I want to talk about a relatively little-discussed aspect of the venture-capitalist sexual-harassment revelations that have rocked the Valley of late. In their wake, I have seen, first- and secondhand, men react with statements which can be collectively paraphrased as “Now I’m nervous about hiring women / investing in women / being alone in a room with a woman, what do I do?”
I will refrain from citing specific examples, in part because my initial instinctive reaction to that question is stop being such a goddamn ignoramus for crying out loud. That’s probably not a good context in which to start naming those who are, to put the most benevolent spin on things, genuinely confused and asking in good faith.
Such men seem not to realize that by asking this question, they are communicating one or more of these three things:
- I am a sexual harasser
- I believe women overreact to harmless and ordinary behavior with wild accusations of sexual harassment so often that such an accusation is a meaningful threat to me personally, and therefore, by extension, I believe the vast majority of accusations of sexual harassment, probably including those the industry is so upset about right now, are wild overreactions to harmless and ordinary behavior
- I believe women make false accusations of sexual harassment so often that there is a real risk to me personally, and therefore, by extension, I believe the vast majority of accusations of sexual harassment, probably including those the industry is so upset about right now, are false.
If you are a man who has been saying things like that… well, I’m going to again assume good faith and presume you don’t mean to say one or more of those things. You might even mean to be supportive. But it is not OK to say “yes, sexual harassment is terrible and we need to address the fact that it is rife in our industry” and then turn around and say “now I’m nervous about being alone in a room with a woman in a professional context because obviously anything I might do or say in such a situation could be construed as sexual harassment, amirite?” Because that second statement completely undercuts the first.
It turns out that women do not want to have to accuse anyone at their workplace of sexual harassment, much less file a lawsuit. They too, just like you, just want to do their jobs, and/or build their companies, without ever having to worry about the issue of sexual harassment.
I find it genuinely astonishing that men who are not themselves sexual predators can read the lived-experience accounts of sexual harassment by Justin Caldbeck, by Dave McClure, by Susan Fowler’s manager at Uber, by Tristan Pollock — and the future accounts that will inevitably emerge over the coming months — and come away with the takeaway “OMG an accusation like that could be aimed me! Now what do I do?”
If you insist on having a “but what about me?” reaction, then it should be: “well, if I’m not a sexual harasser, then an accusation of sexual harassment is such an unlikely risk to my career or company that I should spend essentially zero time worrying about it, and instead perhaps devote extra time to worrying about what a pervasive culture of harassment might be doing to our industry as a whole.”
Yes, fine, sigh, there exist some vanishingly small number of sociopathic or delusional women who might theoretically make false or wrong accusations, possibly for some kind of personal gain. Guess what? There also exist sociopathic or delusional men who make false or wrong accusations. Have none of you ever seen American Beauty? Women are no more likely than people of any other gender to make false accusations — but they are vastly more likely than men to be victims of sexual harassment. We don’t have an epidemic of false accusations. We have an epidemic of endemic sexual harassment of women in tech. Focus on fixing that.
Finally, let me just quickly address the “men are attracted to women, you can’t fight that, you’re trying to kill romance in the workplace!” crowd: please shut up. You’re stupid and you’re not helping. There is a vast body of work, both legal and cultural, about what sexual harassment is and is not; kindly refer to at least a smattering of it before continuing with your asinine non-observations. Thank you.
In sum, men of tech, please remember that the problem with which we are currently collectively trying to grapple is not a problem with the women around you. And if you’re actually personally worried about being accused of sexual harassment — well — maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason for that. Maybe take a harder and longer look in the mirror than usual, and consider refactoring your ways.