It started with Ashley Judd in Hollywood and led to Christine Ford in a worldwide story, but the fires of #MeToo were slow to spread to the giants of the tech industry. It was only last month that Google employees around the world stepped up from their desks and walked out of their offices in protest of sexual harassment and misconduct, and reports of Google having shielded its employees from legitimate sanctions. While the protests are over, the simmering flames beg the question – how is the tech industry responding to the #MeToo movement?
In an industry where 90% of the startups fail and having the right kind of money and PR can make or break companies, it is no wonder that venture capitalists are treated as demigods. But the investment industry is dominated by men. According to Equal Venture’s analysis of about 1,500 VCs, the VC industry is dominated by men – with over 82% of those involved being men. Observers say that there’s no codified professional framework to protect founders in their interactions with investors. Since most deals are done in social settings, there is no human resource department, no contract and hence bad behaviour or discrimination can easily go unpunished. Women entrepreneurs are hesitant to come forward against powerful men, for a fear of damaging their career and funding prospects permanently. It is no wonder that The Guardian quoted Kelly Armstrong, an employment attorney as noting,
“These [Venture Capitalist] guys are invincible. It’s [VC Industry] a small world.”
Some women entrepreneurs however, are taking the risk and coming forward. More than two dozen women have brought forth instances of unwanted and inappropriate advances from Silicon Valley venture capitalists. In one case, half a dozen women entrepreneurs alleged facing such advances from Justin Caldbeck, a prominent VC, when pitching ideas for funding, or taking advice on how to start a business. This signals a welcome shift in Silicon Valley’s culture, where such behaviour was often kept under the wraps. At the pinnacle of high-profile cases was that of Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber. Mr. Kalanick had to resign after a public outcry over a former Uber engineer’s blog post detailing his inappropriate advances towards her. The post also highlighted a systemic problem, that later became the basis for Google Walkout as well – the failure of the company to take any action against him – belying a poisonous culture of turning a blind eye on sexual harassment.
At Google, employees and contractors around the world staged a walkout in protest of how the company had handled matters of sexual misconduct. Specific attention was on Google’s treatment of Andy Rubin, the co-founder of Android, whom the company paid $90m to leave, following a sexual assault allegation, which too was kept under the wraps for a long time. In late 2016, leaked internal emails from Apple showed that the company had “a very toxic” work environment. The emails which many believe were leaked by Apple employees, narrated a dozen or so unidentified employees claiming that they had been subject to “a sexist” work environment.
The situation has been no better at Microsoft, court documents filed alleged that the largest software firm in the world mishandled 238 internal complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct. Similar to Trump’s “Locker room talk”, women alleged that the tech industry is rife with exclusionary “boys’ clubs” and that this “bro culture” is rampant with sexual assault, misogyny, and rape.
But there are some signs of improvement – even if they are targeted to showcase a more positive image. LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman called for investors to sign a “decency pledge”. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai said that the company has taken “a hard line” in response to inappropriate conduct and announced some policy changes. More than a dozen prominent VCs have publicly signed a “decency pledge”. It has also prompted more companies to release clear sexual harassment guidelines. But organizers of the Google Walkout say that the company’s response was insufficient and one of their key demands – end to compulsory arbitration in all work-related cases – has not been met.
The Female Founders Alliance is a sign of things to come. It provides women with one-on-one mentorship, and access to a community of female founders and investors. Thanks to a record number of women, Silicon Valley is being re-painted in a new image. Leading the space are women like Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures, who is leading her own venture capital firm and Arlan Hamilton who rose from sleeping out of the San Francisco airport to raising millions as the founder and CEO of Backstage Capital, a seed-stage investment fund that’s investing in companies with at least one founder who is a woman, a person of colour, or LGBTQ. We now have 14 women CEOs of unicorns – VC backed US based companies valued at $1 billion or more.
The stories of women coming forward and speaking out have led to numerous resignations and investigations. In an industry where money rules and is the world changing idea is only seconds away, the #MeToo movement is just the beginning of a long road – and an imperative to ensure that women are accorded an equal space in our future economic and political landscape. The stock picture of a young male entrepreneur is now starting to come to an end. The arc of history is long, but it is finally turning towards justice and equity.
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About the Author
Akshat Jain is a second year student of Bachelors in Technology from Manipal University Jaipur. Originally from Delhi, he is an avid debater and has participated in numerous Model United Nations conferences all over the country. A West Wing fan, he likes reading and decoding social issues, and public policy. Previously, he has worked with the healthcare venture PeeSafe, in addition to The Kirat Youth Foundation, and Kairo Guard.