Startup workers see sexual harassment on 'breathtaking' scale in Silicon Valley
Haana was so repulsed by what happened to her, she covered up her mirror so she wouldn’t have to look at herself. The Silicon Valley tech worker said that after drinks with startup colleagues last year, a male executive at her company put his hand up her shirt and groped her while they walked down the street.
“I felt disgusted for months after that,” said Haana, who requested that the Guardian not include her full name or identify the small tech startup where she used to do marketing. “It affects me on a level that I wish it didn’t.”
According to Haana, the CEO refused to fire him, and she eventually left the business.
Her allegations are far from unique in Silicon Valley. On the contrary, in the male-dominated technology industry, female staffers and workers of color say sexual misconduct, discrimination and retaliation are rampant – and that men in powerful positions are routinely protected while women are often pushed out of their jobs by harassment.
Following the recent viral blogpost of Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer who chronicled claims of sexual harassment and mistreatment, the Guardian has found that similar allegations are widespread across the tech sector. According to a number of prominent attorneys, hundreds if not thousands of women and people of color in tech come forward each year with complaints of toxic work environments largely controlled by white men.
Under the guise of “disruption” and “innovation”, startups and tech corporations skirt employment laws and reject HR practices while sometimes fostering a party culture where young male executives encourage socializing and drinking. Often, founders hire and promote friends and people similar to them. In these settings, women are vulnerable to all kinds of abuse, ranging from lewd comments to unwanted propositions to groping to assault.
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In recent years, there have been public claims of sexism and discrimination at numerous high-profile technology companies, including Twitter, Apple, Oracle, Google and Tesla, where a female engineer shared her claims of “pervasive harassment” with the Guardian this week. At Uber, a top engineering executive also stepped down this week amid allegations that he was accused of sexual harassment at his previous job at Google.
But some say the problem is under-reported and particularly acute in early-stage startups where there are no HR departments. There, young CEOs may choose not to fire or reprimand executives who are college friends they consider vital to the company, and when founders or CEOs commit offenses, it can be impossible for women to find justice.
‘More like a fraternity’
In a recent survey of more than 200 women in tech, 60% said they faced unwanted sexual advances, often from superiors. One in three women said they felt afraid for their personal safety, and 66% said they felt excluded because of their gender. The research was inspired by Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO, whose discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers sparked national debate about misogyny in Silicon Valley.
“Most women have experienced some version of this,” Pao, who lost her landmark suit, said in an interview last week. She said she hopes the Uber case is a “watershed moment” that inspires the industry to fix a “fundamentally broken” culture.
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When young startups grow their businesses at very rapid rates, they fail to properly invest in HR, said Jahan Sagafi, a lawyer with Outten and Golden, the nation’s largest firm representing workers in claims against employers. “You have this insular group of like-minded and similar-looking people who are suddenly given immense privilege and opportunity and wealth. And before long, they can feel like they are above the law.”
Amélie Lamont, a former employee of Squarespace, the popular website design company, said that she felt obligated to go to bars with colleagues for regular hangouts.
“If you weren’t drinking, you weren’t a part of the culture. That was frustrating,” said Lamont, who last year published an account of facing racism and sexism as a black female supervisor at Squarespace. “That was really hard keeping up … If you skipped them, it meant you weren’t really connecting with your co-workers. You weren’t building a strong relationship.”
Haana, who is in her 20s and has worked for multiple startups, said she had had a close relationship with the CEO of her previous company for years. She said the chief technology officer groped her and that he was friends with the CEO. This kind of intimate nature of an early stage startup makes it challenging to deal with these kinds of conflicts, she said.
“When you’re involved in a startup, you kind of need to be involved in each other’s lives,” Haana explained. “You live, you eat, you work together.”
That made it all the more painful, she said, that no one seemed to take her concerns seriously.
“What can I say to make people believe it wasn’t my fault?” she said, noting that the incident had a long-term impact on her. “It’s something that’s a part of me, and I have to figure out how to deal with it. I don’t know how to get rid of that anxiety.”
What can I say to make people believe it wasn’t my fault? … I have to figure out how to deal with it
In phone interviews, the CEO said he didn’t think automatically terminating the CTO was an appropriate response, and the CTO denied that he groped Haana but said it was possible she “misinterpreted” a “hug”.
Pao said the tight-knit nature of startups can make the experience of harassment all the more painful.
“If you’re not part of that group of founding friends, you’re excluded. And that exclusion can take on many forms.”
‘They were going out of their way to try to sabotage her work’
While many victims of discrimination or harassment choose not to file legal complaints or go public, the ones who do speak out face serious risks.
Days after her post about Uber, Fowler tweeted that people she knows were being asked for “personal and intimate” information about her as part of what seemed to be a “smear campaign”. Uber claimed it was not behind the investigation. The company also hired former attorney general Eric Holder to investigate harassment and vowed to hold offenders accountable.
After Lamont, 28, went public about the prejudice and misogyny she said she faced at Squarespace, she faced an onslaught of nasty comments and harassing messages, with some branding her a liar and others lecturing her about how black women should behave.
Lamont, who now works as a product design lead at the New York Times, said she was one of a very small handful of black women at Squarespace and that she felt white managers and executives didn’t understand her experience.
“I felt devalued,” she said. “Even going into other jobs, I carried all the baggage.”
Squarespace did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After she published her post, Lamont said many women of color in tech reached out to share similar stories: “That was validating.”
One black woman told her about a manager who said she shouldn’t wear her hair naturally in an afro or braids because she appeared “too ethnic”. Another woman told her she was repeatedly given grunt work that didn’t match her level of expertise.
Jennifer Schwartz, another Outten and Golden lawyer, said she has represented a number of transgender women in tech who “face shocking and blatant discrimination and impropriety in all forms”, including jokes like, “Have you decided today whether you’re a man or a woman?”
Schwartz said that for one trans female programmer she represented at a successful startup was “consistently marginalized”, with men excluding her from meetings and ignoring her successes.
“They were going out of their way to try to sabotage her work, creating a sort of clubbiness where the men were patting each other on the back for denigrating her.”
The woman, Schwartz said, eventually left the company.
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