#MeToo: The Dangers of Subtle Sexism in Fashion and Tech

The #MeToo movement has raised awareness around blatant forms of sexual assault and harassment. But as Katie Couric and Kara Swisher discussed in an episode of Recode Decode, it’s the “subtle sexism that’s marginalizing and dismissive and undervalues people’s accomplishments and intelligence and ability to contribute.”

Subtle workplace mistreatment is not just limited to biases around gender, but also race, culture, background and sexual orientation.

Startups and innovation teams within enterprise organizations are vital to the success of America’s economic future. But as we’ve recently witnessed in Silicon Valley, revolutionary tech without respect is detrimental to society. In fact, a workplace culture entrenched with sexism, racism and unconscious biases will stifle innovation.

As a startup founder who has worked with innovation departments and fashion and tech entrepreneurs, I understand the importance of forming your best team as early as possible. That entails finding people who you can trust — with the right mix of talent and skill. It also means bringing on people who appreciate your vision and who will not negatively impact your startup’s burn rate. In the case of tech startups and their investors, the men dominating the field often build teams with people who look like them — setting the stage for a workplace culture with little, if any diversity and inclusion.

Here are steps that innovative organizations can take early on to increase diversity and inclusion, free from abuse, mistreatment and harassment.

Build a culture of diversity, inclusion and acceptance from the start. The earlier a company integrates real diversity and inclusion and maintains a culture free of discrimination and harassment, the better. Not only are employees more effective in a positive work environment, an inclusive culture also leads to innovation and investments that drive global change.

We’ve seen how organizations make attempts to improve their diversity and inclusion efforts following a PR nightmare, but by that point it’s often too late. Even if a company hires a diversity and inclusion director, the workplace culture has already been set. New employees who do not resemble the core team will feel like outsiders, being hazed by fraternity members with built-in biases.

Schedule regular team meetings and one-on-one meetings with direct reports. Effective in-person communication among colleagues is one of the most important productivity tools for an organization, particularly in the age of emails, video chats and text messaging. One-on-one meetings give founders and managers an opportunity to check in with employees, better understand team members and encourage and support employees’ professional development. When meeting with colleagues, managers should maintain an open dialogue that is positive, unbiased and non-judgmental. Colleagues should also refrain from using profanity and other inappropriate language during work discussions. If you can’t say the word on broadcast TV, then you should not use it in a workplace setting.

Consult an employment attorney or HR professional. Startup founders and managers have the power to set the tone for their companies before they expand and are acquired by larger entities. Bringing on the right resources and consultants early on is essential, including employment law attorneys and human resource professionals. In New York City, many kinds of employees have rights under the City’s Human Rights Law, including interns (paid or unpaid), undocumented workers, part-time or probationary workers, domestic workers, and independent contractors.

For employees experiencing assault or harassment in the workplace, speaking up can be intimidating. There are resources available to help victims of sexual harassment, assault, abuse and misconduct in the fashion industry, including the Humans of Fashion Foundation and the Fashion Law Institute’s Pop-Up clinic.

For additional information on building a socially responsible and compliant company, please contact us at info@fashinnovation.com.

Kenya Wiley is a former counsel and senior policy adviser for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She is the founder and CEO of the Fashion Innovation Alliance, focused on public policy, social justice and innovation in fashion, technology and retail.