What I learnt from being sexually harassed at Google

It's never your fault

A recent study reported that 60% of women in Silicon Valley have been sexually harassed. Of those, 65% have received advances directly from a superior. These statistics caught me by surprise, though they probably shouldn’t have — I am one of them.

Image © Dilbert by Scott Adams

While at Google — a company well-known for its “Do no evil” culture — one of my managers sexually harassed me and made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. In the span of a week, I went from feeling excited and motivated about my job to feeling lethargic, anxious, and unenthused. As the youngest member of my team and the only woman, I felt stupid and naïve.

In that week, I was kissed on the cheek, asked to sit on my manager’s lap, told about my manager’s sex life and virility, and told that “all men go through an Asian fetish at some time,” among other wildly discomfiting, work-inappropriate things. Then I was asked to dinner alone. After a week of feeling confused and disrespected, my fight or flight reaction kicked in, and I immediately took the next shuttle home.

As I’m writing this, I’m still experiencing some physiological effects from rehashing this brief period in my life. My heart is palpitating, and it’s clear that even years later, I continue to feel anxiety about these experiences.

At the time I was being harassed, a mix of strong emotions, combined with the fact that my harasser was my direct superior, tainted my ability to think clearly. But reflecting on things now, and because sexual harassment is so prevalent in the Valley, I feel compelled to share some of the things I wish I had known:

Sexual harassment is never your fault.

During the HR investigation that ensued, I remember being shamed by a female colleague who thought I was blowing the situation out of proportion. She thought I was being overly sensitive, and that it was wrong of me to report my manager. That hurt. I thought she would’ve naturally supported me.

I remember thinking to myself, “Did I do something to encourage this kind of behaviour?” I had uncomfortably laughed at some of the sexual comments my manager had made because I didn’t know how else to react as a junior member of the team. Should I not have done that?

In hindsight and with more experience, I now can say, “Yes, I shouldn’t have tolerated even a little bit of misogyny or mistreatment. I should’ve immediately given him feedback that it made me feel extremely uncomfortable.” But regardless of my own reactions, the fact remains that sexual harassment should never have happened in the first place.

Sexual harassment is intolerable and should not be permitted anywhere, least of all the place where you spend most of your waking hours. Your company owes it to you to make sure that your work environment is a safe space, where you can maximise your ability to work as a productive member of society.

Protect yourself and others. Report it to HR.

It took me a long time to muster up the courage to go to our HR department and file a formal complaint. I was scared to report him.

The doubts swirled around in my head. I didn’t want to hurt my manager’s career or get him fired. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I really was being too sensitive. He did good work and was well-respected on our team — what would happen to my team if he was heavily disciplined or even fired? What if his wife found out?
It felt paradoxical to me that I felt both extreme anger and empathy for him at the same time.

What eventually swayed me toward going to HR was thinking of the other women on the team he might be also be behaving grotesquely toward. If I didn’t speak up, would they?

Ultimately, I felt responsible for doing something. If someone else was sexually harassed by him down the road, in a way, their suffering would be on me.

The ensuing investigation was unpleasant. I had to be as specific as possible about all the infractions, the details, and the timelines. I had to recount any potential witnesses, for corroboration purposes. I felt humiliated. I cried.

As difficult as it was, knowing that my actions might induce a behavioral change and protect other people down the line helped me through it. I felt lucky to have a great HR business partner guide me through the process, and to have HR take my complaint seriously and follow up with disciplinary action.

My manager eventually did apologise, and I was never sexually harassed again. But I could never view him in the same light, and was always sceptical of his intentions.

It took a long time to rebuild my self-confidence and feel more comfortable in my skin. When I was eventually promoted on the team, I resented having doubts about its merits — was I promoted because of my abilities, or was I promoted because he was trying to apologise for his boorish behaviour?

We eventually ended up on different teams and parted ways. 6 months later, I saw him across a building on campus. I thought I had emotionally recovered by then, but the moment I saw him, my old feelings resurfaced and I literally ran in the opposite direction.

Now, as a startup co-founder, I am determined to instil a positive work culture where there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment (though thankfully it’s never been an issue for us).

How can you be expected to do your best work when your confidence has been shattered? How can you respect a coworker who has so clearly disrespected you?

How can it be that the most innovative part of the world, responsible for inventing driverless cars and a million ways to chat with others, has yet to catch on to basic principles of human decency and respect?

I don’t mean to vilify men as a whole—to be clear, I’ve had amazing support from my husband and especially from a male mentor who stood up for me and encouraged me to speak up. The vast majority of men I know are incredibly respectful and supportive.

But there is something very wrong happening in Silicon Valley. It’s insane that a problem that affects 60% of the women who work here hasn’t been more publicised.

For anyone else that has been sexually harassed at work, please speak up. Men and women need to all be involved in this conversation if we are to make meaningful change.

True to the times and the place (this is Silicon Valley, after all), I remain optimistic for what the future can bring. Imagine all the many more innovations we’ll create, when we have a world where we can all focus on the important work ahead, instead of being distracted by disrespect.

This post was originally published on Medium

Main image: iStock/vandervelden