feeling, I couldn’t wait to sit down and have water and coffee. We went through the side entrance of the hotel and he pressed the button for the elevator. “Where are we going?” I asked again. He didn’t respond.
When the elevators opened, he lead me down a hallway and inserted his key card to what I discovered was his room. This is weird. Maybe he realized how late it was and that the coffee bar would be closed. Hotels have coffee makers in their rooms; it’s not that weird. “Here’s the coffee maker, but I don’t know how to use it” he told me. I went into the bathroom got a glass of water and started fumbling with the coffee maker. It finally started brewing, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, coffee. By the time I finish this cup and walk back to my car, I’ll be fine to drive home. “Why don’t you sit down?” he asked, motioning to the bed. There weren’t any chairs that I could see, so I sat down on the bed. He scooted in close to me and started kissing my neck and then my face. His kisses were sloppy and tasted overwhelmingly of cigarettes. He leaned into me and backwards, so we were soon lying on our sides. He started trying to undress me. He kept fumbling with my shirt buttons and trying to slide my shirt over my shoulders. Every time his hands moved away from my chest, I pulled my shirt back on and started buttoning. I repeated “no” as he kept attempting to undress me, with each “no” he became more aggressive. “Can’t you just take your skirt off?” he asked. I refused. He climbed on top of me- straddling me- and fumbled with my skirt some more. Thank god even my skirt is being uncooperative. He eventually became so flustered trying to undress me that he gave up the task and just pulled my underwear to the side. I kept repeating “no” as I started to cry. I turned my head during the whole encounter so I couldn’t watch him and he couldn’t watch me cry. After what felt like an eternity, I started feeling more sober and forceful. I mostly composed myself as I started repeating “you have to stop.” He finally relented right before he finished.
I went into the bathroom and turned on the sink so he couldn’t hear me cry or heave again. I blotted my skirt to remove any traces of him, and washed my face of my crying stains. I grabbed my purse to leave, and he insisted on walking me back to my car (because a girl walking alone at night might be raped or murdered, and I clearly needed his protection from that). He spent the walk back to my car talking to me about his travels and telling me that he hoped we would run into each other again. He told me that my interest in politics was the sexiest thing about me, and joked about meeting my parents. His words made me feel sicker than I already felt. I realized when I got back to my car that I forgot the coffee.
I gave him a ride back to the hotel because that was the polite thing to do. I hadn’t made eye contact with him throughout the walk to my car or the drive back. When I pulled into the hotel driveway, we finally made eye contact. He paused for a moment and then apologized for being “so aggressive.” I told him “It’s okay” because I frankly had no idea what to say, and I was always taught to answer politely.
I let almost a year go by without saying anything about what happened to me, even to the people closest to me. For almost a year, I declined almost all invitations for coffee, worked only from home, and was even scared to check my LinkedIn messages and Twitter DMs. I stopped reading the politics section of the newspaper and watching the news. I actively avoided dating and shunned any scenario that might entail emotional or physical intimacy. The line between my professional and personal lives had been crossed and my physical space had been so violated that the shockwave made me a shell of who I was in every sense.
Only recently have I started to come back out of my shell. That’s only because I have discovered that being vulnerable isn’t just my problem, it’s my answer. So I’ve stopped compromising my life out of shock and fear. I comfortably walk alone at night, meet relative strangers for drinks, dress how I’d like, rabble-rouse, and advocate for feminism in tech and education.
Then I saw that the man who asked me to take a nap with him was tweeting about how “powerful” the #YesAllWomen stories were. He got over 200 retweets, favorites, and replies. Women congratulated him for being a confident, well-educated man and for speaking out against rape culture. I lost my shit. A brociopath who sexually objectifies and harasses women is being congratulated for drawing attention to rape culture, and he has never shown any acknowledgement or remorse that he contributes to it. It was time to finally share my story.
By staying silent, I’m giving the men who pressured me for sex, openly ogled and catcalled, or touched and penetrated me without consent a free pass. By staying silent, their unacceptable words and actions become okay. By staying silent, I become a part of the oppression that caused my violation. By staying silent, these men may never realize that they are part of the problem and therefore cannot be a model to fix it.
While they may not consider themselves and educator or leader first, ignoring that facet of their identity is an egregious mistake. I believe that who you are as a person defines who you are as a leader. And as a leader, right now, they are pretty poor. They have an obvious inability to take no for an answer. Although that may contribute to their reputation as innovators, it otherwise makes them callous and cruel. Even if their comments and actions were not intended to be malicious, they still demonstrated a lack of empathy and inability to attempt conflict resolution.
These are the men that we look towards to shape the future of education, lead our schools, and shape our students’ minds. They are the kind of people we look to after events like the UCSB shooting to lead discussions and heal communities. These are the men we glorify in the educational technology community and they are perpetuating a cycle of sexism and objectification.
They aren’t just perpetuating it by actively contributing to rape culture; they’re not acting as leaders or models for stopping it. You simply can’t be a model for something that you don’t participate in, no matter how much lip service you pay towards the change.
It’s not even about them. They’re just two examples out of many men in educational technology who have sexually objectified me and acted inappropriately. It’s about them being a part of a system that’s predominately female and them still wielding unreasonable power. It’s about them being a part of a system that’s whole objective is supposed to be enabling equal access to a quality education, which is an inherently feminist ideal. Yet, women in education technology continue to receive rape and death threats and are sexually harassed and assaulted all the time. By ignoring the problem or pretending it doesn’t exist, we not only hurt women, we undermine the very cause we works towards.