It’s not just summer ratcheting up the heat in Silicon Valley, where more power players are in the hot seat as dozens of women allege persistent sexual harassment. Their testimonies are further exposing a toxic culture in start-ups—and particularly tech—wherein untouchable men are allowed to touch women without their consent.
In a June 22 interview with The Information, entrepreneurs Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu revealed VC Justin Caldbeck’s persistent harassment and use of financial leverage to exert sexual pressure on female entrepreneurs. Another twenty-some women spoke to The New York Times the following week, naming VCs Dave McClure and Chris Sacca in addition to Caldbeck as notorious harassers. Finally, in a personal blog post, tech founder Cheryl Yeoh demolished McClure’s public blog apology, which conflated harassment with “inappropriate behavior.” In an all-too-familiar refrain, he minimized—and attempted to normalize—the severity of a predatory pattern.
A sign that the scandal rocking the Valley has entered mainstream consciousness is that six of the women entrepreneurs at its center have met with NBC’s Megyn Kelly for in-depth interviews. They credited their confidence to come forward to Susan Fowler’s February 2017 blog post recounting her harrowing year at Uber.
In her post, Fowler methodically chronicles the Kafkaesque futility of using the company’s official channels to report the abuse. In one interaction after another, she is threatened with poor work performance reviews and assured that if any other complaints are lodged against the perpetrator—her manager, who propositioned her on her first day—swift action would be taken. But no action is ever taken against the harasser, despite the smoldering pile of allegations that seemed to get extinguished by the time they were being processed at Uber’s HR offices.
Her post has resonated with women across the tech and start-up community, encouraging more to come forward despite potential retaliation. But what, or who, is responsible for this scourge in the first place?
There is plenty of blame to go around. As I examine in my forthcoming book, Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man, the media, investors, and Wall Street analysts have had a long love affair with abusive entrepreneurs and CEOs so long as they deliver results, even if those results are not sustainable. Given our culture’s willingness to look past glaring flaws in our political leaders from Jefferson to Trump, it is not surprising we’re just as enamored with men we perceive as responsible for our country’s (alleged) prosperity.
When Susan Fowler knocked over that first domino, she set off a series of events that have taken on a life of their own. Her dispassionate account of a “very strange year at Uber” both validated other women in tech—60% of whom have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace—and contributed to Travis Kalanick’s eventual ousting, which sent its own reassuring signals to women in tech and female entrepreneurs. Although some still excuse or minimize the problem, and others quietly grumble behind closed doors about the “witch hunt” thinning their ranks, 2017 has seen a step in the right direction.
A la Fowler, the women coming forwardpresent in-depth accounts of the sexual harassment they have experienced. Some are naming names and some are corroborating stories with screenshots of particularly egregious instances of mean men overstepping their bounds. Providing specific details assures that no perpetrator can hide behind vague language and euphemism to disguise predatory behavior as a simple misunderstanding. “The devil is in the details,” Cheryl Yeoh blogs. “It’s far too easy to gloss over the details and lump everything together as inappropriate.” To escape what she calls “the black box of inappropriateness,” she outlines an action plan for the development of precise language to better identify and document levels of toxic behavior as well as a rigorous training program on implementing proactive HR policies. In fact, in addition to outing mean men and demanding they take responsibility for predatory behavior, women across the tech and start-up sectors are demanding a future where such abuses would be the exception rather than the rule.
We do see some movement. Amid the flurry of recent accusations, founders Justin Caldbeck and Dave McClure resigned from their positions of CEO of Binary Capital and general partner at 500 respectively. These changes certainly signal a recognition that predatory behavior hurts the bottom line not the least through bad publicity. But are they a sign of a more inclusive vision for the future?
It is likely that these new accounts and the reckonings they bring about will help other women to come forward. The truth telling in turn means more mean men are forced to grapple with the harm they have caused to people and to their companies, bettering our chances of reimagining Silicon Valley as a place where creativity and innovation are not marred by abuse, skewed gender dynamics, and unchecked power.
The self-reckoning forced on Silicon Valley by these new testimonies is a good in and of itself for the sake of women and their well-being. Importantly, it may also be the catalyst toward a more stringent standard of behavior from the bro entrepreneurial culture. Women in tech and start-ups have sparked a national conversation on the expectations we have of our business and tech leaders. But it is up to Silicon Valley power players to take a more proactive approach to codifying expected behaviors and what will be unambiguously unacceptable from this point on.