From Kalnick to Caldbeck: It’s Time to Eliminate Sexism in Startup Culture

Women in the startup community continue to use their voices, at great personal peril, to speak out about their experiences with sexism and harassment to try to effectuate change. We applaud those brave female founders who used their voices to identify VC Justin Caldbeck as someone who abused his power and privilege to engage in sexual harassment, as first published by The Information late last week. This latest revelation about the bias and harassment that female founders face when trying to raise capital set off alarm in the VC community. We hope that alarm finally leads to VCs to work to create the real change we need to build a more inclusive startup culture.

Earlier this year, Susan Fowler came forward to provide detail around the sexist and misogynistic culture at Uber, one of Silicon Valley’s treasured unicorns. Her bravery finally led to an in-depth investigation and a commitment at Uber to work on reducing the systemic bias that seemed to be part of the company’s DNA. Silicon Valley was aware of the toxic culture at Uber, as set by its leader, at least as early as 2014 when Travis Kalnick joked to GQ that his success at Uber led to women on demand for him, better known as “Boob-er”. Nothing was done then. It took Ms. Fowler’s courage to force a change in the dialog from “boys will be boys” to “this is a real problem that can no longer be tolerated.”

The Caldbeck accusations and the findings of the Uber investigation into bias and harassment in the workplace are symptomatic of a startup culture that still views and treats women as “other” who don’t belong in the startup world. When the data show that only 3% of all companies that received venture capital funding had a female CEO, it means investors still assume that women are not suited to be successful startup CEOs. This assumption is false. There is no shortage of research, data, and writing on this topic.

The startup community needs to put to rest the idea that it is a meritocracy. It is a bastion of privilege that supports straight white males on the basis of their ideas and potential. Anyone who doesn’t match that pattern must work twice at least twice as hard, be at least twice as good, and deal with at least twice as many challenges to be seen and heard by the VC community to get their ideas funded (if at all). Bias is an institutional barrier that keeps the best ideas from rising to the top.

Even in Boston, where we are based, sexism and bias harm female founders and their opportunity for success. A study funded by a Kauffman Foundation grant, “Gender Inclusion Activities in Entrepreneurship Ecosystems: The Case of St. Louis, MO and Boston, MA” written by Professor Banu Ozkazanc-Pan examined how the myth of meritocracy in Boston has resulted in stagnant growth for female founders. The report finds:

Even when there is a general awareness and concern about the lack of women in the ecosystem, there are no consistent policies, systematic programs or intentional practices to address the gender gap.

Without a concerted effort by the entire startup community to be more inclusive and to eliminate the myth that “meritocracy” will advance the best ideas, Boston won’t be as great as it could be. Change is needed and women can’t force the required change alone.

We are glad that Reid Hoffman responded to the Justin Caldbeck revelations by issuing a call to action, writing:

We all need to solve this problem. If you stay silent, if you don’t act, then you allow this problem to perpetuate. And you send the public signal, ‘we don’t care.’

Locally, in response to the Caldbeck story, the New England Venture Capital Association pledges to fight sexual harassment and discrimination and to take action, including training on unconscious bias.

SheStarts applauds any and all efforts to recognize and address gender bias in the startup world. Training and a commitment from VCs to acknowledge and address unconscious bias is a good start. However, we must go further to make real change. VCs must use their power and privilege to insist on gender balanced panels at startup events (Innovation Women can help). They must ensure that their portfolio companies are hiring diverse talent at all levels (Tech Connection helps with this). They muse ensure that women are specifically sought out and invited to events (we are happy to share events with the SheStarts community). VCs must also be purposeful about making their respective networks more diverse (the Impact Seat can help with this). Finally, and most importantly, to fully commit to eliminating gender bias, VCs must measure and publish the gender diversity of their portfolio companies. Without such data, there is no way to determine who is making progress and what is really working. This is our call to action. We hope it will be answered.

SheStarts supports women founders in Boston. Through networking, coaching and events, we connect women entrepreneurs with the people and resources they need.