I'm still thinking about the bias against women working in science and technology. In particular, I keep thinking of a conversation I had with my supervisor just after days I started working for the IT help desk at a very large university late in the summer of 2004.
"We never thought we'd actually have a woman working here," my supervisor told me. He was the boyfriend of my roommate, and so I'd had him helping me into the stressful, poorly-paid job, inside assistance that other women desperate for work after the .com bust did not have. I considered him a friend.
"In fact, one of the staff here was moved here after he got busted for sexual harrassment," my supervisor continued, voice lower. "The higher-ups figured no woman would ever get hired here, so this was a safe place to put him."
I must have looked worried, or something, because then he said, "I can't tell you who he is. Sorry. Federal privacy stuff."
"Oh. Okay," I replied. What else could I say? If he said he couldn't tell me, his friend, I took him at his word. I had to, right?
But the "gift" of his incomplete information was a slow grenade.
I couldn't look at my male coworkers without wondering who the convicted harrasser was. And what had the harrasser done, anyhow? According to the rules in our staff handbook,
harrassment could cover anything from inappropriate joking to
stalking to sexual assault. I wanted to believe that the university would have fired him if he'd done something seriously rotten, but part of me worried that a big school will keep a bad apple around if he's useful. I'd look at each man and boy, trying to figure out if his friendliness was genuine, or a predator's mask.
Every day, a small part of me would wonder: am I safe around my coworkers?
There was already a wedge between me and the other guys at the help desk: I was older, in my mid-thirties compared to their early 20s, and the only woman. My fear drove the wedge deeper, hurt my low chances for ever being promoted out of that dreadful place because I dealt with the uncertainty by hiding in my cube, keeping my head down and not mixing with the guys. I didn't go to their after-work parties, and I didn't get invited to their lunches.
It seemed like just another thing I had to swallow to do the job; I was constantly worrying about bills and stressed out either because I'd been yelled at by customers, or because I was dreading being yelled at. My worry that I was working with a sexual predator was eclipsed by my fear that I would get fired and end up losing my house and being unable to pay for my husband's health care. Every day, I came to work half-believing they'd pull me into the office and tell me I was gone. I didn't fit in and I knew it; I might have been necessary, but I never felt particularly wanted.
Seven years passed, and another friend helped me escape to a better job in the corporate world.
About six months after I left the help desk, I ran into one of my former coworkers at an indie comics convention. He shared current office gossip, and the gossip turned to the sexual harrasser. My former coworker, who'd been hired on the same time I was, immediately revealed his name.
"What, you didn't know it was So-and-So?" he said, incredulous. "I thought everybody knew that."
Great. His identity had been kept a secret from me, the one person who really needed to know for peace of mind, but was common knowledge to all the men in the office.
File this one under "Bad Management 101: Effective Ways To Undermine Your Lone Female Employee".