Sexual harassment stands in the way of young woman’s dream—but not for long
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Talia Landman’s blog, talialandman.wordpress.com.
By Talia Landman
This is an honest recap of my past 18 months since moving out here on my own to create a career for myself in space. This post is long because I really poured my guts into it. For those who do not know me maybe this will give you a better idea of who I am… and for those who do know me, well, maybe this will give you a better idea too. These experiences have molded me and shaped me into the woman I am at this very second. I am open to all comments, criticisms, etc., but I will not tolerate being judged. It really took a lot for me to write this and I hope it is received well. This is my honest story.
I moved out to Orlando in January 2014 to pursue what I was told was an “unrealistic” dream of working in the space industry. I moved out here with no leads, no one in my network, and no idea of how to get my foot in the door at the space center. All I had was an empty studio apartment, my sweet dog Juno, and an unexciting job as a recruiter for a recruiting firm called Aerotek. After three months at Aerotek I had a review with my boss who told me my interest in space was a “red flag” and they didn’t see a future for me at their company. (Later on I would see the same managers and recruiters at space events trying to land accounts like Lockheed Martin and SpaceX).
They let me go 3 days before my 24th birthday. It was a blessing in disguise. I spent my 24th birthday alone, but not really because I had Juno with me. She was my best friend and my family. That evening I went out and bought myself a small piece of cake from Publix and purchased a pack of birthday candles. Juno sat next to me on the floor of my empty living room and we (well, maybe just me) sang happy birthday. I made a wish, put a glob of icing on her nose, and blew out my candles. I guess this is the part where I tell you “be careful for what you wish for”.
At 23 years old, I didn’t have much to lose because I was already living the post grad struggle and the world was my canvas. Unemployment was a scary but exciting time for me. I felt free to paint my own opportunities and create my future. I wasn’t afraid of struggling. In fact, I wanted to struggle. Our struggles are so important to our success.
I did a lot of networking a couple months prior to my exit from Aerotek. On the weekends I went to the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex for events like the Robot Rocket Rally and found there was a small network of young professionals working in STEM programs. I was very, very excited when I got a call from one of them asking if I could come in to interview for a job at KSCVC working with foreign students on STEM projects. I was beyond excited! The interview went really well and about a week and a half later I found myself calling KSCVC my place of work.
I was so thankful and so fortunate to finally have an opportunity to work in space. I was working for a STEM program out of the Center for Space Education at KSCVC. It was called “SpaceTrek.” I was working with students ages 13-18 and communicating space and science to them in ways that got them excited. Their enthusiasm was contagious. I was an instructor teaching them how to build and program robots using LEGO Mindstorms. However, my background wasn’t in engineering or education, it was in communications and multimedia journalism. I wanted to help grow the program and get it exposed so more schools would want to participate, not just foreigners.
One morning there was an Atlas-V launch and my students and I watched from the entrance gates to the park. A teacher was there with her students and she asked me if the rocket had people on it. I answered her back by explaining that we haven’t sent a human up to space from American soil in nearly three years. I asked her where she taught and was alarmed when she said Titusville. I knew Florida wasn’t top in education, but the space program makes up a big chunk of Florida’s history and economy. I told my supervisor, a man named Jim C., that I wanted to help market this program and open it up to local schools. He said DNC was helping with marketing and advertising but they weren’t really pulling in many groups. It was at this time I was told my hours would be cut to help SpaceTrek from going under. I told him to give me two weeks to build up social media accounts for SpaceTrek and I would boost our exposure and bring in more students.
My supervisor worked under an Indian man named Abhishek. He was quiet but very nice and knowledgeable, also the CEO of his STEM education company and a travel company in India. He pulled into work every day in his little BMW sports car and worked silently in the annex where SpaceTrek had a mock-up lunar surface. Other than the day I interviewed I really didn’t have much interaction with him. He was peculiar and wouldn’t make eye contact, so I was very surprised when Jim told me Abhishek specifically asked that I drive him to the airport before his flight. I agreed and I drove him to the airport that day. We talked a bit in the car and had lunch at Chilis before his flight to India. At Chilis he asked for my cell phone number and said that since I worked for him its best that we have a means of contact. I agreed and stored his number in my phone, then texted him so he got mine. He was off to his terminal and I went home for the day.
Thats when everything started to go downhill.
I never thought I’d be a victim of sexual harassment so early on in my career. I never thought I’d be dealing with something so humiliating and frightening at a place I once considered the happiest place on Earth.
I’ve had many managers and bosses who preferred texting over phone calls. Its easier to text and have something in writing to refer back to, but there needs to be a line drawn when it comes to communicating. It’s appropriate to communicate with your boss about business during business hours, but communicating about non-business during non-business hours is not. Abhishek didn’t see anything wrong with texting me at strange hours and asking me personal questions. I didn’t feel comfortable answering them but I was afraid of losing my job. Here I am, just landed a dream job at KSCVC, and within my first week of work my boss is asking me why I’m single and what happened with my last relationship. Frankly, it was none of his business but I was afraid to tell him that. So I kindly responded and told him that my career is my biggest focus right now and I don’t have time for a relationship.
But he didn’t stop there.
He asked me questions about my sex life, my personal life, and what shocked me the most was when he asked me if college girls in America are like those on “Girls Gone Wild.” I was humiliated that my boss was asking me these kinds of things. I was focusing on bringing more students into his program and inspiring the youth to pursue their dreams of working in space and science. Why didn’t he ask me about that?
When Abhishek returned from India I felt so small and so insignificant. Not only was he continuing his previous behavior of not looking me in the face or acknowledging my existence, but he was continuing to ask me questions that I didn’t want to answer via text. He asked me three times to go see a movie with him and all three times I politely declined. He would try to get me to pity him by telling me how lonely he was and how no one wanted to do things with him. I felt sorry for him but I still didn’t want to hang out with my boss outside of work. I was feeling really uncomfortable and had no one to talk to about it. I continued to do my job and focused on building up our Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts. I was taking pictures of the students with their water rockets. Uploading videos of the students racing their robots. I was tweeting out their projects to random engineers at NASA JPL and NASA Johnson who would tweet back to the students and get them all excited. When I was with my students I wasn’t worrying about my boss. They brought a smile to my face and reminded me why I was there in the first place. To Abhishek, I was nothing, but to my students I was a role model and a teacher.
I never thought I’d be a victim of sexual harassment so early on in my career. I never thought I’d be dealing with something so humiliating and frightening at a place I once considered the happiest place on Earth. My co-workers noticed a change in me. I was always looking behind my back to see who was walking behind me. I was really nervous to let any of them check my phone. I started to feel very self-conscious and very alone. Eventually I had to open up about it and my co-worker Ryan wasn’t surprised the slightest bit. In fact, that was the reason why the last girl left. Abhishek was sending her nasty texts as well, and went as far to comment on her weight and appearance in front of her students. The girl I replaced got a new job working in the same building. Suddenly it made sense why Jim and Abhishek were telling me to stay away from her. Little did I know that girl they warned me to stay away from was about to be my savior.
Abhishek sent me a text on a Sunday morning in early June telling me to reconsider my position with his company if I didn’t want to acknowledge his text messages. (He texted me the night before at 10 pm and I did not feel like I had to answer it. I knew it wasn’t work-related and it was during non-business hours). That was when I had enough. I told him that this had gone too far and I was going to inform Jim, my supervisor, of what was going on because my job should not be in jeopardy. This was not how a boss should be interacting with his employee. I should not have to feel pressured to go on a date with my boss or to tell him about my sex life. That is private and has nothing to do with my position with his company. He told me this was not Jim’s business and that I should not tell Jim about it. I went ahead and called Jim anyway. He didn’t answer so I left him a voicemail and sent him the screenshots. He texted me back and told me everything was going to be okay. Deep down I knew it wasn’t.
The following day I showed up to work ready to talk to Jim but he blew me off and said it had to wait until after the students arrived. Fine. I went about my morning doing my job but when Abhishek walked into the classroom I had to run out. I was frightened beyond belief because I ratted him out to Jim and nothing was being done. This man who made me feel as small as a piece of dirt was still walking around my classroom, give me death stares, and making me feel very uncomfortable. I went to Jim and begged to go and have a conversation somewhere. We needed to talk. I had tears in my eyes. He finally agreed to do so and within two minutes of our talk he told me to go home. He said they will have everything sorted and my job was not in jeopardy. He told me to call one of the investors to discuss the problem. There was no HR in place or any kind of regulations when it came to harassment. The hardest part was that Abhishek was Jim’s boss and there was not much Jim could do. He was more concerned about keeping his job than he was about me.
I did all I could do to try to save my job and get things figured out but in the end I lost. My quality of life started to deteriorate. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I was hysterically crying because I knew the end was near. I worked so hard to get myself here and now I was being shoved out. I was about to lose my job because I did the right thing and notified my supervisor about something inappropriate happening in the work place. Abhishek was still walking into the classrooms I was in and giving me uncomfortable glares. I tried to stay strong and when I felt tears coming on I would run out to the bathroom and hide. One morning, when I felt tears coming, I ran to the bathroom but it filled with students. A young girl got sick and threw up on herself and she was in the bathroom with a chaperone. I ran out and found an empty corner in the hallway and started to cry. Like a baby, I held my knees to my chest and sobbed to myself wondering what it was I did to deserve this. I just wanted to pursue my passion for an industry I loved. I wanted to inspire young kids to pursue their dreams. I wanted to make a positive impact. Why was this happening? What did I do to deserve this?
That was when she appeared.
Megan came to me with tissues in her hand. We had never spoken before but it was like we already knew each other. The first thing I asked her was “did he do this to you too” and she looked at me and nodded her head. We walked into her office and she sat at her desk watching me wipe away my tears. Before we could even get to talking Jim came in to grab me. It was obvious he didn’t want me talking to her. Before I could confide in this beautiful angel, I was pulled away by a man who did not have my best interests at heart. It was like being pulled from heaven back to hell. He reiterated that I needed to stay away from Megan. Normally I didn’t ask any questions but this time I did. “Why? Why should I stay away from the one woman who understands what I’m going through? Why can’t I talk to her? What did Megan do to you that made you dislike her so much? She did nothing wrong.” She left SpaceTrek after a year of harassment and poor treatment and I was about to become the new Megan. She opened up her office to me the following day and we talked for a while. I was no longer alone and she helped me gain the strength I needed to leave the poor work environment that was shredding my confidence and my soul. I will never forget it and to this day I am so thankful for her.
The conversation in text messages between me and my boss is a document I have stored. I will never delete it. I tried to use it to show my supervisor and Human Resources at Delaware North Corporation (they run the visitors complex, not NASA) but it never helped. I was ignored. My situation was swept under the rug. Abhishek retaliated against me three times after I informed the investors of the situation. First he changed the password to my e-mail address so I couldn’t send/receive work e-mails. Then he kicked me off the social media networks I created and was solely maintaining for his company, so again, I couldn’t do my job. Then he took me off the schedule indefinitely. I had to hear this from my supervisor, Jim, who smiled in my face when he told me I was no longer on the schedule. I had bills to pay, a dog to feed, myself to feed, and other expenses. Meanwhile, the two interns were still on the schedule and neither of them had any expenses to pay- not even rent! I actually NEEDED to work. What happened to the week before when Jim promised me that my job was not going to be in jeopardy? I was beyond distraught.
I can go on forever about this. The situation replays in my head at least once a day and I get upset over it. I get upset because Abhishek’s program is still at KSCVC and Jim was promoted to the head of DNC Education. I went about a month unemployed after I was forced to quit my job. I was considering pressing charges but was advised not to do so because it would hurt my reputation and make it harder to obtain employment. How could this be possible that there are rules in place to protect women from this type of harassment but should we try to protect ourselves we only get hurt in the end. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It makes me so angry because I didn’t deserve to lose my job. I didn’t deserve the harassment or the poor treatment or any of this.
I wasn’t going to give up though. (The best kind of revenge isn’t a lawsuit- it’s ultimate success and if Abhishek could see me now he would probably shit his pants).
I spent the next few weeks reaching out to random people on LinkedIn and trying to find work. I considered bar tending and working in restaurants, but I was told that I belonged in space. During my short time at SpaceTrek I gained a following of other space enthusiasts and advocates who were excited to see a young woman so passionate about the space program. The encouragement I got from random strangers and people who barely knew me had me thinking that maybe there was something else out there for me. Something bigger, something better. I was hopeful that something good was about to happen.
A few days before I gained the courage to leave my job, Megan invited me to attend a SpaceX launch party. The launch was scrubbed (OrbComm) but I had a great time. I met some really brilliant people who worked for SpaceX and it was really inspiring hearing them talk about what they do. One of them ended up becoming a close friend of mine. I remember meeting him that evening and him asking me what I did for work. I was uneasy answering the question because I didn’t know how to sound excited about a job I was about to leave. I asked him if he wanted to hear the truth, he said yes, and I spilled my guts to this random stranger. He listened to me vent for a good ten minutes. After I was done venting I changed the subject to running. He said he was interested in running a half marathon but the furthest he could go was maybe 2 miles at most. (We would become running buddies and four months later he ran his first marathon, my second, at the Space Coast Marathon).
During the month of July I met a lot of inspirational people. I met a communicator, Stephen, at KSCVC who was just as passionate about New Space as I was- probably more. He became a mentor and a close friend who listened to me and offered me advice. He still works at KSCVC and gives incredible tours of Atlantis and the space center. At one point I almost was his co-worker but the opportunity had me working strange hours (if any) with very little pay. As much as I wanted to work at KSCVC, I had to give up the opportunity because I wasn’t going to be able to make ends meet. I took a job at Toyota as a digital marketing specialist instead. At that point my happiness didn’t matter to me as much as my financial situation.
I wasn’t giving up on my dreams. I was just taking another route to get there.
The girls at Toyota thought I was a huge nerd and they loved it. I enjoyed working with a small team of cute, girly social media specialists. I was learning how to manage digital marketing for a big brand and it was exciting. I was writing about cars, not rockets, but hey, it was a start! I was making decent money too and had my own little cubicle. I felt like a real adult! However, I REALLY missed space and took any opportunity I could get to go back out to the space center and watch a launch.
During this time I was dating someone at SpaceX who was able to bring me on to the air force station to watch launches. I asked if my friends could come along too. He got a kick out of watching us space geeks nerd out over rockets… but it scrubbed. So instead he took us to view some of the abandoned launch pads and gave us a tour of SpaceX facilities. I saw Falcon on its side inside the hangar at Pad 40. I remember walking underneath the giant rocket and thinking to myself, “Is this real life? It can’t be.”
But it was… and it only got better.
We came back out the following week to watch Delta-IV roar to life and I got my first photographs of a rocket launch. The next day, while I was at work at Toyota, a young man by the name of Alex reached out to me on Facebook. He wanted to know where I took the photos and if I was media. I told him I wasn’t and had a friend who helped me get out there to view the launch. He asked me if I wanted to be media, and I said yes, of course. The young man was 14 years old but established as a photographer. He reached out to his editor, sent him my photos and by the next day I had a freelance gig with a space news publication. However, the publication didn’t want to use me for photography, just writing, and it was unpaid. Still, I was getting my head back in the game and was very happy to produce content on rockets, not just cars. When the opportunity to apply for media credentials came for the next SpaceX launch I asked the editor if I could apply. He said no. I was disappointed but my friends at SpaceX got me out there as a guest and I watched the rocket soar to space with other guests and VIPs. When my editor saw my pictures from the SpaceX watch party on Facebook, he asked what I “needed him for” and went ahead and tagged the publication on all of my shots. I thought it was a bit rude since I wasn’t there representing his publication, I was there representing myself. Alex was a bit bothered by the fact I wasn’t being used for photography but I assured him it was okay. I didn’t mind. Alex came to me a few weeks later and told me he was leaving the publication for a new one. That same one reached out to me and offered to pay me for my content. I couldn’t say no. I was still working at Toyota but freelancing for AmericaSpace on the side.
My first time at the space center as media was for the Orion roll out. By that time I had seen countless rocket launches, met a ton of professionals in the space industry, and became the center director’s running buddy. I pulled an all-nighter capturing shots of Orion rolling to the pad and made it to work on time the next day. Eyes droopy, brain feeling like mush, but I had the biggest smile on my face.
The girls at Toyota didn’t really talk much about anything besides their boyfriends, clothes, and television shows. I often found myself kind of just sitting there with nothing much to say. I didn’t care about clothes. I didn’t have a boyfriend. The only Netflix show I watched was House of Cards. It was obvious I was the odd-ball in the group and I didn’t mind it. The girls kind of “followed” our director and did whatever she said because they were afraid of her. I was afraid of her too. The environment became increasingly hostile and when my apartment complex told me my rent would increase by about $300+ per month I knew I could no longer survive working at Toyota as a digital marketing specialist. The hours were killer. The workload was insane and I couldn’t stand being micromanaged by a woman who literally threatened to chop off our fingers if we made a mistake. One time she called me a “dumb ass” and accused me of plagiarism on a blog post that I could have written with my eyes closed. It required no research. Meanwhile, I was writing technical and scientific articles for a space news publication that actually required thought and research. To accuse me of plagiarism was an insult to my intelligence but I took it all with a smile and did what I had to do. I was very fortunate when Toyota let me take off for the Orion launch. Unfortunately, it scrubbed that day and I had to watch it on my tiny television the following morning as I got ready for work. Devastated.
I met the managing editor of the publication at the Orion scrub. We clicked immediately and I knew I was with the right team. I loved working with AmericaSpace and I loved the people I was working with. Believe it or not, I first met Alex at the Orion launch after months of chatting via text messages and on Facebook. I felt at home. I felt so happy. I was back where I belonged and all of the terrible things that happened to me over the summer were in the past. They were long gone. I was moving up and onwards and my dream was still very much alive.
I left my job at Toyota in mid-December for a number of reasons. Yes, I was unhappy and wanted to work in space but I also had bills to pay. My time was being wasted in a cubicle doing the same tasks day after day after day. No chance of a raise and no opportunities for growth in the company. I realized that if I did what I did for Toyota for my publication then I can raise our viewership and exposure. I pitched this idea to my managing editor and thankfully he was on board. I pitched the same idea to a couple more small businesses who agreed to try me out for a month or two. Some contracts fell through. Some people who promised to pay me ended up expecting me to work for them on a volunteer type basis (free). Some businesses didn’t see the point of having someone manage their social media or digital marketing. It was all good though. I was managing AmericaSpace on a variety of platforms and basically doing what I wanted to do for SpaceTrek but on a whole new level.
I was freelancing and working on my own schedule. I was there when Orion returned from California after EFT-1. I was there for the State of the NASA budget rollout. I was at NASA for a variety of launches and events. Photographing and writing articles. Spreading space and my excitement for the industry. I was invited to attend the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs by the Space Foundation. I traveled to Colorado and met even more incredible professionals in the industry and young adults with the same passion.
Things started to come together. Everything made sense. Of course, there were more hardships along the way. I gained friends and I lost friends. Some of whom I thought were my closest friends ended up becoming strangers. It’s okay though. Everyone who walked in to my life and out of my life had a purpose. They all served their part and I’m so fortunate to have had them in my life when I did- even if it wasn’t for long. When I thought I was being shoved out of an opportunity, I was being redirected to a better one. I think back to last summer and the awful situation I was in and then I look at myself now. All in just one year I’ve gotten myself this far. I can’t wait to see where I will be a year from now!
I am a freelance writer and communications specialist. I am a runner and an animal-lover. Im a diehard space nerd with an hardcore passion for the space industry. I can’t talk to you about the latest fashion trends but I can explain how the Atlas-V rocket works and how NASA will take humans to Mars via the Orion spacecraft. I am 25 years-old, incredibly single, living on my own in Orlando and I’m making it work. I don’t know where I will end up in the next few years. Sheesh, I don’t even know where I will end up next month but the fact of the matter is that I am here. This is who I am. This is where I belong and when things do not go as planned I refuse to give up. I am resilient. I thrive off of challenges and hardships. The industry has taught me that when you get knocked down, you got to stand up again, or else you never will. You have to learn from your mistakes or else you’ll never grow. You have to believe in yourself or else you’ll never know what you could have been. You have to have tough skin, especially as a woman. Most of all- you have to have a passion. Passion will take you anywhere and everywhere. Passion will open up doors and passage ways you never knew existed. Passion will get you to where you belong. You just have to believe in yourself.
The greatest advice I can give to someone who wants to pursue their passion is to just go ahead and do it. Dive head first into it. Make yourself vulnerable. Open yourself up to challenges and do not be afraid to fail. Failure is not the end, but rather a beginning of something new. If it doesn’t work then try it again, perhaps a different way this time.
Keep in mind that when one door closes another one is going to open. Keep working towards your goal. That is exactly what I am doing and will continue to do. Don’t believe me? Just watch.
Here are some random photographs from this past year that pretty much sum up how awesome and crazy it has been!