Earlier this week, a graphic designer named Justine posted an account of her boss's sexual assault on her at a CodeMash conference. As a woman in tech, its disheartening to hear how she was treated by her superior, and even more disheartening to read anonymous Internet commenters suggesting that she got what she deserved. But if there's a lesson in all this, something more empowering than "men shouldn't assault women," I think it's that no matter how many successful, confident women I see in this field, there are still some out there who don’t know how to stick up for themselves.
On the first night of the conference, everyone was at a bar drinking and having a good time. At one point, a drunken Justine lies down on the bar to do a body shot, and is surprised when her boss, Joe, is the one who takes it off of her. Joe, also drunk, starts rubbing her back and kissing her forehead, which she notes is not uncommon behavior among her coworkers.
But then things start to get more uncomfortable. Joe puts his hands down the back of her pants and starts kissing her. Next he puts his hands down the front of her pants and starts fingering her. She tells him to stop, reminding him that he has a wife and kids at home. When he doesn’t, she feels like “a deer in headlights staring into the eyes of the two male bartenders hoping someone would help me.” Eventually, a coworker (who has also written an account of the incident) notices that something doesn’t seem right and asks her if she wants to go out for a smoke. When they get outside, she breaks down in tears.
In the months after the assault, Justine falls into a downward spiral of anxiety, anorexia, alcoholism, and depression. Joe is terminated after an HR investigation, but he’s allowed to publicize that he left voluntarily. Several months later, with her life in shambles and feeling like her “reputation at the company had been stained,” Justine is offered the same deal.
By Justine’s telling, this is a story about how women in tech can’t win. We’re under tons of pressure to keep up with the dudes, but when we try to act like they do, they put us in our place with cutting remarks, mansplaining, or, when things get really bad, sexual assault. Justine felt this pressure to keep up acutely on the night of the assault:
At some point it was suggested that I do a body shot. I’ve never done one in my life but at the insistence of many people, attendees and bartenders I decided to lay on the bar. I just wanted to prove myself as one of the gang. Someone who was up for anything. I cannot explain to men how hard it is being a woman trying to play it cool in an industry of men. I want everyone to think I’m cool and relaxed so I try and just play by their rules. Regardless I got on the bar and lifted my shirt as far as I was comfortable.
Is this really what it means to be a woman in tech—lying down on a bar and hiking up your shirt in hope that people will like you? I hope not. This is a story about men behaving badly (or rather, one man behaving badly—Justine mentions several other male colleagues who were very supportive), but it should also be a story about a woman learning to behave better. Throughout the ordeal, Justine shows herself to be a woman who easily succumbs to peer pressure, who doesn’t know how to stick up for herself, and is not very resilient:
In recent months this year I’ve been arrested, charged with a DUI, involved in second intervention classes, lost contact with most of my friends, broken up with my long term and very supportive boyfriend, lost interest in speaking with my parents out of embarrassment, gone into credit debt, become a borderline alcoholic and continued my eating disorder for self punishment.
I’m doubtful that this can all be chalked up to fallout from the assault. It seems more likely that the anxiety, binge drinking, and other issues she struggled with after the incident also played a role in getting her in trouble in the first place. That she was drinking heavily on the night of the assault doesn’t make it her fault, but it also doesn’t absolve her of responsibility to be more careful the next time.
Instead, she ups her drinking. Even while still at the conference, she says, “everyone did a really good job of making sure I was drunk enough to not have to deal with what was going on.” It’s worth noting that her sentence structure shifts the responsibility for her drinking onto other people. She didn't decide that she wanted to drink and then pour herself one, nor did she decide that she didn't want to drink and ignore the people who offered her one. She let other people decide for her.
Justine narrates her story as a series of events that happen to her; she floats along like a leaf on the wind, tossed about by self-doubt and male encouragement. Even after the assault, she doesn't feel indignant so much as afraid that she did something wrong and might get fired, that her t-shirts are too suggestive or her lipstick too red. It's an attitude that made her feel trapped in a situation that she might otherwise have been able to extricate herself from, hence her climbing onto the bar when “it was suggested” that she do a body shot, and silently beseeching onlookers for help when her boss started kissing her.
None of this is to indict Justine, who suffered something horrible. She was doing the best she could at the time. But if women may sometimes feel intimidated and defeated, we should encourage each other to push past those feelings and stick up for ourselves. After all, men sometimes feel horny and emboldened, but that doesn't mean we expect them to put those feelings ahead of their consideration for other people.
This attitude does more than help protect women from assault—it allows us hold our own in a male-dominated industry every day. We shouldn't have to drink as much as the guys, eat as much as the guys, tell the same jokes as the guys, or otherwise try to follow them around like awed kid sisters. We don't have the power to fix everything, but we do have the power to fix that.