Are we at a tipping point for sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace?
The promise of startup culture when it was first realized as such was to be a utopia, filled with brilliant humans making the world a better place. People would be employed at a startup due to fairness, after all, startups are all about meritocracy. Unfortunately, that’s not the way things work, and we’ve seen that while there have been some changes (we can dress casually and drink beer and cold brew in the office, for example), unfortunately, gender discrimination and sexual harassment is as prevalent as ever. This feels very much like we just may be at a watershed moment when it comes to, at the very least, voicing discrimination in the workplace.
In 1991, Anita Hill provided shocking testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. The media covered her testimony in front of an all-white male Senate Judiciary Committee and the world. Thomas was confirmed, but she continues to fight for equality for all; her voice empowered others to speak up as well. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a 50% increase in sexual harassment filings the year after the hearing. Shortly after the hearings, Congress passed a law that allowed sexual harassment victims to seek damage awards, back pay, and reinstatement. While President George H. W. Bush threatened to veto the bill originally, he changed his mind and signed it into law after her testimony.
Fast forward to 2012, and Ellen Pao sued her employer, Kleiner Perkins, for gender discrimination. She lost, but this was the first very public case of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley. This was the first time Silicon Valley’s whispers of gender discrimination were voiced out loud, garnering a lot of media attention. Pao is now the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and runs Project Include, a resource for tech companies wanting to improve their diversity and inclusion initiatives.
While we wish we could say we’ve evolved since then, unfortunately we’re still seeing rampant discrimination and sexual harassment. It seems we’re practically hearing these stories on a daily basis now, and not just in tech. 2016 was particularly humbling, when the person who was elected, was, just one month prior to the election, found to have made appalling sexual comments about women.
And here we are, with 2017 half over, and a plethora of stories. SGO curates a bi-weekly news roundup, and we are consistently amazed at the sheer number of articles about gender discrimination and sexual harassment. We’d argue that the floodgates were opened with Susan Fowler’s blog post about her experience at Uber. Negative stories about Uber kept pouring out, leading to Eric Holder (former US Attorney General!) investigating the company’s workplace culture and (finally) founder and CEO Travis Kalanick stepping down just a few weeks ago. In the past few months we’ve seen even more stories of VCs and startups treating women anywhere from unfairly to horribly. However, the latest story to break feels particularly different.
Six women came forward to share that Justin Caldbeck, founder and head of San Francisco-based VC firm Binary Capital, made unwanted sexual advances while they were pitching him for funding. He’s since stepped down, apologized, and Binary Capital has had to re-issue their statement which originally defended him. Several articles were written expressing outrage. Reid Hoffman, a very well known venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, came out strongly to condemn the behavior, asking people to make a decency pledge. Pando wrote an incredible article that also touches on the fact that several women were Asian-American and how race should not be forgotten here. And our friend C.A. Webb is starting a new project, which aims for greater gender diversity to change the narrative and break the power dynamics that currently exist in the VC space.
With female entrepreneurs receiving just $1.5 billion in funding compared to $58.2 billion for men as of last year, and with most VCs being men, this isn’t going to be an easy problem to fix. To quote Recode, “We have to take control of these dynamics, instead of always being subjected to them.” By continuing to talk about harassment and discrimination, by speaking up ourselves, and by seeing others be brave enough to stand up and speak out, we’re changing the conversation. We’re making it clear that these aren’t one-offs, we’re not imagining things, and this isn’t the way things are expected to be.