The times have not been too kind to Silicon. In the recent months, the tech acropolis has 86’ed at least 4 venture capitalists and chief officers under allegations pertaining to sexual harassment and misconduct, as well as over 200 employees being reprimanded from their positions. In recent news were allegations concerning the tech company Tesla, where AJ Vandermeyden, a female engineer in the male dominated program, had publicly accused Elon Musk’s company of sexual harassment and discrimination.
The accusations would be further personified with unanimous support from majority of the staff when the company organized a town hall meeting on gender diversity, where many women braved the microphone one-by-one and shared encounters with mistreatment by male employers, and various instances of sexual misconduct. These stories began to form to fruition; a light shown on the corners and cracks, a predator and prey, where many felt helpless, receiving relentless maltreatment from male workers; only to be left unresolved with unaroused management. This paints a picture of a company following the same degenerative trend of unmarked misogyny, at the supposed zenith of intellectual academia. A picture of yet another progressive, cool (supposed) company refusing to acknowledge the obvious truth and instead choose to demonize those who break their silence.
According to The Guardian’s recent article, AJ thought the meeting would only bolster her case on credibility, met with swift termination from Tesla’s engineering division on grounds of her ‘miscarriage of justice’ and that her allegations were spiteful with intent of damaging the company’s reputation. AJ would receive further attacks by both indirect accusations by Musk (didn’t go to the meeting), as well as aggressive attempts by the company’s legal team to bury her with criticisms.
Tesla responded to The Guardian’s article as “exaggerated” and stated that
“executives attended because they wanted to hear directly from employees about their experiences and learn about how to improve the workplace… Employees stood up to ask the executives questions, share their experiences at Tesla – both positive and negative – while others spoke of things that they believed Tesla was doing right and some came with suggestions. In some instances, employees were only looking for better collaboration with their HR business partners in general and had nothing to do with any allegations of harassment.”
Vandermeyden stated after the meeting: “It was finally giving women a venue to voice what was going on. It felt like Tesla had been saying I’m making all this up. And here were all the women saying, ‘No, it’s happening.’ It’s too big to deny.”
Like many others before her, AJ and her female colleagues were met with typical corporate jargon, flaky zeal, and empty promises of improving the working conditions. If anything, Musk has been less enthusiastic over the allegations than previous VC’s.
“They just want to absolutely crush anyone who speaks up,” said Vandermeyden, “I spoke up, and I was made a sacrificial lamb for it. It’s a scary precedent.”
For AJ and so many women around the world, along nearly every branch of practice, relentless attacks on self-worth, suffering in silence, smile strained. While history may not repeat, it often does rhyme, and if the past has proved anything true, it’s that continued oppression leads to implosion. The workplace, the frontlines of a society’s issues and diverse coexistence, simply put, is in dire need of an update. To root out the problem is to redefine gender parameters and expose the patriarchal backbone to which modern workforce was built upon, and it is up to you and I to redefine ourselves, as people,
What Exactly Is Sexual Harassment?
Many may throw the phrase around in their writing or dialogue (myself included), but the conditions for legitimate sexual harassment, (according to straight out of Title VII’s prohibition against gender discrimination) upon which one must take immediate action are as followed:
- A hostile work environment, which (can) consist of a wide range of unwarranted acts or behavior that are pervasive (repeated or often) and/or severe. This becomes a serious issue similar to many tech companies right now when the employer has knowledge of the direct existence and doesn’t take action to actively stop any unwarranted actions from taking place.
- Quid Pro Quo- Simple enough, any attempt or notion of asking/demanding sex/sexual acts in exchange for benefits or favors to the employee, as well as prevention of negative consequences towards the employee.
The nature of sexual harassment is without parameters, anybody can be a sexual predator. Anyone involved directly/indirectly with the company, employee, or employer are at risk.
“Actionable sexual harassment is not defined by who is doing it, but is a matter of the creation of a hostile workplace that remains unremedied when the employer has notice of it – irrespective of who is doing it.” (NY Times 2017)
Those at risk are then by default, everyone.
The obvious majority- women, minorities, those in an isolated work setting,
(The EEOC commented that farm workers are “a group that is so often composed of immigrant women working in isolated areas, [and] particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.”) (LA Times 2017)
white-collar positions (firms and bureaucratic office settings), and areas with uneven diversity in both physical and moral identification. Women are by far the most commonly harassed, but it can happen to anyone.
Silicon Valley has prided itself in being an epicenter of technological advancement but has generally steered towards a male-focused market, bringing in around 94% males as active VC’s in Santa Clara, many from the ever-expansive unicorn list of bro-built success stories.
The Problem (Generalized): The tech industry also has a problem with “bro culture.”
People have been complaining about it for years. Yet nobody has done much to change it, especially those at the helm, (too busy maintaining their corporate frat houses).
These strings of lawsuits have demonstrated that, from Uber’s investigation into over 200 harassment allegations to Zenefits’ party fundraising (in the purest wolf of wall street fashion) which led to major lay-offs, to Dave McClure, founder of prominent Bay Area venture capitalist firm 500 Startups and infamous reputation for quid pro sexual advances and noble self-flagellation, the tech industry also has particularly severe problems.
According to a report published earlier this past year which found that 60% of women working in tech had experienced sexual harassment at some point working at their respective firm or company. The report’s authors (themselves women working in Silicon Valley) discovered that, of those who had experienced unwanted sexual advances, 65% of women had been sexually harassed by a superior, and half had received advances more than once. 20% of the women interviewed did not report the harassment because they thought it would negatively impact their career. (NY Times)
- McClure admitted to making numerous other inappropriate advances towards other women, too. “I made advances towards multiple women in work-related situations, where it was clearly inappropriate,” he wrote. “I put people in compromising and inappropriate situations, and I selfishly took advantage of those situations where I should have known better. My behavior was inexcusable and wrong.”
- “Zenefits, a human-resources start-up and another bro co., raised $583 million, at a peak valuation of $4.5 billion, then crashed after reports that it had used software to cheat on licensing courses for insurance brokers, and operated a hard-partying workplace where cups of beer and used condoms were left in stairwells. Zenefits limps on, but its C.E.-Bro co-founder has left the company, and nearly half the staff has been laid off.” (NY Times, 2017)
“Sexual harassment has haunted Silicon Valley for years. Sixty percent of women in tech reported receiving unwanted sexual advances in the workplace … [which] can be especially troubling because of the power dynamics at play.” (NY Times)
“the terrifying tip of the iceberg,” in Silicon Valley. (NY Times) And it’s important to keep in mind this happens everywhere, not just in the valley, not just in the US, sexual harassment is an international paradigm that has strained contemporary culture, along with tending to the regressive, putrid mindset that it ensues.
This happens everywhere, not just in Silicon Valley
A study in 2016 conducted by Huff Post on female barristers in the UK came with the followng results-
40% suffered harassment- 50% of those actually reported it (2016),
because of “concern about the impact on their career” and because half of those who did “were not satisfied with the response.” A BSB Bar standards board, questionnaire-style survey of more than 1300 female barristers (2016);
“It was an occupational hazard that senior males might act inappropriately with young women at the bar… We cannot tolerate a situation where women are treated unfairly in the workplace. Lack of diversity and discriminatory working culture and practices impair the bar’s ability to meet the needs of the public and could deter potentially great candidates from pursuing a career at the bar.” (Huffington Post 2016)
Dominic Powell reported survey in Australia that 9/10 hospitality workers have experienced sexual harassment and 86% felt unsafe or at risk to harassment while at work. “The stories people have told us are horrible. Every day young women go to work feeling unsafe, in fear of being groped, humiliated or threatened by customers or managers,” said one of the survey sponsors (The Guardian 2017).
US military women who had been sexually harassed in the past year were 14 times more likely to have also been sexually assaulted in the same period (compared to women who had not been sexually harassed). According to the United Nations, “between 40 and 50% of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advancements, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at their workplace” (Huffington Post 2016)
It’s just as bad in the news room (surprise, surprise.) Last April, Fox News fired Bill O’Reilly, amid another sexual harassment investigation. Los Angeles radio host Wendy Walsh accused O’Reilly of promising her a position on his show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” if she would agree to sexual behaviors. She refused, and was blocked from appearing on his show until its cancellation earlier this year.
(O’Reilly, who has been producing a weekly podcast since leaving Fox, has denied all claims of validity.)
In the United States, the best way to understand the multitude of sexual harassment is to examine data & cases from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which are based on events that happen every day in workplaces across the country. They are at the frontlines of fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, though more than half of the allegations of sexual harassment made to the EEOC (in 2015, based on an annual average) have resulted in no charge. The statistics, which span the past six years, show a consistent pattern in how cases were decided. Here are some of the findings:
- “In 2015, the EEOC was asked to investigate 6,822 sexual harassment allegations. Of the cases that were settled last year, the EEOC dismissed 52% since it had “no reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred”. A further 25% had a result for the claimant that was deemed positive. These “favorable” outcomes include negotiated settlements, withdrawals of claims but with benefits, successful conciliations and unsuccessful conciliations (the last category means “reasonable cause” was established but there was no conciliation). The remaining 23% of sexual harassment legal claims were simply closed for administrative reasons. (EEOC)
- A 2011 study published by EEOC compiled data together with Census data to examine rates by age group and job type. It found that women ages 25 to 34 were most at risk and that the construction industry, followed by transportation and utilities, had the highest rates of sexual harassment. The overall numbers are low since they only take into account claims made to the EEOC. (2017)
This begs the question; is toxic workplace culture and rotten financial performance correlative?
This rise in cases is a rise in awareness and mere glimpses of an equal work environment, but is still far from over.
So where do we go from here?
A sizable amount of action has been taken in a lot of parts of the world, generally by both new regulations and laws initiated to reduce harassment, but also by dedicated activists and empowered leaders of the community; pushing for global awareness to not only the negative effects of sexual harassment but also show what could be in store for a better tomorrow. Gretchen Carlson continues her tireless campaign on equalizing the American workplace, primarily fighting terms of binding employment arbitration, or basically the regulations of dealing with possible suits outside the court.
“For any of you who have signed employment contracts, do you know if you’ve signed an arbitration clause?” Carlson asked. “In the last 20 years, we’ve done ourselves a disservice because we think we’ve come so far, but really, we just don’t know about it,” she said, adding that in most cases, the women victims are usually forced to leave the company while the male perpetrator stays. (Forbes) Check out Be Fierce, Carlson’s new book, which will act as a guide for women in the workplace on how to deal with sexual harassment, as well as a documentary where she will investigate the history of harassment in the workplace.
“There are a lot of mornings when I wake up and I’m not sure that I want to be the face of this issue,” Carlson said. “But I feel like I owe it to the women who haven’t been heard.”
Proper training and a top-down culture of zero tolerance is essential. Employers should understand that, from the top down, an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment tone and policy must be set, and all management personnel as well as any affiliated staff must be trained and educated sufficiently. Also, the compliance and its application in the workplace must be universally acknowledged as the norm. Fear of not being believed, embarrassment, lack of trust in authority figures, and lack of familiarity with available resources should no longer be tolerated as a side effect to speaking up.
In addition, I believe a cultural redefining of what it means to be masculine, what it means to be a male is necessary. Because there seems to be this unspoken delusion that power is masculinity, that objectifying proves vigor. We must erode the gender schema society set itself up with, and promote an androgynous mentality, at least while at work, for now. For information on this topic, check out research on Sandra Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (1971), pretty neat stuff.
We also need to learn to be accountable for our own shit. Every response, whether it’s some VC weapons-grade douchebag or some spokesmen for the company, it’s rarely addressing the allegations with vulnerable honesty. Instead, they choose avoiding the subject with idiomatic justification of one’s actions, because shit, they are really good at their job, so good, that the harassment didn’t affect their work.
For Example, look at how James Horowitz’s (Fox Sports Reporter) attorney responded to his termination:
“The way Jamie has been treated by Fox is appalling,” said Horowitz’s attorney, Patricia L. Glaser. “At no point in his tenure was there any mention by his superiors or human resources of any misconduct, or an inability to adhere to professional conduct. Jamie was hired by Fox to do a job that until today he was performing in exemplary fashion. (LA Times)
“The Fox culture allows us to talk about sports news in ways that perhaps would be frowned upon at other companies,” Horowitz told the Los Angeles Times in a December interview. “There is an appetite here for raw, fearless talk.” (2017)
Never stating James would never harass another person, simply dodging the situation with fallacious evidence of good job performance to nullify the possibility of sexual misconduct. This type of response is extremely prevalent in a lot of these recent cases.
What progress (if any) is being made in the valley to improve?
Apparently, the valley is taking action to fix impending legal fiasco, initiating a proposal of “solutions to the problem”:
- “CNBC reported the recent “revelations” of the sexual harassment problem have inspired Silicon Valley to take a “deeper look at what has become a pervasive issue.” VCs should interact with entrepreneurs the same way a manager would with an employee. Sexual relationships and business relationships should not mix, ever. Those who see VCs behaving inappropriately should share that information with colleagues. Limited partners should take a zero-tolerance attitude toward this behavior, and stop investing in VCs who behave badly. “Zero tolerance!” Leave it to the talent unleashed by Silicon Valley to come up with such an original idea!” (CNBC)
- Meena Harris wrote, “Finally, the ugly reality of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley is getting the extensive coverage it always warranted. That has happened because of courageous women like Susan Fowler, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, Leiti Hsu, and so many others who have spoken out.” (Business Insider)
While personally, I believe an updated or rather, reinforced, HR system regulated for VC’s is one of the few effective measures to take, there has been a serious lack of regulation as the rulebook for VC’s are simply not existent, and littered with loopholes. The inspiring determination of the brave women who continue to advocate, or the emphasis of expedited relations between employers and employees, an industry-wide resources center, at least for Silicon Valley, could be a good thing, at least a good start.
Women should be encouraged to organize, teach and refuse to tolerate harassment through effective resistance and proper resources on what is at their disposal. And it is on the male workers of today to break all ties with the unspoken bro code that has haunted the workplace forever, and treat every co-worker, every human being with the respect they’ve always deserved. If you ever feel like one of your co-worker is being harassed, never stand idle, fight for one another’s peace of mind.
“Wake up fellow males, sexual harassment is flooding the workplace, lets drain the fucking swamp.”
Harassment lurks all around, in restaurants, bars, in hospitals, in schools, at firms, lurking around every corner, and it’s our duty to one another to snuff it out. Because this shit, is a problem. That should have been dealt with awhile ago. Everyday sexual harassment isn’t solved is an embarrassment, to everyone, myself included.
Basically, google Emma Watson, she is the epitome of all that is amazing. For now, until next time, keep resisting.
Here’s a list of some badass women you should check out:
Simone De Beauvoir
Coretta Scott King
If you want to learn more about ways to work the power of law, check out an interesting bulletin by the cool cats at PSA Legal Counselors in India and the precedent power restoring rights in India with Vishakha and Ors v. State of Rajasthan:
Link to mock sexual harassment situation provided by Santa Clara University:
Link to YouGov/Huffington Post 2013 questionnaire statistics:
Link to Emma Watson Bio, because she’s a badass: