Monday, October 22, 2018

#MeToo: Sexual Harassment at Work

I've actually avoided weighing in on this topic for a while but ultimately decided it's a conversation worth starting (or, more accurately, jumping into in the age of #MeToo).

I have dealt with sexual harassment here and there, in many countries, at work or off-the-clock, from many different types of people. Unfortunately, the types of harassment experiences I have had seem all too common based on both public data and anecdotal evidence from those whom I know personally - especially among women. As a small sample, here are a few of the situations I've had at work since joining the Foreign Service in 2017:

  • A student used my dress (from the event in the first photo of this post) as an example when trying to talk about how different people might define fake news differently. He said, "I would consider what you're wearing a miniskirt, but to you that might be the longest thing you own." Nobody (including me) said anything, but the 60+ person audience enjoyed a laugh at my expense.
  • A man at an outreach event asked me to escort him to the United States. When I politely said no, he asked me if I had any younger sisters who would and demanded contact information for a female sister or friend to be his companion and entertainment in the United States.
  • After I concluded a speaker program (again on fighting fake news), an audience member came up to me, slid me a folded piece of paper, and whispered, "This is not fake news." I took it back to my office and opened it to find it said, "I Love You" and included his number. The same guy followed up a few days later on my work email with something along the lines of, "Remember me? I'm the guy with the Real News."
  • A contractor we had paid to arrange decorations an event for us cornered me mid-set-up and asked for my number. When I refused, he insisted he needed to get to know me better and that I had to give him my number. He became visibly angry and threw a tantrum when I continued to say no, so I walked away but then had to stand awkwardly around setting up my table while he finished the decorations and stopped every few minutes just to follow me around with his eyes. Eventually, the other women I was working with sent me away so he could finish the job we had already paid him to do.
  • A photographer I had never met or seen before but whom I needed to pay for work he had done for the Embassy surprised me by coming straight to my desk, cornering me, and starting our conversation with, "Wow, nobody told me you were so beautiful." He was not an Embassy employee, and I had asked him to call me for us to meet outside. I didn't realize he'd be able to find me on his own.
  • Multiple men have come up to me and snapped photos of my face or body and run off before I could object or ask them to delete the photo.

In a lot of ways, these things are just a natural part of being a professional woman in an imperfect world. I do think that they happen more often in public-facing jobs such as mine and that pretending they don't happen doesn't make them go away. So instead of staying silent, I thought I'd share some of the best advice I've received on this issue in hopes that it helps some other woman who has to face these same situations at work:

  • Prepare in advance. It really helps to practice what you want to say in situations that make you uncomfortable before they happen, especially if you (like me) often struggle to find words in the moment.
  • Sometimes it's okay to make someone else uncomfortable. Obviously, there is serious personal judgment involved in choosing your battles and knowing when to grin and bear it because of circumstances outside your control. At the same time, I've found I have sometimes been so afraid of making someone else uncomfortable and embarrassed that I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed instead.
  • Find support (especially in your chain of command). Thankfully, my bosses have always been supportive of me in these situations. Their encouragement, open door policy, and efforts towards creating a better work environment for everyone has gone a long way to helping me in these challenges.
  • Understand that people define sexual harassment differently. Some may not consider the situations I described above as sexual harassment. As far as I'm concerned, what matters is that I found the behavior inappropriate and the attention unwanted in those cases. I find it's not worth my time to try to defend and justify my feelings of discomfort to everyone around me.

I hope that addressing this difficult subject has been helpful to at least one reader out there. If you have experiences of sexual harassment at work, thoughts on how we can make things better, or tips to share, I hope you'll take a moment to comment below. Thank you for reading!

Monday, October 15, 2018

Camping with Wild Flamingos in Nakuru

After over a year of missing countless opportunities, we finally went camping in Kenya! We spent a weekend at Makalia campsite in Lake Nakuru National Park, and it was a wonderful time.

The landscape was stunning: it's been raining, so the grass was lush and the wildlife was abundant. Thankfully, the weather cooperated with our visit and we only had a light sprinkling of rain a few times. We had awesome game-viewing, and we drove ourselves through the park. The clear highlight for us, though, was the huge flock of beautiful flamingos mixed with pelicans and other birds in the lake (the first photo of this post). We also saw quite a few monkeys, including the rare, black-and-white Colobus monkey we hadn't seen before. There was also a near-constant stream of baboons. A baboon even jumped in our friends' car! We later learned that the baboons in the area are known for their cleverness and mischief.

As we were leaving the park, we casually saw two lionesses right next to the road. They were so close, we almost could have reached out and touched them (but of course, we didn't try).

It felt so good to be able to spend a weekend relaxing with friends, away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi. We highly recommend camping in Kenya as a way to relax and experience this one-of-a-kind country in a new way.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Working a White House Visit

We've had a crazy few weeks at U.S. Embassy Nairobi preparing to support what was my first White House visit. The First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) Melania Trump came to Kenya as part of her four-country Africa tour. You can read about her visit in more detail here.

So what did I have to do? I was the Embassy's press site officer for three events, meaning I worked closely with White House press staff to execute the media plan for each of my sites and manage our relationship with the journalists there on the big day. These journalists were a mix of traveling press, who actually accompany the First Lady on her plane and in her motorcade, international press based in Nairobi, and local Kenyan press. As you can see in the photo below, this added up to quite a few people to inform and assist and direct and keep happy (at least as best as we could).

Although I have worked quite a few visits during my first year as a Public Diplomacy Officer, this one was very different. The Embassy staff really took a backseat to our White House counterparts in the sense that, although we leveraged our on-the-ground expertise and contacts and provided our best advice, at the end of the day we deferred decision-making to the White House. In other words, we had more of a supporting role, especially once the advance team (i.e., the people who arrive before the visit to finalize plans and preparations) arrived.

By all accounts, Mrs. Trump was a wonderful guest. She truly seemed to enjoy spending time with Kenyan children and baby elephants. The Kenyans, as always, were splendid hosts - from Mrs. Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya, to the institutions at each site. Thankfully, the trip went off without a hitch and it was all over before we knew it. Mrs. Trump had the opportunity both to learn more about Kenya and to champion her BE BEST initiative focusing on children's issues around the world. Now that's a success for everyone!