He Told Me I was Wearing Porn Star Shoes: The Truth About Sexual Harassment In Tech

When I first started writing this article I thought I knew what it would be. I wanted to create a patchwork quilt of sorts; an interwoven narrative of creepy comments, longing leers and inappropriate advances made by tech bros to women half their age, in hopes of illuminating the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in tech. However, that story has been told. It’s been written by journalists with leagues more talent, experience, and grace than I could have possibly accumulated in my twenty-one years. So, as I read the anonymous responses to a Google Forum I posted late one night while drunk on writer’s adrenaline and Wine Wednesday, I came to a realization: these women may have volunteered snapshots of their experience, but I will never have their full story. They are not mine to tell. Instead, I will tell you my own.

I remember when the official panic set in. Somewhere between Valentine’s day and my birthday, in March, I came to the realization that I had zero plans for the upcoming summer. Previously I folded sweaters and sold overpriced candles at Anthropologie, or nannied for several families who had enough disposable income to pay me twenty bucks an hour to relax on their couch while their kids sat at day camp creating refrigerator art. Needless to say, my corporate experience was non-existent, and the mere thought of not having an internship the summer before senior year inflamed my middle school girl insecurities all over again.

I eventually found a paid internship that also targeted towards my interests. In other words, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.

About two weeks in I was starting to see cracks. The workload was becoming light to nonexistent, and I started having off-putting encounters with a man named Wyatt*.

While I originally thought he was awkward and weird, Wyatt’s behavior never crossed the line, until I sat in a glass conference room with him and three other interns.

“You’re dressed inappropriately.”

When I didn’t respond for a few seconds he decided to repeat himself.

“If you were anywhere else, they’d ask you to go home and change.”

Not that I should have to defend myself, but I know there will be naysayers and so I’ll do it anyway. I was wearing a blazer, jeans and a white shirt. The office was casual and the man questioning the appropriateness of my dress was in cargo shorts and flip flops. While I knew his comment was sexist, I was both shocked and embarrassed. And so I sat silently. My face turned the color of raw hamburger meat and while I was avoiding eye contact at all costs I couldn’t help but notice he seemed quite pleased with himself.

For a while, things seemed to simmer down and everything had gone back to normal, or as normal as a slowly failing startup can be. However, a few weeks before the end of the summer, another incident happened. I was sitting in an office with one of my recently acquired work friends brainstorming ideas for a marketing campaign. With my lack of experience I needed a good reference from this company and so the pressure to perform was on. Hindsight is 20/20 and while I now recognize Wyatt’s first comment as the start of some incredibly problematic behavior, he hadn’t done anything since and I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I also really needed a marketing guru to bounce ideas off of.

The culmination of these factors lead me to Slack message him “I need your marketing wisdom,” to which he responded, “Ms. McDermott are you trying to hit on me I’m a married man…” Looking back I think I actually shrieked “Ewww” out loud.

Not only was Wyatt my superior, he was in his late thirties, married, and had a second baby on the way. However, in his eyes, none of that seemed to matter. For whatever reason, he thought his response was not only appropriate but was welcome. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

In the weeks after I tried to keep a low profile. I didn’t spend much time in common spaces and whenever I passed him in the office I avoided eye contact. However, one Friday while we were alone in a conference room he decided for whatever reason that it was a good idea to try again.

“You’re wearing pornstar shoes,” he said.

I completely froze. Wyatt had decided to pull up my Instagram page and scroll through it. The picture in question was a shot of pink stilettos that were captured from the knee down. My first thought was, do porn stars even wear shoes? My second was: holy shit.

At this point in the summer, investors had been pulling out due to poor management. Layoffs were happening left and right, and after one of the interns told the CEO that he had been paying a dozen college kids to sit around and do virtually nothing the past few weeks, Wyatt and a few other higher ups were verbally reprimanded.

As a result of his own job being on the line, Wyatt threatened to fire us all, a piece of information I didn’t have until I was about to walk into the conference room with him. With all this in mind, I felt ambushed by the porn star remark and so I blurted, “No, I’m not,” as if this were a debate. He smirked and said, “Yes, you are”, while commenting on the redness of my cheeks.

The harassment I experienced in tech was minor compared to most. While I wanted the money and experience, and Wyatt certainly capitalized on that, I was living at home and this wasn’t a long-term gig. If it came down to it, I could have quit; while I’d have to do damage control on my resume, I wouldn’t be destitute. For many women that isn’t the case. Their jobs are their livelihoods and in situations where sexual harassment occurs, they’re stuck.

I used to reflect on my encounters with Wyatt and wonder what could have provoked him. Did I smile too much? Was my sense of humor too flirtatious? Did I somehow cross a line? However, I have to stop myself, because at the end of the day it wasn’t about me or my actions. Sexual harassment is a power play that often times leaves women defenseless.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Wyatt’s main objective was not to sleep with me. It was to make me feel small, and if for whatever reason we ended up fornicating that would be a bonus. Sexual harassment may be fueled by sexual desire, but what most men get out of it is a power trip. Wyatt knew he could say these things to me with no consequences and he was right. In those moments I couldn’t muster the courage to call him out, and when I finally did complain to HR, he got a slap on the wrist and then life continued on as normal for him. Sexual harassment is the epitome of straight cis male privilege. While I’ve about had enough of it, I’m not quite sure where to go from here.

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual

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