The problem of sexism within the technology space and the software testing industry goes way beyond issues of diversity or representation. There is also a very real problem of men making sexual or otherwise inappropriate advances towards women who they’ve contacted under the guise of a professional context.
At work, through conference participation, in online discussions, on LinkedIn, on the street: women are subjected to sexual harassment from men in all aspects of our daily lives.
To any male who, in any way, continues to be surprised or disbelieving of facts like this: that is what privilege is. Most women are born into a world that will never allow us to experience the luxury of your ignorance on this matter. Please take the time to educate yourself by listening to real stories from real women. It won’t take long to find someone who has experienced what I’m talking about, but stories will only be shared if you are trusted. You must be open to hear and believe these stories, and treat them – and women – with the respect they deserve.
This post tells the true story of a male conference organiser who suggested that I share a hotel room with him, invited me to go on holiday with him, and made various other inappropriate advances and comments towards me. This is just one story of many about the sexual harassment I’ve faced as a working woman.
May, 2016. I’d been testing software for less than six months, had found the testing community on Twitter less than a month ago, and had just given my first lightning talk at a software testing meet up. I was feeling good, and others in the community were congratulating me on Twitter about the talk I’d given, and encouraging me to keep speaking.
Let’s call the offending male in this particular story, “Mr Creep”.
Mr Creep was one of the people who contacted me after seeing posts on Twitter about my lightning talk. New to the industry, I’d never heard of Mr Creep before then. A little research showed that he was a key organiser in a major, well-known group of software testing and technology conferences.
To be very clear, I’d never heard of Mr Creep before, had never spoken to him before, and have never met him. As I’d been on Twitter for less than a month and hadn’t started my blog yet, I can only assume that he knew nothing of me either, other than that I’d done a lightning talk and that I’m a female software tester.
For full context and avoidance of doubt, I’ve included screenshots of all the direct messages Mr Creep sent me on Twitter, where all conversations took place. I’ve hidden his real name, email address, and other potentially identifying information, including specific conference names, locations and dates.
I’ve included my thought processes at the time of receiving these messages to provide insight into both what led me to take certain actions, and the internal dialogue, turmoil, and anxiety that ensues for many women facing this kind of situation.
This was the first direct message Mr Creep sent me. It all seemed above board and I had no reason to be suspicious at this point.
This was an exciting message to receive. I felt flattered that a conference organiser would think of me to help make up their program, even if it was to backfill speaking slots. However, in the back of my mind, I had doubts:
- Why me? I was brand new to the field – what made me worthy of this offer?
- Wasn’t there a long list of people who actually applied to speak at these conferences and were initially rejected, who would be better considered to fill empty slots?
- There was no mention of me having to submit any application or proposal – was that even required? If not, why not?
Three messages in, this was red flag number one.
I decided to find out more about the opportunity before making any decisions.
Mr Creep – a man I’d never met and only started speaking to a week ago, in a professional context – suggested that I – a young, female professional – share a hotel room with him. Did he really think that offering me a speaking slot out of nowhere was good justification for suggesting that I spend multiple nights (the length of the conference) in a room with him? Is he in the habit of booking rooms with multiple beds, or was he expecting us to share the bed too?
Notice how he somehow had access to a “fund” to help pay for my travel, but not to cover my own accommodation. For context, given the length of the conference and distance from the UK, travel and accommodation costs would have worked out roughly the same.
Despite red flags two and three, I found myself wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe he genuinely didn’t mean for it to come off that way. Maybe he lacks social awareness and doesn’t realise that it’s not appropriate to share a room with a stranger, especially in a business context. Maybe the “fund” is specifically for travel, and can’t normally be used for accommodation.
Why was I making excuses for Mr Creep?
I’m ambitious, but I’m not stupid. I knew immediately that I would not be accepting Mr Creep’s offer. However, given his place in the testing community and my not wanting to wrongly assume sinister intent on his part, I wanted to be careful with how I responded, so as not to offend or burn bridges.
I sought advice from one of the very few female testers I knew at the time, before responding. I was sure to keep my response professional.
Mr Creep’s response to me turning down his offer seemed fairly non-offensive, and it appeared that he still wanted to help me succeed. I felt relieved.
Although I still felt uncomfortable with Mr Creep, I continued responding to his messages in the hopes that red flags one, two and three were just unfortunate, isolated misunderstandings. People in the testing community had been really friendly so far, so it wasn’t a strange idea that someone just wanted to help me and nothing more.
Again, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Red flag number four: bringing up his offer again
- I thought we’d moved past that awkward, inappropriate proposal. Why was he bringing it up again, unprompted?
- Was Mr Creep trying to rationalise his actions in the hopes he’d convince me to agree this time?
Red flag number five: “I know we don’t know each other but we have time to become acquainted.”
- Confirmation that he was consciously aware of the fact that we’re strangers
- How would we become acquainted? If he suggested we share a hotel room straight off the bat, what other inappropriate suggestions would he be following up with?
Red flag number six: “at my age, I’m not much of a threat”
- Alarm bells! Only creeps who know they are being creepy declare themselves as “not a threat”. Physical offenders who don’t just say creepy, inappropriate things, but also do creepy, inappropriate things, say this too
- He was clearly now aware that his comments indicated that he might be a threat, but continued down this path anyway
Red flag number seven: “I’ve done this a couple of times before”
- Was that supposed to make it okay? Was Mr Creep trying to normalise this and peer pressure me into spending several nights in his hotel room?
- Does he offer to share hotel rooms with men he’s never met too, or are offers like this only open to women?
- Either way, this is not okay! I immediately worried about other women – and men – he may have taken advantage of, and others that might not be so wise as to decline his offers in future
“I won’t mention it again unless you’d like to pursue it. Take care.”
- From this, I thought maybe he just wanted to say that one last thing before leaving me alone
- He left the offer open, suggesting that he still didn’t see anything wrong with a conference organiser – a person in a position of power – asking a potential speaker to share a room with him
Another message two minutes later
- It hadn’t even been five minutes and he was messaging me again, but at least he’d changed the subject
- I had no interest in watching videos of him; why did he send me this? A quick click of the link showed him at some kind of event or workshop and (thankfully) nothing else. Still, it was out of context and confusing to me
I didn’t want to be rude and was still very conscious of Mr Creep’s influence in the testing industry. I still tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, worried that I was being paranoid, overreacting, or jumping to conclusions. As a woman who has experienced sexual harassment, sexism, and racism in my work and personal life, I’m often accused of these things when I share my experiences.
Women are doubted and men are given the benefit of the doubt. We are less able to take a strong and confident stance against unwanted advances, even when they seem obvious to us, because we are too used to being questioned and told we are wrong, no matter what we do.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that Mr Creep’s messages were carefully constructed to take advantage of this, both encouraging me to accept his inappropriate offer and allowing him to claim that I’d misunderstood – a tactic often used by those with sinister intentions. Against my better judgement, I tried to send a vague, non-committal reply that might give him the hint that I didn’t want to continue any conversation.
I tried to play down the incident. Why? Perhaps, like so many other times, it seemed easier just to brush it off and move past it.
Excessive use of smilies to show I’m not a bitch for trying to be professional in my attempts to end the interaction. Another sexist burden for women.
At this point, Mr Creep knew that I was planning to attend TestBash Manchester and was trying to make a plan for us to meet. This isn’t unusual in the testing community, as you “meet” a lot of great people online that you want to speak to and get to know in person.
However, given everything that had happened so far, I did not want to meet Mr Creep and was not about to go out of my way to do so. I kept my response factual and didn’t suggest any way of meeting up.
Red flag number eight: “I’ve missed you.”
- What the fuck?!
- This clearly, undeniably crossed the line of professionalism and there was no room for misinterpretation. There is no valid reason to say that to someone in a professional context
Apparently, the previous seven red flags hadn’t been enough for me to cut off communications with Mr Creep so far, but red flag number eight was too obvious to ignore.
I decided to stop responding to Mr Creep’s messages. Why didn’t I just tell him in no uncertain terms that he was being completely inappropriate and ask him to stop? Several reasons:
- I was so uncomfortable by that point that I wanted to stop speaking to him immediately
- He hadn’t taken my other hints (maybe they were too subtle) and it was causing me stress to try and come up with another, more solid response that would stop the conversation without coming across as rude or unnecessary
- His position in the testing community and influence over several conferences was still weighing on me and was the only reason I hadn’t cut off contact sooner – a fact he was more than likely aware of and exploiting
- I was worried about how he might react: aggression; smearing my name in the industry; using his position and influence to stop me from getting any speaking slots in future; generally spreading lies in an attempt to ruin my reputation, however immature it was at that point
- I have deep-rooted anxiety and issues with conflict that were really affecting me and influencing a lot of my decisions at the time; there was a personal struggle to overcome before I even felt able to call him out for his behaviour
- It just felt all-round safer not to respond
Red flag number nine: inviting me to go on holiday with him
- I ignored his last two messages, so Mr Creep decided to invite me to go on holiday with him, after I already turned down his previous inappropriate offers. You can’t make this stuff up
- I struggled to try and understand what he must have been thinking; there is no way to justify this
Red flag number ten: “We can … have a good time”
- Mr Creep must have been taking suggestions directly from the “How to Be a Creep” handbook
- “have a good time” is dripping with sleazy connotations, especially considering the other inappropriate messages Mr Creep had sent me already
Red flag number eleven: bringing up the open conference slot again
- I’d now ignored five of Mr Creep’s messages over the course of a month and a half and he was still messaging me
- He brought up the conference for which he’d previously suggested we share a hotel room (for the third time now), despite saying last time that he wouldn’t mention it again
- Was he using this “play” on so many people that he’d forgotten he’d already tried that with me twice, or was he just hoping I’d have somehow forgotten and he’d be third time lucky?
Red flag number twelve: “Did not realize you needed to be backed up. (Grin)”
- For anyone too innocent to understand straight away, “back up” is a sexual innuendo. To “back up” is to push one’s buttocks and rear area into the crotch of another. Or hands, or face. Whichever one you find more utterly disgusting and horrific
- I was in shock at this point. Adding “grin” just made it even more seedy and disgusting. It also confirmed to me that he knew exactly how that comment would come across
Mr Creep continued wording his messages in a way that made his shameful intentions clear, while also allowing him to claim misinterpretation. Instead of his words being misinterpreted out of context, his other messages made his dark intentions even more apparent in context.
Red flag number thirteen: “If I came to hear you … would you be interested in spending a day … getting to know each other?”
- After all that had happened, was Mr Creep seriously considering making an international trip just to try and spend time with me? And did he seriously believe, after what was at that point eight consecutively ignored messages, that I would even want him to do that?
- Notice that he didn’t suggest we meet at the event and talk about testing – he expected us each to stay another day for the sole purpose of spending time alone together
At this point, I was genuinely worried that Mr Creep would start showing up to events where he knew I would be. I began agonising over scenarios where he’d show up and I’d have to convince the nearest random person not to leave us alone together. I also worried about what reason I’d give the third party for this strange request, or if I’d be safe going back to my hotel room without a chaperone.
It was after these messages that I finally decided to block Mr Creep on Twitter. Why did it take three and a half months and an astonishing thirteen burning red flags for me to come to this conclusion?
As well as all the reasons I had for ignoring him instead of asking him to stop, which also played a part here, I felt that this was where things escalated beyond what I could ignore. I worried how far Mr Creep would continue to advance his inappropriate behaviour.
I genuinely felt concerned for my personal and physical safety.
Why I Didn’t Speak Sooner
Once this epic came to a head about a year ago, I continued to worry about other vulnerable women that Mr Creep might prey upon. Many times, I considered sharing my experience to raise awareness and hopefully warn people about similar situations. However, all the concerns I had about potential consequences of calling out Mr Creep directly applied here too.
I also had concerns about telling other people what had happened.
Still very new to the testing industry and community, I’d made friends and had other interactions that remained strictly professional, but I worried that I didn’t have enough credibility to be believed. I worried that people would ask, “who is this nobody coming in and making accusations about our beloved long-time community member?” I worried that facts would be twisted and people would turn against me; that my speaking and testing career would be over before it even really began.
I had also gathered that Mr Creep is a close friend of another female tester I know. I found myself wondering what she would think of all this, and worried about what she would think of me for saying something bad about her friend.
To be completely honest, even as I describe this ordeal and list out all the red flags that clearly point to Mr Creep trying to take advantage of me, I still have those same doubts and worries that I described before.
Somehow, I still worry that I’m being paranoid or overly dramatic. I imagine responses to this post including:
- Don’t flatter yourself – why would he be interested in you?
- It wasn’t that bad, get over it
- Just be grateful a man was giving you attention
- Take it as a compliment
- He didn’t mention sex, so it wasn’t sexual harassment
- You think a lot of yourself, don’t you?
- It was your fault because you never told him to stop
Those aren’t responses I’ve made up out of nowhere. They’re based on real responses that I’ve seen towards other women who have spoken out about sexual harassment, and so it’s very possible I’ll get them too.
One small but important difference, however, is that I’ve now contributed to the testing community for long enough, and made enough strides in my testing and speaking career that I feel I’ve built up enough credibility, friendships, and professional connections to feel more confident and secure in sharing my story. I hope I’m right, because I fear that posting this will have negative consequences for me, but I feel more strongly that I need to share this experience and raise awareness.
This is Not a Rare Occurrence
As the months passed and I was relieved to find that Mr Creep hadn’t shown up at any events I attended, I eventually forgot about the whole thing. It might be difficult to understand how I was able to forget, given that it was such a horrible, lengthy experience that caused so much worry and anguish.
However, the truth is that it is absolutely not uncommon for myself – or indeed other women – to be approached by men making inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances, even in a business context. Although the example described here was a particularly bad experience for me, it wasn’t unusual and I’m somewhat used to it. As time went on, I went back to being numb to sexual harassment, and that numbness is what allowed me to forget.
What reminded me of the incident again was another recent experience of inappropriate male behaviour, coupled with recent discussions about sexism in the technology industry. It’s actually taken me a few weeks to “click” and remember that this awful experience happened to me, even with lots of reminders.
For example, with recent reports from Lydia Jones, the female entrepreneur who asked a male for business advice and was subjected to sleazy messages, I didn’t even connect it with my own experience straight away because sexual harassment just seems like such a normal, regular thing to me.
It should not be normal for women to be sexually harassed.
In the testing community, it’s more common for us to hear these stories from women in other areas of technology, that we don’t know personally. This can make it more difficult to connect and have the reality of these offences really hit home.
Although I still believe I might suffer from speaking out, I want to give a voice to women specifically in the testing community who have had similar experiences to mine, and I want to give the men in our community someone closer to home to relate these stories to. I am giving you evidence that this has happened, and is happening now, in our own “back yards”.
I hope this will bring more awareness to what is really happening to women all over the world, every single day. These occurrences are not limited to large companies or Hollywood; they are happening everywhere, all the time.
I don’t want sympathy, I want change. Change in attitudes, and change in behaviour.
Why I Anonymised the Offender
Some people might wonder why I chose to hide information that might reveal Mr Creep’s real identity. Especially given that he is the perpetrator of extremely unprofessional, unethical and sexist behaviour.
Unfortunately, as well as living in a world where sexual harassment is a regular occurrence, we also live in a culture of victim blaming. Whilst I believe that perpetrators of sexual harassment should be held accountable and responsible for their offences and it should not be the responsibility of the victim to protect the identity of someone who clearly does not care for or respect them in any way, that’s not how things are at the moment.
In the case of Lydia Jones, she was criticised for not protecting the identity of the man who turned their business discussion into a sexual one. News organisations and media outlets who have reported on her experience have blurred out his details when using her screenshots of the conversation in their own articles. I even saw some people speculating if it was all just a publicity stunt to promote her new business.
Our society is built to protect and defend perpetrators, not victims.
While I do, on some level, think that I should reveal Mr Creep’s true identity because he does not deserve any protection, and to try and warn other women about him, another part of me thinks the backlash might be too great. It’s a big thing for me to even share what I have of this story so far, and it’s come with many obstacles and difficult decisions that I hadn’t even anticipated when I began writing this post. I’m more comfortable taking this one step at a time.
I’m outraged that Mr Creep and people like him who cause this worry and distress in their victims do not have to be concerned about these things. All the burden is on the women they target. As each new victim continues to move on without exposing them, perpetrators of sexual harassment become more comfortable and confident in being able to harass women, free from consequence.
No woman should be put in the situation where she has to decide between risking her own safety and reputation, or protecting a sexual predator and his reputation.
Hopefully what I have shared is enough to do some good, and those who think I should reveal Mr Creep’s real identity will forgive me for not doing so just yet, if at all.
Mr Creep is Not Just One Person
It’s important to recognise that Mr Creep does not represent all men, and he does not represent all men in the software testing community or industry. I’ve spoken to and befriended so many kind, helpful, and supportive men in and out of the testing community, and I am truly grateful to have them in my life. They are wonderful people.
However, Mr Creep does represent a very real portion of the men who we all know, work with, and interact with on a daily basis. Some of them might even be our friends or family members.
Mr Creep is not just one person. Mr Creep is an entire group of men in our society and in our own technology industry and testing community who think it’s okay to sexually harass and take advantage of women.
I understand that we don’t always feel able to protect or stand up for ourselves, our friends, daughters, sisters, mothers, or colleagues. But one way we can all try to start changing attitudes and address this very real issue is to acknowledge that it exists in our space, and to stop hiding or denying it.
Please acknowledge that Mr Creep is very real, he is more than just one person, and he walks among us.