The Silicon Valley’s Sexism Problem

Opportunity. Innovation. Success. These are all words that come to mind when you think of the Silicon Valley. But in the last month, that image of the tech world has taken a darker turn. As more and more women from the Valley have reported cases to The New York Times and CNN, the words that were once hushed whispers have taken center stage: sexual harassment.

THE CAPITAL IMBALANCE

Entrepreneur Gesche Haas received the e-mail from investor Pavel Curda immediately after their business meeting over drinks. But it didn’t have anything to do with her business; instead it contained a proposition for sex.   

Haas was one of the many women who have recently come out about the sexual harassment they have experienced in the tech world. It started with the ousting of Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick, which was a result of investigations that were triggered by Susan Fowler’s blog post. The week that Kalanick resigned, more than two dozen women have come out with similar stories of harassment, especially in the venture capitalist industry. In an area where men dominate and success and power often go unchecked, the recent allegations are sending out a strong message: Whether you are a female engineer just starting a rotation on a team, or a female entrepreneur trying to fund a start-up, be ready to tolerate the sexual advances of the men who are supposed to be mentoring you.

“Investors fund people, not just ideas,” is a widely held belief in the Valley. It’s easy to understand why. A mediocre entrepreneur can have a great idea, but it can fall short if they can’t execute it properly. On the other hand, a great entrepreneur can potentially turn a mediocre idea into a successful business. So it’s important, and justifiable, that investors get to know founders. And it’s common for these meetings to happen in casual settings, such as over drinks or dinner.

But for female entrepreneurs, pitch meetings can go drastically wrong very quickly. In an interview with CNN, Lisa Wang, the cofounder of SheWorx, recounts one such experience with an investor at a Starbucks. “We’re sitting [there], and he grabs my face and tries to make out with me, and I push him back in surprise, and just didn’t know what to do, because he continued to try again, and was so aggressive,” she said. Afterward, he tried to follow her into her hotel room [1].

Investors use these professional discussions as opportunities to make sexual advances because of the gender imbalance in the entrepreneur- investor relationship. Men invest in men. If one decides to invest in a woman, she better have something else to offer other than a good idea for a start-up. 

According to a recent survey reported by CNN, 89 percent of those making investment decisions at the top 72 firms are male, which means female entrepreneurs are pitching their business ideas primarily to men. Furthermore, a report from the the data firm PitchBook says that in 2016, venture capitalists invested $1.5 billion into startups founded by women. It seems like a lot. But that number pales in comparison to the whopping $64.9 billion that VCs invested into male-founded startups.

Bea Arthur, an entrepreneur who founded a mental health startup and who has had her own share of these encounters, puts the issue into perspective during the CNN interview: “If [the male investor] looks at another man, he sees them as an opportunity, a colleague, a peer, a mentor. But if you’re a female founder, he just sees you as a woman first” [2].

A MAN’S NINE LIVES

Even with the torrent of allegations that have come out in recent weeks, the Silicon Valley continues to prevent women from going public about sexual harassment through non-disparagement clauses. It works as a safety net for both sides. If a woman speaks out, she could be labeled as “hard to work with,” which could threaten future career opportunities. But Kalanick’s resignation is also a warning of what can happen to successful people when the media gets a hint of bad news. What happened to Uber, Binary Capital and 500 Startups could happen to any company.

Their concerns are understandable. A company is nothing without a good reputation, which is probably why VC Justin Caldbeck only now resigned after seven years of harassing women at three different firms, and investment firms only now pulled out funding for Binary Capital. The same reason that Travis Kalanick only resigned from Uber once the board decided that Susan Fowler’s blog post was getting too much attention, and that they couldn’t shove the worms back in the can fast enough.

But people who commit sexual harassment are known to have done it more than once— and will continue to do it even once caught. Caldbeck just happened to have run out of his nine lives. So if companies are going to make their employees sign non-disparagement clauses, they should at least take it upon themselves to prevent situations like this from happening again. A zero tolerance policy. A public disclosure, so that predators can’t just go harass women in another company. Bottom line: There will be no second chance.  

CHALLENGING THE NORM

Sexual harassment in the tech place is not a singular issue. It’s not just a couple men who were continuously shoving their hands in the cookie jar until they got caught. But it’s very easy for men to pull the “not all VCs” or “not all tech bros” card— not all of them are groping women under tables. As Niniane Wang, CEO of Evertoon and one of the women who spoke out against Caldbeck, pointed out, just because men haven’t overtly discriminated against women by following them into hotel rooms doesn’t mean they are innocent of participating in something seemingly far less grievous: locker room talk. Sexist comments that contribute to an overall culture of sexual discrimination, often made in private rooms full of men where no one is held accountable. Such as a high school locker room. Or a tech firm’s board meeting. The only way to combat that? Bring women into the room.

Invest in women. Hire diverse people with diverse thoughts— and use the status quo to your advantage. As a recent Harvard study noted, “People have a bias in favor of preserving the status quo; change is uncomfortable. So because 95% of CEOs are white men, the status quo bias can lead board members to unconsciously prefer to hire more white men for leadership roles” [3]. If there’s only one woman or minority in a pool of finalists, they have statistically no chance of getting the position, because the singularity highlights the fact that they are different. But what the study found was that adding even one more woman or minority in a finalist group can significantly increase their chances of being selected. Managers need to work to get multiple women in the pool of finalists, so that they have a fighting chance for the position.

And just as important as getting diverse people to join a company, is the ability to keep them there. The retention rate of people in diverse groups and their satisfaction in their jobs needs to be as much of a Key Performance Indicator as revenue growth and profit. Are people comfortable speaking up? Do they feel confident and capable in their own skin? Do they feel that the company culture sets them up for success? If you are an intern or just starting out at a company, ask yourself the same questions.

Many young women aspire to someday work at Silicon Valley’s biggest companies: Apple, Google, Facebook. Many dream of starting their own companies one day. What is going on right now should not hinder them from doing so. Things are changing, if Justin Caldbeck’s, David Mclure’s and Travis Kalanick’s resignations are any indicators to go by. Things are changing because of the dozens of women who spoke out against a pervasive, sexist culture that needed to go— despite the fact that doing so would put their own careers on the line.

No matter where you decide to work in the future, make sure you know your own value, and don’t feel like you have to give parts of yourself up just to reach your goals. Speak up if you see injustices going unheard. Do not excuse the actions of the rich and the powerful— being successful doesn’t give them the right to do anything they want without consequences. The Silicon Valley builds the future, a future that includes all of us. There is no room for sexism at the table.

** THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE DO NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE WOMEN IN BUSINESS AND ITS MEMBERS.