Want more women in tech? STOP hitting on us!

Disclaimer: This post is not a personal story, or even a story about one person I’m friendly with. I have never been hit on by a VC, founder, boss, or coworker, but I’m sick of hearing about others who have been degraded by males in power.

Why am I writing this post:

Over the past year and a half I’ve watched a close friend try to break into the the startup tech industry with moderate success. Everyone that meets her knows that she’s awesome and she’s been hired on contract a few times.

Recently, she decided that the universe was telling her to go back to the corporate world. What was the straw that broke her back? Was it the lucrative paychecks or spending accounts? No.

All it took was a founder she was interviewing with asking her out on a date.

When I heard this, I was furious. How could a founder do that? Don’t they realize that they are alienating the candidate? Didn’t they think there would be a backlash? Have we learned nothing about how to treat women in the workplace in the last 50 years?

It was then that I realized that she had no recourse. If she called out the founder publicly for his inappropriate actions, she’d get branded as a trouble maker and technically there was nothing illegal to report.

I decided to write this post as a response. I’m well known in the NYC tech ecosystem for promoting diversity and supporting women. I’ve been called into some very large companies to discuss what can be done to improve diversity. This is part of my message to those and other companies. Start by stopping men from hitting on your female employees.

What I learned (that everyone should know):

My first step was requesting more stories. I’m not an investigative journalist and this post shouldn’t be analyzed as such, but what I learned in a few short days was startling. As a data nerd I am aware that there is no way that this is representative of the population to a scientific standard. But even from that small sample size, I received dozens of stories. And many people in my network reported stories from their own circles.

I reached out to a women in tech email list that I’m a member of and posted on my Facebook asking a simple question “I’m writing a post about women getting hit on in tech by founders and how it isn’t helping diversity numbers. If you have anything to share, send me a message. All stories will be kept private.”

I learned of the countless times women had been hit on by their bosses, co-workers, or men they were attempting to do business with. I heard about investors that turned pitches into opportunities to get laid. I listened to recounts of women where lunch with male coworkers included crude stories of sexual escapades. I cringed at stories of women inventing boyfriends to ward off unwelcome advances as coffee meetings were relocated to bars.

Most disgusting of all was an anecdote that was forwarded to me about a startup whose parties at the boss’s house had a NO CLOTHING RULE after 10PM. I was so shocked. I thought I had misread the message.

UGH!!! REALLY?!?

What the problem is:

You maybe saying to yourself, there’s nothing illegal about the snippets I’ve shared above. You’re right, consenting adults can take part in activities that they choose to. And asking someone out once isn’t often considered harassment because it isn’t severe or pervasive.

http://www.slideshare.net/drgauravkamboj/sexual-harassment-at-workplace-prevention-prohibition-and-redressal-act-2013-critical-review

But this post isn’t about what’s legal, it’s about how hitting on women makes them leave your organization, and often the tech industry in general. Of the women I asked, many of them left the company within months of the incident. Some stopped the interview, pitch, or professional relationship immediately.

What about asking out an attractive person of the opposite sex who shares similar passions for technology on a date is problematic? If you’re on a dating app, probably nothing. The same goes for a singles event.

Additionally, we’ve all heard stories of loving couples that met at work. Someone had to make the first move right? I don’t know the right answer to that question, but maybe waiting for the woman to make it obvious that she’s interested is the key. A misstep in that realm can make many future interactions tense.

However, if you have a potential professional relationship with someone and there’s an imbalance of power, you’re skating on thin ice. Many of the stories shared with me included later feeling that people weren’t treated as well or given as many opportunities if they rebuffed the advances. This is where founders have the biggest challenge.

Even if YOU would never retaliate because of a rejection of your proposal, the recipient doesn’t know that. What you think is harmless flirtation, may make others assume something more is going on and worse think the woman is advancing her career in unprofessional ways.

Remember, to them it may not be a compliment; you are potentially making them feel uncomfortable. Would you want to work in a work environment that wasn’t comfortable?

Women want to be invited to join companies or receive investment in their ventures because of their merit, not because they put out. By objectifying women you are degrading us. I assume the same goes for men. There goes that equality thing rearing its head.

Also, I know this issue isn’t one-sided. A male friend of mine reported to me that he was once hit on by a female potential customer. She offered to expediting the sale if he was agreeable to her demands. These anecdotes appear to be more rare.

Though I’m not an investigative journalist, I’ve never known a man to change the way he dressed at work because of the advances and comments coworkers frequently made. A number of women shared that they don’t wear makeup, heels, or skirts to work because they want to avoid attention being drawn to them. They are uncomfortable in the environment they spend at least 8 hours a day.

What to do about it:

If you think these actions aren’t causing problems for your company, think again. The negative impacts of a less diverse workforce are seen in employee retention and overall financial performance. Asking female staff out seems like a small thing to avoid in order to reap the benefits of them staying engaged at work.

In conclusion, I’m sure that many people who read this post would never make a sexual advance on a coworker or candidate. That’s awesome! Please share with someone who might not already be on the same page. Also, check out these other microaggressions you maybe guilty of that make women leave tech companies.

Comments are welcome below, but if you have a private story to share, please email me at tami (at) tamireiss (dot) com, I promise to listen.

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