Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination in Silicon Valley: Has There Been Any Real Change?

Several high-profile cases in the news in recent months seem to reflect attitudes about the treatment of women changing for the better in Silicon Valley. These are the most notable examples:

  • Dave McClure, the founder of the start-up incubator 500 Startups, resigned after admitting to sexual harassment. Later investigation revealed that the company had covered up an earlier sexual harassment charge against him by keeping the investigation confidential.
  • Binary Capital imploded after several women lodged sexual harassment charges against Justin Caldbeck.
  • Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after former company engineer Susan Fowler published a blog detailing a history of sexual harassment at Uber.
  • Most recently, Mike Cagney, the CEO of online lending start-up Social Finance (SoFi), has been fired. For a long time, SoFi’s board of trustees turned a blind eye to complaints from employees about Cagney’s inappropriate behavior until multiple employees filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment and of “empowering other managers to engage in sexual conduct in the workplace.”

These public firings could reflect changing attitudes — but Ellen Pao cautions us against assuming that real change has happened yet. Who is Ellen Pao? Jessica Bennett, writing for the New York Times, explains that Pao forced the door open to reveal sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley technology and venture capital companies when she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, the powerful venture firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in 2012.

Her lawsuit claimed that she had not been promoted because of gender discrimination and that she had experienced retaliation for complaining. She produced written performance evaluations and performance reviews that gave her high ratings. Nonetheless, she was passed over for a senior-level promotion because, she was told, she was both too passive and too pushy. She was also told that she was not promoted because she did not speak up enough in meetings and because she was too opinionated in those same meetings. Really? When she complained, she was attacked. While Pao did not win her lawsuit, she blazed a trail for other women who began to come forward and speak out about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in their workplaces.

Pao writes that the real movement forward is that women are now speaking out and telling their stories and that women and their male allies are beginning to join together to file lawsuits to force boards to act. Pao cautions, however, that superficial public apologies and one-off public firings do not fix the company cultures that support bad behavior toward women and other underrepresented groups.

Pao notes, “Most companies don’t address the great underlying problem: the exclusion of and biases against women, people of color, older employees, disabled people, L.G.B.T.Q. people and many other underrepresented groups.” She suggests that serious culture change will happen only when corporate leadership achieves these five goals:

  • Leaders make hard decisions to hold themselves and their teams accountable for their behavior across all activities in the organization.
  • Leaders are willing to have uncomfortable conversations.
  • Leaders are willing to fire those who are unwilling to be inclusive or respectful.
  • Organizations set measurable diversity and inclusion goals.
  • Leaders are willing to base compensation on hitting those diversity and inclusion goals.

Amber Tamblyn, writing for the New York Times, sums up the experience of many women who have recently spoken out about sexual harassment and gender discrimination: “We are learning that the more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir. And the more we are a choir, the more the tune is forced to change.”

Changing biased, discriminatory, and abusive organizational cultures is going to take the whole village. Let’s stay vigilant and keep the pressure on for change.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at www.annelitwin.com on November 13, 2017.

Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together', OD Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Workshop Trainer

Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together', OD Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Workshop Trainer