Tech’s Term Sheets of Harassment
Silicon Valley is coming to terms with courageous women sharing their painful and disturbing experiences of sexist, misogynistic behavior and unwanted advances of Venture Capitalists like Justin Caldbeck, Marc Canter, and Dave McClure. We should thank them all for showing courage, and strength that is sadly lacking in the leadership many organizations that call Silicon Valley home.
Countless other stories will no doubt emerge that paint many people, some of whom are highly respected, in an unflattering light. But don’t act like you don’t know because many VCs and leaders in tech companies have acted in this manner for years. Partly because with money, power and influence, mixed with the relative immaturity of people in tech, reprehensible behavior is almost certainly going to happen, and also because the companies they worked at or founded never held them accountable. As founders, they have enjoyed a very similar power dynamic to the one they now enjoy at their VC firms. These women pitched to investors where the odds of them getting hit on, harassed, and assaulted were higher than the odds of getting funded. This has been here all along and has been accepted.
Some out there are likely and unknowingly perpetuating this problem by insisting on publicly sharing their positive interactions with the accused individuals. If you know the accused, ask them if they’d like to address the allegations with you in private instead of sharing your positive experiences with them. It’s more respectful than throwing shade onto someone who may have been sexually assaulted by tweeting your support for the accused.
It’s important that we acknowledge that the type of behavior we are reading, talking and tweeting about has been enabled. Enabled by the skewed ratios of women in leadership positions at the companies most VC’s found, fund and advise. Enabled by the underinvestment in HR and People functions. Fueled by the nepotism in hiring that creates the ineffective HR organizations that have facilitated the implosions at Uber, Zenefits, and 500 Startups. The HR/legal function in organizations, when it comes to situations like harassment, sexual assault, inappropriate comments, and discrimination are geared towards reducing liability for the company, not protecting the individual(s).
More often than not when a person reports an incident, the first question many managers and HR people ask is “how well is this person doing their job” when in reality these are both separate and yet inexorably linked to the dysfunction in many organization. Much like #SusanFowler and Sarah Mei
elaborated on, the accuser’s performance can and will be called into question, oftentimes retroactively, when they make a report of harassment. And in this Machiavellian world, these themes are mixed together in a toxic stew of HR risk avoidance, fearful employees, and inexperienced managers. Couple all of this with non-disparagement agreements, gag rules, and the ever-present threat of backchannel blackballing and it creates such an obfuscated narrative that most people don’t know what or who to believe.
This serves no one and creates an environment of fear and distrust that extends beyond that one job or company. And it is in this morass of enablement, avoidance, and appeasement, that many male VC’s learn there is no consequence to their harassing behavior. For too many years, the power dynamic has been in their favor and serves as a reminder as to why so few women come forward. We can all hope that this is now changing. However, we should be mindful because as we have discovered in the work of Diversity and Inclusion, change is a long road that many times falls back on well-worn excuses, flashy presentations and fast following others to explain away the lack of substantive progress.
We, as allies have to come to terms with how we have enabled this environment to persist. To my male friends, coworkers, and associates, if you are posting, tweeting, or writing about being surprised, you are not being truthful with yourself and your networks. Tweeting is lazy/passive/easy, it doesn’t require real effort or courage and it prevents a thoughtful dialogue since it’s short, reactive and bumped out of a feed within minutes. If more people were able to have real conversations we’d get further faster.
Too many of us have been a willing or silent participant to the types of behavior and actions that we are now condemning. Being an ally is difficult and we cannot be silent if we are to be allies. It also takes more than a emoji or tweet of support. One of the better points I have read about being an ally is “When Criticized or Called Out, Allies Listen, Apologize, Are Accountable, and Act Differently Going Forward”. This is going to be uncomfortable. But it is that discomfort that we should embrace to move forward.