Why Sexual Harassment Is More of a Problem in Venture Capital
The only thing that surprises me about the recent furor over sexual harassment by Silicon Valley venture capitalists is that people are surprised. We have been watching these stories go viral for a long time. When I give speeches in Silicon Valley about gender bias, I can’t tell you how many times female entrepreneurs have shared their stories with me about being treated by venture capitalists (VCs) as sexual opportunities rather than investment opportunities.
It’s ironic that my whole life lately seems to be spent explaining why the college-educated elite should not dismiss the concerns of white working-class voters on the grounds that those “rednecks” are sexist and otherwise deplorable. Turns out elites can be sexist, too.
Sexual harassment is prevalent among VCs because of the hard-driving bro culture that confuses the pursuit of money with the pursuit of masculinity. Work becomes a masculinity contest (to borrow Jennifer Berdahl’s term) in which men become obsessed with showing that theirs is the biggest — the biggest deal, the longest hours, the most money. “Someone’s **** is always bigger,” remarked a businessman, about to take off on his private plane, who spotted a Gulfstream V owned by a friend. When masculinity is the metric of success, hitting on women is just another way to keep score.
Some Silicon Valley firms are turning to sexual harassment training as a solution. I’m not discouraging that. But to be effective, initiatives need to focus not only on changing men’s attitudes toward women but also on changing men’s attitudes toward themselves as men. In many organizations, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, a certain cowboy strain of masculinity prevails, especially at the leadership level. “Loudership” is the term used by one organization we’ve worked with.
Loudership not only excludes women; it’s a turnoff for talented men who’d rather be good men than so-called “real” men. When sociology professor Michael Kimmel asked his students what it means to be a real man, responses included being authoritative, taking risks, and suppressing any kind of weakness. But when he asked students what it means to be a good man, they mentioned qualities associated with gender-neutral decency, like being honest and respectful of others.
The “real man” syndrome is a reflection of what psychologists call precarious manhood: the view that masculinity has to be earned over and over again. Bro culture is often depicted jocularly, but the endless game of zero-sum one-upmanship is not only off-putting for most women; it’s also draining and humiliating for many men.
If Silicon Valley wants to eliminate sexual harassment, it needs to stop placing an artificially high value on being a “real man” and instead insist that men — and women — behave as decent, respectful human beings.
The business benefits are real. Because “masters of the universe” are not what create value. Work is — hard work, with a focus on productivity rather than masculine signaling. Where work becomes a masculinity contest, sexual harassment isn’t the only downside. Studies show that, on average, men’s confidence and appetite for risk are greater than women’s. Typically this leads to handwringing about how we can make women more confident and less risk averse. But often the real answer is how to get men to have a more accurate view of their own abilities and make more-rational risk assessments. It’s to replace loudership with real leadership.
If that’s the carrot, here’s the stick: Sexual harassment has become a flying, invisible buzz saw that can abruptly cut down your career and hurt your company. If Travis Kalanick had created a different kind of company culture, he might still be CEO of Uber. If some Fox News executives and on-air personalities had run a different kind of organization, many might still have their jobs.
Yet as sexual harassment has become riskier and riskier, harassers may find it even more appealing. The risk is what makes it “fun.” The solution is to go more in-depth — much more so than sexual harassment trainings typically do.
A recent experiment I performed at a major STEM organization provides an example. To establish a baseline, we used our 10-minute Workplace Experiences Survey to measure ambient levels of racial and gender bias. We then gave a 90-minute workshop, called “Bias Interrupters for Managers,” that differs from most bias trainings in three ways. First, instead of focusing abstractly on the “mind bugs” that drive cognitive bias, the workshop pinpoints precisely how common biases play out in everyday workplace interactions. Next, it describes the most common scenarios and asks people to come up with low-key ways to interrupt bias that don’t require expending too much political capital. Finally, the workshop describes how, at the same time that prescriptive stereotypes create gender pressures on women to be modest and self-effacing, they create gender pressures on men to be “real men” in ways that often penalize good men. We hypothesized that, taken together, these approaches could solve a key dilemma most trainings run into: Accusing people of being biased just makes them defensive. The more common approach — reassuring people that “everyone is biased” — is a very confusing message. Everybody is biased but I shouldn’t be? How does that make sense?