Listen Up Gals: Here’s Whats Up with Tech
Listen Up Gals: Here’s What’s Up with Tech
Tech is not a meritocracy. It never has been. But it’s clearer now than maybe ever before just how structurally damaged it is.
It started one day in February when a former engineer at Uber, Susan Fowler, posted to her blog an account of her year working at the company. Then, a few weeks ago, it escalated with an article about Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of Binary Capital, and several different accounts from women he sexually harassed. And then, last week, dozens (dozens!) of women spoke to The New York Times to share their stories — implicating high-profile men in tech like Chris Sacca and Dave McClure.
To be clear, these kinds of accounts aren’t new. Julie Ann Horvath spoke about her experience at GitHub in 2014. Kelly Ellis tweeted about her experience at Google in 2015. Amélie Lamont wrote about her experience at Squarespace in 2016. Ellen Pao. Trae Vassallo. Adria Richards. Whitney Wolfe. Tannen Campbell. AJ Vandermeyden. Gesche Haas. Some instances have been more or less egregious than others, but I can’t imagine that there are any women in tech who haven’t experienced workplace discrimination or harassment of some form.
So what makes now any different? Well, maybe it’s not. Maybe the outrage will fade, and the men who’ve preyed on women will find new opportunities, where they’ll commit the same acts again. That’s what’s happened in the past. It’s happened at places where I’ve worked and to people I know — a workplace scandal, kept quiet, with a swift firing (at most) and believable cover story, no one the wiser.
But at least for the moment, it doesn’t look that way. Fowler’s story was one of a chain of events that led to Travis Kalanick’s resignation from Uber. The accounts from Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu resulted in Caldbeck’s resignation, followed by that of his co-founder, Jonathan Teo. Sarah Kunst and Cheryl Yeoh shared their experiences with McClure, forcing him to resign as general partner of 500 Startups. And the number of women publicly sharing their stories continues to mount. Just today, Coraline Ada Ehmke published a blog post about her time at GitHub — a company that had been slowly developing a reputation for improving diversity and inclusion. There’s a growing space for women to speak, and people are starting to listen.
The question is, what now?
Whether you’re female or male or non-binary, speak. Speak for yourself and for others if you can. Women of color (black and Latina in particular) are disproportionately affected. Women who are younger or in junior roles are disproportionately affected. Trans women are disproportionately affected. If you have the privilege of not falling into these categories, you’re in a better position than many, many others — and you should use it.
And, honestly, it sounds easy when I put it that way, but of course it’s not. A lot of the time, in everyday situations, I don’t do it. We’ve all been there, right? Someone who would consider himself a feminist makes a joke in a casual setting, and it’s meant to be harmless and funny, and everyone laughs, and maybe you don’t, but you don’t object, either. Because it would kill the vibe or make him feel bad or give you the reputation of being the woman in the office who’s too sensitive about women’s issues. Because sometimes you just want to be able to do your job and not be the one person in the room who has to push back.
That’s valid! I want to be good at what I do, and part of that is having good relationships with the people with whom I work — even the ones who can be problematic. Diversity and inclusion never goes anywhere if underrepresented people have to spend all of their time on diversity and inclusion instead of excelling in their fields.
But even so, I’m in a position where I can raise awareness for the kinds of issues that men can’t or don’t on campus, and soon in the workplace. So maybe part of my responsibility, my contribution to fixing the problem, can be making sure that incidents, big and small, get addressed. As much as I would like to just do my job, there need to be people who are willing to educate others when they’re open to it and people who push back when there are problems. Ashley Mayer, partner at Social Capital, tweeted on the subject:
Every woman deals with sexual harassment in her career. I'm no exception. And every woman builds up her defenses.
Early in your career, you become really, really good at deflecting, especially the low-level stuff in quasi-professional settings.
This is something I've prided myself on (gross). I protect myself, but also "protect" the ego of the guy. I don't want him to feel awkward.
Because awkwardness could hurt me professionally later on. I want everyone to leave the interaction feeling okay. Haha! No big deal!
I'm in a better position to push back than I was early in my career. So consider this my little pledge to make things awkward going forward.
Men are in an even better position to fix the problem, but many either don’t care (bad) or don’t feel able or welcome to join the conversation (better but still bad). Why is that bad? Shouldn’t women speak for themselves? Well, yes, but women face concrete consequences for doing that. They’re labeled as aggressive or emotional or reading too much into nothing. The latest term that’s been used to tone-police women who call attention to problems? “Non-empathetic communication style,” from Ehmke’s post.
Meanwhile, men who raise the same issues are more likely to be believed and more likely to have the support of others, both male and female. That doesn’t mean overshadowing the women experiencing the issues firsthand — just pointing to them and making sure that others give them the attention they deserve. Engineer Jonathan Howard tweeted this thread, noting the obstacles present for women who want to report harassment and offering suggestions on how men can help:
1/ With the recent news on harassment at Uber & VC, you may have noticed it's often women doing the hardest work... https://t.co/uD2SM1JIkj
The last piece is building structures that enable women to speak when there are problems. That’s the hardest part, and it takes everyone in a company to make it happen. Is diversity and inclusion a real priority? Are the demographics of the company conducive to a healthy workplace? Is there a clear code of conduct? Are there established processes for what happens when it’s violated? Is there someone (a manager, a mentor) who can advise on next steps after an incident? Is HR responsive and not defensive? Is there a mechanism for addressing incidents with people who aren’t part of the company (like interviewees or, in the case of investors, entrepreneurs)?
If any of the answers to the questions above are “No” or even “I don’t know,” then the odds are that there are problems right now, and the people who know about them don’t feel comfortable letting the company know. More crucially, the odds are that the company doesn’t want to know. Maybe the management is actively complicit in creating an unsafe or hostile work environment. Or maybe (more likely) the management sees diversity and inclusion as a distraction from the real work of the company, rather than a fundamental part of what makes somewhere a decent place to work.
In the case that it really is oversight, then now’s the time for action and not talk. Start critically evaluating your company. Take steps to put structures in place that establish unequivocally clear boundaries and mechanisms for discussing and reporting issues. Project Include’s recommendations are a good place to start. If you’re not in a position of power, talk to the people who are, and do what you can to make sure your concerns aren’t forgotten or ignored. Maybe you don’t feel like the right person to be raising this issue, but if no one else does, either, then it’s not going to happen. This year could be a tipping point for women in tech. Or not. But it’s on us.