The Call for a Culture Shift: Sexual Harassment and Accountability in Silicon Valley

Nestled in the southern elbow of the San Francisco Bay, Silicon Valley radiates with innovation, independence and opportunity for those who hope to build something of their own. The birthplace of companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix, it has become a hazy American cultural symbol of the future. This image of sunny idealism, however, can only extend so deep.

Several high-profile venture capitalists and tech leaders have now been exposed for sexual harassment and assault, and have begun to be held accountable for those actions. But the brave choice women entrepreneurs are making, now in larger numbers, to speak out about sexual harassment marks a call for a larger cultural shift within Silicon Valley as a necessary counter to this gender power imbalance.

New York Times article published last Friday brought to light the sexism and sexual harassment engrained in the tech ecosystem’s culture that often goes unspoken. In an industry where men hold an overwhelming majority of powerful positions, women who have been sexually harassed or experienced inappropriate behavior have long felt pressured to stay silent about it. Sexist comments, inappropriate touching, overt propositions and backlash for refusing those propositions are just a few of the behaviors to which women are exposed at the hands of men who hold more power than they do. Despite this taboo on speaking out about about sexual harassment, the past few years have been punctuated by a few major events which entrepreneur Gesche Haas believes “paved the way” for more women to come forward with their experiences. Haas shared her own story about being propositioned by investor Pavel Curda, who has since apologized, in 2014.

In 2015, venture partner Ellen Pao sued her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for gender discrimination and workplace retaliation which resulted in her termination. A landmark trial, Pao v. Kleiner Perkins sparked major conversations about the role of women in the tech industry. However, Pao ultimately lost the case and had to pay Kleiner Perkins $276,000 for their legal costs. In February of this year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post about the sexual harassment and the failures of the human resources department to investigate the reports of female employees. The attention the post received spurred an internal investigation into Uber’s workplace culture and led to CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation.

In the wake of these major cases of visibility for women in the tech industry, the recent New York Times article, in which over two dozen women shared their stories of sexual harassment, marks an important shift in which more women feel emboldened to speak out.

A little over a week before the article was published, The Information reported on women who had been sexually harassed by Binary Capital co-founder Justin Caldbeck—who harassed women entrepreneurs over the course of seven years at three different firms, often in settings where they were presenting their companies to him. Following these allegations, Caldbeck resigned from Binary on June 25, just one week before the resignation of 500 Startups founder Dave McClure.

McClure, along with Caldbeck and Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital, was named as one of the high-profile venture capitalists about whom women had spoken to The Times. In the aftermath of the article, McClure posted a blog titled “I’m a creep. I’m sorry.” as a means of apologizing for his inappropriate actions. Although McClure does take full responsibility for his actions in the post, some responders praised McClure for his courage and honesty to the extent that he was becoming celebrated for his apology rather than scrutinized. After seeing these responses, entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh wrote her own blog post denouncing McClure as not just a “creep,” but someone who sexually assaulted her in her apartment three years ago.

According to Yeoh, whose startup Reclip.It had been funded by 500 Startups, McClure had traveled to Malaysia to meet investors in her new organization, MaGIC. At a brainstorming session at her apartment, McClure “kept pouring scotch into my glass before I finished drinking throughout the night” and later propositioned and kissed her, both of which she had refused. McClure resigned on Monday, the same day Yeoh’s blog was published.

These kinds of accusations and testimonies are now spilling out after years of silence in which women feared being ostracized by the community after telling their stories. As the overwhelming majority of people who hold high positions at these venture firms are men, women often find themselves needing to ask these male venture capitalists for investments or jobs in order to establish themselves and their start-ups in the industry. According to a 2016 report compiled by venture firm Social Capital and The Information, 89 percent of investment decision-makers are men. These self-perpetuating power dynamics in which men who hold power use that power to abuse and harass women who seek their help force women into staying quiet about these abuses, as speaking out about them would risk them their jobs and future investments.

For women of color, the minimal presence of people of color at all in the tech ecosystem pose additional pressures and difficulties, as 75 percent of top investors are white.

Asian American entrepreneur Lindsay Meyer told The Times that Caldbeck, after giving her $25,000 for her fitness start-up in 2015, would text her and even grope and kiss her. More than just the hefty investment that caused Caldbeck to feel entitled to Meyer’s attention, Meyer also felt like her race placed her in a lower position: “I felt like I had to tolerate it because this is the cost of being a nonwhite female founder,” she said.

Entrepreneur Sarah Kunst, who now runs a fitness start-up, told The Times that while she was discussing a potential job at 500 Startups, McClure sent her a suggestive Facebook message. When she declined the advance and told one of McClure’s colleagues about the exchange, 500 Startups stopped considering her for the job. In a commentary with Fortune, Kunst discussed the lack of diversity in the tech industry, citing herself as part of the mere 4 percent of female-led start-ups that are run by black women.

Sexism and sexual harassment permeates the tech industry as part of its cultural fabric—a fabric that must be altered in order to offset its huge gender inequality and the skewed power dynamics that support it. Given the pervasive nature of this issue and the number of women who have so far stepped forward about being harassed, many investors, venture capitalists and employers in Silicon Valley are guilty of permitting or perpetuating this behavior. The women who have spoken out have taken an important and courageous step in fighting for equality in Silicon Valley, one that sheds exposure on the issue where there had previously been silence.

“This is a culture that has been allowed to fester and to rot,” 500 Startups investors Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor said in a statement, “by enablers who refused to intervene when they witnessed inexcusable behavior or went to great lengths to avoid seeing it.”

Women now more than ever are intervening on their own behalf where others failed them. Hopefully both witnesses and perpetrators will work to ameliorate the power dynamics of Silicon Valley’s gender imbalance. These women are undeniably making themselves heard—the first step, always, is to listen.

Maddie Kim is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a sophomore at Stanford University, where she studies English and creative writing. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Norman Mailer Center, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada Review and Adroit Prizes. She is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. When she’s not writing, she likes tap dancing and taking blurry photos of her dogs. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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