Logically, you know certain things happen, racism, sexism, those sorts of things. You know they’re out there. But over time – and over exposure – you become desensitized to them. They may even stop being a daily pain point.
Maybe your circumstances change, and you’re lucky enough to remove yourself from constant evidence of their existence. You switch jobs, for instance, and leave behind a toxic workplace for one that is friendlier, more culturally savvy. Or, you become very circumspect about what media you consume and what information you allow to filter into your hearing.
But when you do read a new account of racism or sexism or any other -ism, it grates. It becomes fresh and personal. It’s like a wound that had scabbed over and started to get pink around the edges, cracks open and starts to bleed again. Nothing life threatening, of course, but there’s enough pain or discomfort to remind you that what you thought was getting better, is still alive, well and horrible.
That’s how I felt when I read “Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment” earlier this week. I’m a new entrepreneur, and these accounts of women seeking funds for their startups, only to be insulted, pawed or otherwise demeaned, made me sick. I was sitting in Starbucks working when I read it, and I actually said, “Really?” out loud. My voice must have conveyed my disquiet because a man sitting nearby asked, “What happened?”
I told him about the article, how these women seeking venture capital in Silicon Valley were slowly coming out with really crappy stories of how they’d been propositioned, denied funding when they refused to sleep with whomever or subjected to all manner of suggestive, completely inappropriate behavior.
He shook his head and said, “That’s tough. Sometimes I wonder do men like that have daughters?”
I laughed, but there was no humor in it. “You wouldn’t think so. They must not have mothers, sisters or aunts either. Otherwise they might think twice about how their female relatives would feel in a similar situation.”
Still, it’s wonderful that these women came out with their stories. Now there will be an accounting. Hopefully something more than a carefully crafted media mea culpa. At the very least the investment firms that ignored or played down situations that were brought to their attention will have to check certain behaviors. But good grief. How much did these women endure before they just couldn’t stand it anymore?
Sexist comments, jobs that fell through when no sexual favors were forthcoming, harassment via text, being touched without permission, groped, even kissed, those were just some of the things the women in the article recounted.
“Rachel Renock, the chief executive of Wethos, described a …situation in which she faced sexist comments while seeking financing for her online community site. While she and her female partners were fund-raising in March, one investor told them that they should marry for money, that he liked it when women fought back because he would always win, and that they needed more attractive photos of themselves in their presentation.”
Yuck. It’s just gross, and the man’s comment about liking the fight because he knew he’d always win indicates a clear abuse of power and knowledge of a pervasive culture that would allow this kind of behavior to continue with impunity.
That’s why diversity and inclusion are so very important, particularly in industries like technology that suffer from an extreme gender imbalance. It’s that imbalance that enabled the current culture of harassment to flourish relatively unchecked for so long.
The two dozen-plus women who spoke to The Times about their sexual harassment, specifically naming the investors involved and providing corroborating messages and emails, have brought about a reckoning. Justin Caldbeck, formerly of the now collapsed Binary Capital, was named multiple times. “The revelations about Mr. Caldbeck of Binary Capital have triggered an outcry,” the piece read. “The investor has been accused of sexually harassing entrepreneurs while he worked at three different venture firms in the past seven years, often in meetings in which the women were presenting their companies to him.”
I was glad to learn that some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists, like Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, condemned Caldbeck’s behavior. Hoffman’s letter in response was crystal clear about what behavior is acceptable, and he did not neglect to point out the lopsided power dynamic that contributes to the problem: “VCs should understand that they have the same moral position to the entrepreneurs they interact with that a manager has to an employee, or a college professor to a student.”
He even came with solutions that I can support: “Any VC who agrees that this is a serious issue that deserves zero tolerance – and I certainly hope most do think this way – should stop doing business with VCs who engage in this behavior.”
Yes! Attach dollar sanctions to this nonsense. Hit these predators where it hurts – in their pockets – because we need more than a catchy hashtag – #DecencyPledge – to sustainably change an entire industry with its collective mind and hands in the gutter. We have to let men who feel they have women over a financial barrel know that they have the game twisted. Further, we have to make it clear to women that they do not have to tolerate this kind of behavior to get and keep investment capital:
“Lindsay Meyer, an entrepreneur in San Francisco, said Mr. Caldbeck put $25,000 of his own money into her fitness start-up in 2015. That gave Mr. Caldbeck reason to constantly text her; in those messages, reviewed by The Times, he asked if she was attracted to him and why she would rather be with her boyfriend than him. At times, he groped and kissed her, she said,” in the Times article.
“I felt like I had to tolerate it because this is the cost of being a nonwhite female founder,” said Ms. Meyer, who is Asian-American.”
Ladies, you – we – have to speak out. Things can change, but sometimes we have to force that change.
It’s not easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable, for one thing. Having to recount these squalid incidents is also embarrassing and potentially dangerous to one’s reputation if not to one’s person.
We know there are unfair repercussions for daring to refuse to be treated like convenient sexual objects. But those repercussions are even more severe – and more widespread – when we say nothing.