Silicon Valley Punished Some Badly Behaved Men In 2017. Now, It Needs To Fix Its Broken Culture.
In an industry that has long struggled with gender equality, it's not yet clear whether it's just getting rid of a few bad apples or if the industry is truly ready for change.
As hard as it is to believe now, on Feb. 19, when Susan Fowler published a lengthy personal blog post about being discriminated against and harassed at Uber, it initially seemed like the company would be able to quickly address the allegations and move on.
At the time, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick released a statement saying, “what she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” He also said that Fowler's post was the first time he'd heard these allegations. A few days later, though, female employees at Uber told Kalanick that the company had a "systemic" problem with harassment — a charge later denied by board member Arianna Huffington when she told CNN that Uber did not have a "systemic problem" with sexism and harassment. It seemed then like Uber was going to adhere to the old Silicon Valley playbook: try to portray the problem as an isolated incident and deny the need for broader change.
Of course, Fowler’s post ultimately led to more than 200 women coming forward with their own allegations, an investigation into Uber's culture led by former attorney general Eric Holder, and Kalanick’s resignation. But for a time, the reckoning at Uber didn't necessarily portend a broader shift in tech. It seemed like the narrative was that Kalanick was a "bad boy," and Uber was just a company gone awry; it didn't seem like others were taking a hard look at themselves. After all, the industry has long had a reputation as a boys' club — venture capital is predominantly male, startups' boards are predominantly male, and startup employees, particularly in engineering, are overwhelmingly male — and for a while, it wasn't clear whether other women would come forward with their stories of harassment and discrimination.
It was not hard to look at what happened to Ellen Pao in 2015, after she brought a lawsuit against prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for gender discrimination and concluded that coming forward publicly was just not worth it. Pao, a former KPCB junior partner, saw her claims rejected in court in March of that year and lost her case, sending a very public signal that for women to go up against the powerful forces of Silicon Valley was risky at best and career ending at worst.
And unlike many of those who have spoken out against Harvey Weinstein and other figures in the entertainment industry, women in Silicon Valley are not household names. In the mostly off-the-record conversations that I've had with women in the industry, they almost always have weighed the costs of going public with allegations of discrimination and harassment and decided that it wasn't worth it. Even if they won in the court of public opinion, they could be blackballed from the industry.
But slowly, even in tech, things started to change this year. After Fowler, a significant turning point came in June, when women spoke out about former Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck. The women — some of whom had worked with Caldbeck and some of whom had met him in the context of seeking VC funding from him — had similar stories of Caldbeck pressuring them to sleep with him. Caldbeck was subsequently forced to resign, and the incident led to more women speaking out against unwanted advances from venture capitalists in the course of seeking funding.
In the meantime, less than two months after Caldbeck resigned, former Google engineer James Damore circulated a memo internally at Google that in part laid out his reasoning about why women were inferior engineers, titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber." A memo that in the past may have been ignored was seized upon as yet another sign of the tech industry's misogyny, and Damore was fired.
As with many industries, though, the revelations about Harvey Weinstein in October and the subsequent #MeToo movement were what forced the tech industry to reckon with harassment and discrimination. Women became emboldened about coming forward and companies became less concerned about protecting high-performing employees who had allegations of harassment leveled against them. In mid October, a couple of weeks after the New York Times' first story about Weinstein ran, Quinn Norton published an essay on Medium saying that she had been sexually assaulted by the tech evangelist Robert Scoble; subsequently, more women came forward. Scoble is no longer part of the company he founded with his longtime collaborator Shel Israel and has not spoken at a tech conference since the allegations first emerged.
Companies are also becoming more proactive about launching their own internal investigations before news of bad behavior gets into the press. Former Draper Fisher Jurvetson partner Steve Jurvetson left the firm where he had worked for 22 years in November, after an internal investigation uncovered what Recode described as "behaviors by Jurvetson that were unacceptable related to a negative tone toward women entrepreneurs."
Last week, venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar resigned from Sherpa Capital, the firm he cofounded in 2013, after five women told Bloomberg he had sexually harassed them. Pishevar has filed defamation lawsuits against a political opposition research group that he says has targeted him for a "smear campaign." Pishevar had originally been placed on a leave of absence.
And now, it's starting to seem like bad behavior is catching up with people in an industry where being a 'bad boy' (no matter how old you were) was considered a badge of honor. The founders of HQ, the popular quiz app, are said to be having difficulty getting funding in part because one of the founders has a reputation "for exhibiting inappropriate behavior toward women," according to Recode.
Of course, the founders of HQ could very well end up getting funding. In the meantime, this could also be an easy way for people who weren't planning to fund them to virtue signal that they're taking harassment allegations seriously. After all, it's much easier to denounce a few bad apples than to address structural inequality. (Just look at how hard Google is fighting to avoid releasing its salary data — though Google employees have independently collected data that shows that women are paid less than men.) And it remains to be seen whether those accused of sexual misconduct, like Pishevar, Scoble, Jurvetson, etc., will quietly return to the industry after a period of exile — and if they do, if anyone will care. Already, venture capitalist Chris Sacca, who was accused of inappropriately touching a female entrepreneur and wrote a Medium post apologizing for "contributing to tech's culture of harassment," was invited back to speak at major conference Dreamforce in November.
But there are some signs that the industry might be starting to change, however reluctantly. This week, Microsoft announced that it had ended arbitration agreements with employees who made sexual harassment allegations (after dodging questions from BuzzFeed News in November), and that it would support a federal law banning these kinds of agreements.
Now it's up to everyone else to follow suit.
Part of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers' company name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.