Sexism in tech has always been an open secret but it seems we’ve hit an inflection point in the past year… More women are now willing to expose the secret.
Most recently, six women came forward to talk about unwanted sexual advances from venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck. Three of the women chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, but, in what seems to be an increasing trend, three went on the record.
The inappropriate advances, say these women, included grabbing a woman’s thigh under the table, asking one founder who’d been pitching Caldbeck to take the meeting back to a hotel room, and sending explicit text messages. And Caldbeck’s history of inappropriate behavior allegedly pre-dated his time at Binary Capital (a founding managing partner at the firm, Caldbeck has been given an “indefinite leave of absence“).
One of the women who went on the record, Niniane Wang, wrote in a Medium post she’d been “trying to expose Justin for 7 years” but said Caldbeck had repeatedly threatened reporters, making it difficult for the story to be told.
So, what has gotten us to a place where women are beginning to feel more confident about talking openly about sexual harassment?
Susan Fowler arguably changed Uber’s entire culture. Before her, Ellen Pao fought and lost her gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins, but ignited the conversation within tech. Then there are the women who came forward about Trump and Bill Cosby. Five million women and allies of women showed up for the Women’s March on Washington and across the globe, making it the largest political demonstration since Vietnam. The march, which was meant to send the message that “women’s rights are human rights” showed how much support we really had and emboldened more of us to speak out.
Take all these recent incidents and combine it with a generation of women fed up with the status quo of enabling powerful men to hide the way they treat women. It’s clear we’ve hit a moment in time where women not only feel safer about speaking out, they feel it is their imperative to do so.
And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything…
The end of that famous sentence is “grab ’em by the pussy” and its source was then presidential candidate Donald Trump. The revelation of that quote, as part of a private conversation with Billy Bush from 2005, sent shockwaves through both political parties during Trump’s presidential campaign after its release. Some dismissed it as locker room talk, while others still find those words, and others, from a president of the United States appalling.
The internet can be a tool used to expose men who prey on women and the article about Caldbeck is the latest example. Before it, there was Fowler’s explosive blog post into the misogyny and bro culture within Uber. Inarguably, Uber has had many problems — an array of lawsuits, faltering economics, and international issues — but Fowler’s mid-February post, “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber” was the bomb that set off a major overhaul and ousting of key executives, including, eventually, CEO Travis Kalanick.
However, it still takes a lot of guts for any woman to come forward. The internet can just as easily punish those who dare to speak out. By adding her name and face to allegations of sexual harassment a woman is likely to face more harassment and questioned about the validity of her statements (“What were you wearing?” “You shouldn’t have been out so late and alone with him, anyway,” etc).
Cases of sexual harassment and assault can also be hard to prove. Just look at the case of Bill Cosby, when 30 women accused him of the same thing, and it was, again, an open secret that Cosby had an alleged history of assault. Still, a jury could not reach a verdict in the case.
It can be terrifying just to come forward and talk about your experiences. Half the women accusing Caldbeck didn’t want to be identified. It’s hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously and then to be propositioned like that by someone who has the power to fund you, hire you, fire you, or control your life in some way, only serves to reinforce that you, as a woman, really don’t matter.
But there’s hope for tech. Note that both Cosby and Trump have not felt the effects of their actions, whereas it’s a different story in Silicon Valley (at least in recent months).
We still have such a long way to go
I was recently at a VC event where I asked one of the firm’s newest partners how many people he’d heard a formal pitch from in the last few months. “About 50,” he said. “How many women have you heard a pitch from?” another person in our group asked. He paused for a while and then told us just one. One!
It’s not because women are less entrepreneurial or don’t have brilliant ideas. By shutting women up or treating women like dates instead of founders, our whole society suffers. It’s sad to think of all the great businesses that might have been if we weren’t repeatedly intimidated.
Thankfully, women are breaking their silence to talk about the industry’s “open secrets”. But just because more women are saying something doesn’t mean our work here is done.
Acknowledging the problem is the first step to recovery. We see that with the Uber board’s whole-hearted admission the culture needs to change. But talking about it means nothing if we don’t see action. Will Uber truly change? We’re still waiting to see but it looks like it’s made the first steps toward that end. However, Uber and one guy at Binary Capital are not the only bad seeds. They just got caught. Silicon Valley, as a whole, needs a good scrub.
So, why now? Because we need to keep saying something — and loudly — and with the support of male allies. And just maybe these predatory monsters will get the message their actions are wrong and they will be exposed for treating women so horribly.
*If you’ve been sexually harassed by a VC or someone else in a position of power in the tech industry, I’m here for you! Contact me with your story either by email at sarah dot buhr at techcrunch dot com or on Signal.