Shandra, the Spanish Invader
What hating my colleague taught me about my female relationships
When I first heard Shandra’s voice, I knew she was bad news. Her high pitch told me she wanted too much attention. The way she generously used her “pleases” and “thank yous” told me she was fake — nobody’s that nice. Her Spanish accent awoke the ancestral Portuguese warrior in me, who’d been fighting the Spaniards out of my land for centuries.
I’d been working in the lab for nine months before Shandra joined as the new Ph.D. student. The lab was my domain, and she had no business being there. She smiled all the fucking time. She invited me to go places. Everybody seemed to love her. But I could see through her charm. And whenever she arrived late at a meeting or spoke too loud in the kitchen, my brain would jump, point its finger in the air, and shout an orgasmic Aha! I knew it! What a horrible human being.
A year after she started, I told a colleague about a course I was planning to take next to my Ph.D., on optimization. Shandra overheard me.
“Optimization?” Shandra said. “Sounds interesting. I think I’ll also join.”
“I hear it’s actually kind of boring,” I improvised in an attempt to stop this calamity from happening before my eyes. “And it’s all in Dutch, so it’ll be hard to follow.”
We were in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, but we could barely keep a simple conversation in the language.
“I’m not even sure I should be doing it myself,” I concluded.
“Ah, don’t worry,” she reassured me. “I’m sure it will be great!”
And that’s how we started following the same course, together with another colleague, Carmen.
“Hey Lara, do you want to bike with us to class?” Shandra would ask with a smile.
“Oh, I’d love to,” I’d answer. “But <insert another excuse from my repertoire> so I can’t.”
“Hey Lara, we’re here! Sit next to us!” she’d offer as I entered the classroom.
“Oh, I’d love to, but I see better from that weird angle to the side.”
A month before the end of the course, the professor announced we had to do a group project, which would count for 20% of our grade. A made-up brewery was in dire need of optimizing its production processes, and only we could help. In groups of three, we were to prepare a report answering 20 questions to help their business flourish.
I didn’t know anyone else in the class, and all my excuses were beginning to sound suspicious. So I begrudgingly told Shandra I’d do the project with her and Carmen. We had a kickoff meeting and decided we’d go through all the tasks independently — minimal interaction required. Then, two days before the deadline, we’d meet again to put our efforts together.
I was working from home for those weeks, so all our communication was via email. I sent email after email to my groupmates, giving updates on my progress. Carmen would respond, sharing her insights and questions. But from Shandra, radio silence.
Then, the day before our scheduled final meeting, a colleague told me that Shandra had recently been to Spain for a few days visiting her boyfriend. My heart started to boil, So she has time for boyfriends, but not to do her share of the workload?
I’d reached the limit of my patience for Shandra’s behavior. I’d experienced my fair share of slackers growing up, who’d do nothing and get the same credit as me. I wasn’t going to put up with that. It was time for an email.
Carmen and I have been busting our asses doing this project. You have not. You don’t even bother answering your email. We all have lives, and yet we find time to do our work.
I hope you understand how serious this is. The deadline is in three days, and this report counts for 20% of our grades. ALL our grades.
If you still want to contribute something to this project, please work on the items I marked in red before our meeting tomorrow.
I hit send. I was finally showing my true colors. It felt amazing to have an excuse to show Shandra how I truly felt. To make her feel smaller. Because I finally had undeniable proof of what my gut had always known: she was an unreliable deadbeat looking to ruin my life. So she deserved it.
I imagined her reading the lines at her desk in the office. I imagined her outrage, her showing the email to her friends and calling me unspeakable things.
She didn’t answer.
The next day, I came to the office for our final group meeting. I was sure that Shandra would not have done any of the tasks I asked her to. She’d had less than a day, and they were the most complicated tasks of the entire report. She’d be defensive about her behavior, showing no remorse or shame. In the end, it would be up to me to finish everything — as usual.
“I’ve finished all the tasks you highlighted,” she said, to my surprise. Her voice was softer than usual. Although she barely looked at me, I could see the dark circles under her eyes.
We went through every question in the report. Anything I mentioned I’d like to change or add, even little OCD formatting details, Shandra volunteered to do it.
After our meeting, I dragged myself to my desk, still dumbfounded by what had just happened. I wondered what to do with the time that had just freed up on my calendar, now that Shandra was doing everything. I was so sure I’d have a fight with her and then do all the work myself. But instead, I got a humble, positive, helpful person. I saw fear in her eyes — fear of me. I was the bad guy.
I did a mind-scroll of all my previous interactions with Shandra. Why did I hate her guts? What had she done that was that serious of an infraction? If it had been any other colleague, I would have shown compassion and understanding. So why was she different?
I started to think about all the people in my life who I’ve hated for no reason, the people who’ve triggered this primal anger in me. And to my horror, I realized that these people were all fun, friendly, and female. There was the highly intelligent Rosarinho in primary school. There was the gorgeous Ana Isabel in high school. There was the sociable Cátia in University. And now, there was the friendly, green-eyed Shandra.
They had everything that I felt I didn’t. I envied them.
I felt so ashamed. I was a scientist — I was supposed to behave rationally. And I was a feminist too — I was supposed to support my fellow women in the workplace. But when it came to these women, I reduced them to a threat. My ape brain saw them as competition for mates, even if I wasn’t looking for one. I told myself that they were shallow, but I was the shallow one.
After the incident, Shandra and I awkwardly pretended it had never happened. I started being nicer to her, and our relationship got better with time. When she left our group, I wrote her a glowing recommendation on LinkedIn to help her with job hunting — something I don’t do lightly.
I also started the much harder work of looking at my own behaviors when it comes to assumptions. Unfortunately, I still find myself irrationally threatened by certain women regularly. I hope one day this will go away. But until then, I’ll tell myself, Lara, stop being such an ape!