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You can’t touch this

Looking out over the Grand Canyon during our recent roadtrip.

Crowds are supposed to make us feel safe. As a female journalist travelling the world solo, I admit that’s generally how I feel. A tradeshow or conference floor is my habitat. As I return to Aachen, Germany, I am reminded that it’s wise to keep up your guard as not all fellow delegates have good intentions.

It’s been four years since I attended a sensor-based sorting conference and it bothers me that I still think about a particular moment. There were so many innovative ideas presented that year, which I wrote about. That’s my job, after all. Something that didn’t make the page was a sneaky guy that thought it necessary to grab my ass during lunch.

It’s something I’ve often replayed in my head. When: 12:15, the second day of the event. Where: Aachen University. Who: researchers, recyclers, engineers and business people. A well-dressed, highly educated bunch. Everyone was mingling around the buffet and sipping coffee and tea at white linen tables. It’s a familiar scene: business cards are exchanged, introductions made.

I was talking to a group of three people when it happened. It was a slow, lingering motion. Not an accidental bump or someone carelessly throwing their bag over their shoulder. I turned on my heel instinctively. ‘What the hell? Who did that?’ The words echoed in my mind as I scanned the room.

I saw a young man with a Justin Bieber haircut wearing a green jacket make his way to the salads and sandwiches. There was no one else. It had to have been him.

I looked at the rest of my party to gauge whether anyone had noticed, embarrassed. They didn’t react and almost automatically I fell back into conversation. But my mind was otherwise engaged. I couldn’t fathom that someone would harass me at work, in broad daylight, in public. Such a cowardly and opportunistic move.

As it happened behind my back I had no proof, just a gut feeling. I was so confused and annoyed at the same time but knew full well I wasn’t imaging things.

I turned around again and watched him fill his plate with food then walk back towards me, en route to his table. He came really close – bizarre considering the entire middle section of the room was completely empty. This time, I took a giant step sideways, looking him straight in the eye in silent judgement. He smirked. Was that a confession?

After the break, I returned to my seat in the front row and renewed my focus on the projects being discussed. This proved almost impossible when I saw him take the stage to give a presentation. The researcher seemed goofy and shy – a ‘good guy’. I alternated staring holes into his face with staring out the window. When his lecture ended I did not applaud.

It was one of the last presentations of the day and I debated whether or not to file a complaint at the front desk. I figured he wouldn’t own up to it anyway. I’d likely be greeted with a vague non-excuse like; ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise.’ Neither did I want the organisation and other delegates to think I was being dramatic. (Let’s face it; in such cases, it’s always the woman’s reputation that suffers.)

I just wanted to go home, so I did. I then sent an email to my best friend to share my experience. It’s easier to type out such things than talk to someone face-to-face, isn’t it? She wrote back, sympathising and sharing similar experiences of her own. This helped a great deal.

I realised I wasn’t alone. Thinking back on it, such incidents have happened a couple of times over the years. A white-haired recycling exhibitor in Italy old enough to be my grandfather (my first solo trip, too!) was my first shady encounter in the workplace. Just when you’ve almost forgotten about it, you find yourself in the same situation.

I’m glad at least that Covid postponed the inappropriate touching. It’s one of the perks of working from home! I just hope now that I’m back on the road, grabby men will keep their urges under control. We may have gone through the whole #metoo campaign but I get the sense that most men don’t really take it seriously. Or understand how much such a seemingly small moment can impact our state of mind.

For anyone who can’t fight temptation: consider this column a warning. Next time it happens, you’ll get a smack in the face. And I won’t care how “sorry” you are.

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