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Women in Tech Speak out Against Harassment

Gender bias has been a major issue in the fight for equality and freedom from gender discrimination. For many years, sexual assault in the workplace was unheard of – not because it wasn’t happening, but because it wasn’t talked about. The first laws against sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace were only included in the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The term sexual harassment was not used until 1975, when it was coined by a group of women at Cornell University. The term was still not widely used until it was featured in a New York Times headline in 1976. Presently, many reported sexual harassment cases are still not properly dealt with. The technology industry (its major U.S. hub being in Silicon Valley) is becoming well known for its rampant gender discrimination and sexual harassment against women.

In a recent New York Times article, over two dozen women in the technology start-up industry alone spoke on their experiences with sexual harassment. The article works to “help explain why the venture capital and start-up ecosystem … has been so lopsided in terms of gender.” Some of the women report being “touched without permission by investors or advisers.” Many of the women who were contacted reported believing they had “limited ability to push back against inappropriate behavior” given their positions. This problem, while gaining a large burst of recent attention, is not a new issue.

Fortune magazine timelines a more recent case in which women spoke out against sexual harassment incidents and won. It references an article from The Information, where six women, including Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu, accused Justin Caldbeck of making unwanted sexual advances during their investment pitches. Caldwell issued a public apology in response. Reportedly, just days before the story broke, Caldbeck emailed one of the women offering money to “squash the story.” As a result, Binary announced that Caldbeck would be leaving the firm permanently.

In 2012, Ellen Pao sued her former employer, firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for “allegations of gender discrimination” but lost the case in court three years later. With the amount of media attention the case received, however, the case still succeeded in shining a light on the gender-biased work conditions in the tech industry.

One direct response to the Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins case was “The Elephant In the Valley,” a Stanford University survey of women in technology. The survey, which focused on Silicon Valley, emphasized the drastic sexual harassment statistics that many major players in the tech industry still refuse to admit.

Of the 210 women who took the online survey, all of whom had backgrounds with “Venture Capital, Academia, Entrepreneurship, Products Marketing and Marketing Research,” 60 percent reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances. Of that 60 percent, 65 percent women reported receiving those advances from a superior. 1 in 3 reported having “felt afraid for their personal safety because of work related circumstances.”

Furthermore, 60 percent of the women who reported sexual harassment were “dissatisfied with the course of action” taken to resolve the issue. Many others did not report the incident – 39 percent did nothing for fear of it hurting their careers. 30 percent did not report incidents because they “wanted to forget.” And 29 percent signed “non-disparagement agreement(s)” when they did report incidents, also know as Protection of Reputation clauses, which essentially bind the signer legally from saying anything that could potentially have a negative impact on the reputations of any party involved.

“After a colleague made a (VERY unwanted) advance,” said one woman quoted from the survey, “I did not complain to anyone but I ensured that I never was alone with him outside an office setting. Not complaining was a mistake. The colleague later criticized me in a review as ‘not putting in enough hours.’ If I’d filed a complaint, his spiteful slap back at me would have been put in context. But I wouldn’t have known whom to complain to or how.”

The issue with gender discrimination in Silicon Valley branches off of larger conversation that has only recently begun to be talked about. Lately, the culprits of sexual harassment in the workplace have started to get called out. At the same time, however, a majority of these cases still don’t receive justice and, in many cases, voicing allegations still negatively impacts the careers of the women who speak up. Women who report sexual harassment are often not taken seriously, or are forced to recant allegations or sign away their rights to pursue further resolution for fear of losing their jobs or being ostracized.

Though it’s good that the issue is being talked about, now is the time to take action. Working together to challenge victim blaming, learning how to think critically in cases of sexual assault, saying no to gender stereotypes, and confronting inequality are all things individuals can do to actively lower the statistic.

Featured Image by CEBIT AUSTRALIA on Flickr
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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