New Study Finds 60% Of Women In Tech Experience Sexual Harassment

Recently, I was speaking to a room full of women to promote my book on diversity in the workplace.

Asked one audience member: “What was your motivation behind writing the book?”

I paused and hesitated, debating whether to take the approved route my publicist and I had discussed. “I’ve reported on women in the workforce for a number of years, so it seemed like a natural progression . . .”

Not untrue. But not the motivation that truly kept me up at night while I feverishly wrote the manuscript over a period of four months.

. . . should I tell the truth? How one year as a woman of color in technology scarred me for life? How I frantically wrote my book proposal after being chastised for being too aggressive and difficult by superiors? How it was deeply rankling when I forced myself to laugh at “harmless” racist and sexist jokes? How I quietly consoled countless female friends in the industry as they experienced full-blown sexual harassment by bosses and bosses’ bosses?

“Well, I used to work in technology . . .” I ventured. Almost every woman in the room erupted in nervous laughter. No further explanations necessary, it seemed.

***

The further away I’ve kept myself from technology jobs, the more I’ve discovered that my experiences were in no way an aberration. In fact, new data finds that almost everything I saw, experienced, or heard are very much a norm within the industry.

Results of a new survey titled “Elephant in the Valley,” inspired by the Ellen Pao vs. VC firm Kleiner Perkins trial, found evidence of systemic gender discrimination and harassment within the tech industry. The study — co-authored by someone with the VC that Ellen Pao sued, as well as Stanford fellows and workers in the tech field — revealed that a whopping 60% of the 200+ women surveyed reported fending off unwanted sexual advances at work. Chillingly, a third of women reported feeling afraid “of their personal safety because of work related circumstances.” Women surveyed had at least 10 years of experience in the industry and largely lived in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area.

The anonymous stories are more disturbing.

“The first time I travelled with a new CEO he made an advance. I turned him down. After that, I was never asked to travel with him again. This impacted my ability to do my job,” wrote one woman. Another reported that a client asked her to sit on his lap. After reporting the incident, the woman was taken off the client’s account.

In my own career, I routinely saw women being flirted with on multiple occasions at work, or bearing the brunt of sexist jokes. If women retaliated or reported discrimination, more often than not, they did so at the cost of their career advancement, including being taken off a team or client.

Most of the survey’s other findings were maddening, but sadly, not even close to being surprising. Ones I’ve personally witnessed or experienced include:

  • 84% of respondents said colleagues would make eye contact with male colleagues but not with them.
  • 84% of respondents were told they were too aggressive, half of them hearing this feedback on multiple occasions.
  • Of those who took maternity leave, 52% shortened their leave because they thought it would negatively impact their career.
  • 30% did not report sexual harassment, because they wanted to forget.
  • 47% reported having to do lower-level tasks including note-taking and ordering food, that men weren’t asked to do.

A further cause of concern in the report? The lack of proper channels to deal with these issues. One woman reports not having an HR department in a VC firm. Another writes about not wanting a case of unwarranted sexual advances to escalate into a he said/she said, as the incident happened behind closed doors. Another reports having to deal with a coworker with anger issues, but not having her concerns taken seriously by the boss. “He was eventually arrested at work for a violent episode.”

***

I applaud the initiative for putting these results and anonymous stories out. At the same time, I’m discouraged by how the anonymous nature of these forums often end up being all talk and no action. The fear of saying something publicly is both understandable and systemic. Speaking up publicly can lead to dire ramifications, as seen in the ruthless character assassination of Ellen Pao during her trial. Despite writing about women’s issues for a number of years, I was myself too intimidated to speak out when I witnessed sexism while in tech, fearing ostracization, penalization, or worse. I can write these words after more than a year of being out of the industry — but the battle scars remain. The times I actually witnessed or experienced discrimination, I rarely even discussed them with my partner.

By keeping these forums anonymous, we are likely to get a higher volume of stories, and more candor within them. Yet it also limits the opportunity to take real action. Faceless and nameless accounts of sexism will not get most in positions of power to take notice. Anonymity makes it easy to deflect guilt, and to other the problem; it’s not me, it’s them. Unless things get personal, it’s hard to push for true accountability.

So how can we break this cycle? One way I’ve advocated for change in my book is through data and tracking. We must hold these companies, large or small, accountable for how many women they hire, retain, and advance. Companies must begin to track and publish whether men and women get paid equally for equal work. And when women and minorities leave, these firms need to take a long, cold hard look at what the root cause of departure was.

That’s the kind of naming-and-shaming that could really effect change.

Meanwhile, the site the data was tracked on invites women to anonymously share their stories. And if you want to reach me to commiserate, I’m @rtulshyan on Twitter.

***

Lead image: flickr/Joana Coccarelli

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