How the Community Approach can Save Venture Capital from its Systemic Gender Power Dynamic
These past few months working in the tech world strongly reminded me of my early years in college, when I first began to comprehend the rampant power dynamics between women and men. In college, fraternities have parties and formals, in which brothers invite women from around campus to attend. Without thinking much about it (at least I would hope so), the fraternity and its brothers create a dangerous power dynamic by providing “free” alcohol and space for all to attend. For invitation-only formals, the expectation to “reciprocate” is tremendous. I have often heard men around campus lamenting that they took someone to a formal and they did not even “hook up” with them.
The parallels between the college fraternity experience and the venture capital community are quite scary, but rather than social clout, female entrepreneurs are risking career and financial success. The stakes are higher and the power dynamic is accentuated. As are most hosts for parties in college, venture capitalists are largely males (specifically white males), especially those with decision-making power (only 7% of decision makers in U.S.-based venture capital firms are women according to Axios). High-level discussions of sexual harassment and power dynamics are likely muted by the lack of diverse voices speaking up to bring these issues to light.
That is why it is so important that women have come forward and reported the inappropriate behavior by Justin Calbeck and the many other VCs that have had accusations levied against them. Other women in the tech community who have come out and written pieces about their previously unannounced experiences with similar sexual harassment also deserve tremendous recognition. Justin Caldbeck is not and has not been the only venture capitalist to exhibit this behavior (since originally drafting this, several other dominoes have fallen, including the revelations about Dave McClure of 500 Startups). The more people who come forward, the more the community will understand this is not an idiosyncratic problem, but rather a systemic one.
I have read many accounts by women in tech and venture capital and was profoundly impacted by the words of Brittany Laughlin, a Partner at Lattice Ventures. She spoke to her own experiences with harassment from men in the venture capital community. To avoid these issues, she did the following:
“I stopped taking 1–on-1 meetings over drinks or dinner, I brought up my boyfriend if conversations probed for more intimacy, and I shifted my wardrobe from dresses to more unisex uniform of jeans and a blazer. I wanted to be seen as an entrepreneur, not as a female entrepreneur, because being a woman in tech opens the door to a lot of unwelcome attention and it distracted me from what I was there to do — build a business.”
Again, these words bring me back to my college parallel. A narrative that is sadly perpetuated in conversations around the issue of sexual assault on campus is the use of alcohol by women. It is not uncommon to hear male administrators and others ignorantly imposing their thoughts on the situation to opine, “if the women didn’t drink so much, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
No one should have to change their behavior because of the malicious acts of others. Whether it is the clothing one wears or the alcohol one consumes, these details are not and should not be scapegoats for nefarious actions. “She was asking for it” are words that always send shivers down my spine and I wish would exit from the male lexicon.
So what can we do? How do we solve this problem moving forward? Survivors of harassment and assault coming forward is a great first step. The dialogue proliferated by the media coverage is another crucial step. But in a few months, when the Calbeck and McClure stories are long in the rear-view mirror, buried by thousands of other stories, how do we maintain the momentum?
Yet again I will draw on a parallel to sexual assault on college campuses. We must take a community approach to solving this issue, which means that we have to monitor not only our own behavior, but also everyone else in the community who could put someone at risk. On college campuses, this is often referred to as the bystander approach, as bystanders are expected to intervene in situations that seem unsavory.
The majority of men are not perpetrators and couldn’t conceive the idea of assaulting a woman, thereby justifying their excusal from this conversation. To these men: it is not just about “you”, it is about the community. When someone said to me, “I feel bad for Jonathan Teo (Justin Calbeck’s business partner at Binary Capital), he didn’t do anything wrong,” I strongly disagreed. A culture of inappropriate behavior is not a problem that can be solved in a vacuum, it is one that we must work together on and point out when we spot it.
So how do we do this? We must educate everyone, men and women, to identify this behavior and provide them with the tool kit to stop it and prevent it from happening. Most men receiving education on topics of sexual assault and harassment tune out, as they could never envision themselves as the perpetrator and even feel defensive if the educator is a woman. We must see more involvement by men to really see a change. Whether as educators, advocates or promoters of a safer community, men must be willing to be leaders in this conversation. It is important for issues of sexual assault and harassment never to be framed as men versus women, but rather as one community looking to make itself safer for each of its members.
As Brittany Laughlin said, “To really change behavior in our industry, we need allies just as much as we need whistleblowers.” Signing pledges is a great start, but let’s find a way to engage and educate those in venture capital, tech and beyond to provide them with the tool kit they need to prevent others from being harmed.
Please reach out to me if you have ideas or want to team up in this effort. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.