An Inconvenient Truth

Recently, I realized that I have unintentionally omitted a significant — yet deeply uncomfortable — contributing factor to quitting my tech job and “retiring” early, in my late 30s: consistent sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination at work. In a sick, twisted way, these experiences pushed me to financial independence.

Nothing I wanted could hold a candle to my desire to be rid of these men. Nothing.

I say “inconvenient” because I can see how some people could (and no doubt will) draw a terrible conclusion: that my being sexually harassed and assaulted at work over the course of 20 years was somehow acceptable, even beneficial, because I wouldn’t be financially independent and retired early (FIRE) without it. That I “should thank them” because their base, vile behavior “inspired” me to save more money than I would have otherwise.

This is demonstrably false. Let me state unequivocally that sexual predators and perverts did not make me frugal. That, blessed be, came from my family and me.

And I say “unintentionally” because, until the sexual assault revelations of presidential candidate Cinnamon Hitler (credit to Trevor Noah), I had blissfully, mercifully been able to forget some of these things and, in regard to other incidents, had at least reached the point that I did not think about them every day.

I had forgotten the Promise Keeper whose cubicle held a photo of his wife and two young children, and one of him on both knees in a stadium, crucifix gleaming on a heavy chain, both arms raised to the sky, weeping with joy in the Lord. Twenty years my senior (I was 19), he liked to walk up behind me when I was immersed in coding, my headphones on, and touch my hair, rub both of my shoulders, or land a hand on one of my thighs.

This happened in an open plan office, by the way. I was surrounded by other, male engineers. In fact, there were almost always multiple witnesses. With one exception — that of a similarly treated female peer — the witnesses were all male. As a female engineer, often at small and mid-sized companies, it was not unusual for me to be the only female employee.

Promise Keeper was, in my 20-year tech career, the only perv who was ever actually fired. He probably would not have been if he had not also harassed a receptionist in much the same way as myself; repeatedly delivered racist rants about “the Blacks” and “the inner cities” in front of an African-American manager; and actually slapped a female manager’s ass while she stood in front of the copy machine. For real.

Many more male coworkers (almost always executives, never engineers) would, for the next 20 years, proceed to do the same things as Promise Keeper. None of them would be fired or punished in any way, no matter complaints to HR, complaints from witnesses, or letters to board members.

Mandated company travel brought out the worst. However blatantly these men behaved in the office, it was just the tip of the iceberg. On the road and in a hotel, they were unshackled.

About 10 years ago, I lost count of the number of times a significantly older, always married, more powerful male employee knocked on my hotel room door late at night, carrying a six pack of beer or a brown-bagged bottle of whatever. I never, ever answered and always called the front desk about a “strange man at my door” immediately.

Once, my refusal to answer the door backfired on me, spectacularly. Door Knocker moved on to the door beside mine, where another male colleague was staying. We were in San Diego and the rooms had balconies. It was just after sunset, and I had been sitting on my balcony with my room service dinner, enjoying the sea air. I had the sliding doors open behind me to let the fresh air into my stale hotel room. Back home, the Midwest was in the thick of winter, so I cannot emphasize what a treat this was after a 12-hour day of intense work at a client site.

Alas, my colleague answered his door, and let Door Knocker and his six pack in. Door Knocker took to the balcony beside mine, saw me (as he no doubt intended), and began asking “why the fuck I wouldn’t let him in” and why I had to “ruin the party.” (Because work is or should be… a party?) My other male colleague looked shocked and mortified but did not ask Door Knocker to leave or settle down. I went inside my room, shut the double doors, and shut out that beautiful breeze from the beach.

When Door Knocker threw two empty beer bottles onto my balcony, where they smashed, I called down to the front desk to ask for a new room.

Far and away, however, the worst of this has taken place in offices in the San Francisco Bay Area. I should not have found it surprising or exceptional, but the area has such a liberal and litigious reputation that I expected otherwise. Of this, the worst has come from investors (VCs) in the companies for which I worked. They are so shameless that much of their harassment happens in writing: repeated text messages requesting dates, emails on “that outfit you had on in the board meeting.” (A loose, vintage, well below the knee Laura Ashley dress with longĀ  sleeves and a high neck that I hoped made me look pregnant? Really?)

They know they are untouchable.

If a woman as wealthy and powerful as Ellen Pao can’t get them, neither can I.

The inevitable question is, of course, “Why didn’t you sue them?” Because, logistically speaking, if women sued every time we could and should, we would spend our entire working adult lives embroiled in expensive lawsuits. It would mean suing almost every employer I ever had. While tempting, I have a life to live. It’s easier to change jobs when HR or the board makes it clear nothing is going to change.

But there is no need to belabor these points and bore my readers, especially women, to whom none of this comes as a surprise and for whom much of this is probably mild, compared to their experiences.

This is why I find myself at odds with people — mostly women — who say tech companies need to hire more women, that women should stay in order to make tech culture better for other women and minorities. They say it won’t get better until then.

Really? Show me the data.

Over the course of my career, with each subsequent job, I worked with more women, not fewer, in multiple departments and in leadership. And it got worse, not better. I need evidence that having more women physically present at work actually reduces this behavior. Perhaps it does, but not significantly enough? I don’t know.

What I do know is that, in 20 years, I saw no evidence of this.

We each get one life. One. Do these companies pay us enough to cover physical assault, sexual threats, sleeplessness, unbelievable stress, insomnia, fear of physical safety, and shame? Forced job changes because we can’t stand it anymore and the predators are “too productive” and “create too much value” to be fired?

Stop thinking about these companies as “tech,” as somehow distinct or intrinsically different. Start thinking about them as corporations, plain and simple. Tech corporations are no better, more special, or more equitable than any other company.

Save yourselves, not them. They simply are not worth it. And especially not Cinnamon Hitler, who reminded me about all of this in the first place.