Harassment is in the news again: a Presidential candidate, a famous comedian, and an untouchable news anchor. It’s rampant and we in the tech industry are just as guilty of letting it happen.
Gender bias in hiring. Racial discrimination in funding. Coworker micro-aggressions in billion dollar startups. We are agile and adaptable, so how come we still tolerate harassment quietly?
We wouldn’t want our friends, colleagues, sisters, mothers, wives, daughters, and friends to endure that type of treatment, but there is very little action to prevent it from happening again and again. All of the burden falls on the people who were subject to harassment to step forward.
At the risk of reputation and being blacklisted, Susan Ho, Niniane Wang, and Leiti Hsu publicly stepped forward in the Justin Caldbeck case. It was incredibly brave. They joined the likes of Ellen Pao, Susan Fowler, and so many other brave women who have shared their stories publicly. A courageous step to call more attention to a big problem in our industry.
There is a lot of light shed on the subject but it’s still not enough. The bar to report misconduct is still too high.
It happened to me.
I’ve worked in the tech industry for 7+ years as an entrepreneur, at USV and now as a partner at my own firm, Lattice Ventures. During that time, I’ve experienced harassment and I’ve never spoken publicly about it. The first experience was both shocking and upsetting, leaving me a little dumbfounded. Thoughts in the moment ranged from “whoa, did that really just happen” to “did I do something to let him think that was okay?” It threw me for a loop.
I eventually mustered the courage to confide in a male peer, he told me to simply shrug it off and to not work with that guy. There was no policy, so that’s what I did. I put it in the past, but I took it as a signal that I needed to act differently.
I stopped taking 1–0n-1 meetings over drinks or dinner, I brought up my boyfriend if conversations probed for more intimacy, and I shifted my wardrobe from dresses to more unisex uniform of jeans and a blazer. I wanted to be seen as an entrepreneur, not as a female entrepreneur, because being a woman in tech opens the door to a lot of unwelcome attention and it distracted me from what I was there to do — build a business.
Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. I’ve heard countless stories behind closed doors of similar experiences, and they reacted the same way. Sharing stories in private helps people feel less isolated, but it doesn’t stop harassment from happening to someone else.
When we make it hard to call out bad behavior, the harassed end up making the behavior changes. They avoid speaking up because the burden of proof always falls on the person reporting the incident. Even in public cases with multiple reports, the culprit’s first response is typically denial. Not only do you have to speak up, you have to prove what you experienced without a doubt.
This model of reporting is broken. We can reduce bad behavior by having more open conversations when someone crosses the line, instead of an all-or-nothing approach. Creating smaller feedback loops will help make change faster.
A more realistic decency pledge for everyone.
In Reid Hoffman’s #DecencyPledge and Foundry’s policy they call for a zero tolerance policy, so any offender is automatically ousted at first offense. I strongly disagree. We are in a state of transition and this is a quick way to paralyze progress. We don’t want male investors to stop meeting with female entrepreneurs out of fear of offending. Or for men to sit out of the conversation because they feel it raises the stakes for themselves.
To really change behavior in our industry, we need allies just as much as we need whistleblowers.
The Justin Caldbeck case was seen as a big win for the women who came forward, but it still took 7 years for the truth to come out publicly. That’s a long time to get away with harassing other women. What if instead, he was given a public warning years ago? Would he have adjusted his behavior sooner? If we didn’t require multiple reports to have the conversation about it, could it make it easier to fix sooner?
We can make it easier to report, if we have a less strict first-offense policy. Together, we can decide that we will not tolerate harassment, but we will give people a chance to fix their mistakes.
Now, in no way am I advocating to allow harassment of any kind to continue or go unchecked. It is wrong, and should be named as such. Many forms of harassment are illegal, including the behavior in the Caldbeck case, and should be tried as such. Let’s continue to agree to zero tolerance for breaking the law and for groping women.
The challenge with a lot of harassment is the gray area. There are micro-aggressions, bad jokes, slang terminology sexual in nature, and personal relationships that can overlap into professional ones. We are navigating a lot of invisible lines*.
If we cut people off as soon as they make one mistake, we lose an opportunity to improve. If you’ve never said or done anything offensive, then you can cast the first stone, but that’s an impossible bar, no one is perfect. Let’s take improvement over perfection.
Take action: A guide for investors and entrepreneurs.
We should focus on creating conversations and policies that are helpful to people interested in doing better. It will require more patience, but it will help accelerate our combined efforts to stop harassing behavior.
Here’s how more investors and entrepreneurs can take action to be allies and innovators:
Open the door to conversation.
The news broke in a big way, make space to talk about it in your workplace. The goal of the conversation should be creating space to listen, share stories, and provide feedback. The burden should not only fall on women. When I’ve discussed this topic with coed groups, we talk about any time we’ve witnessed someone being harassed, how we felt, and how we would act if it happened again today. Calling attention to how we can be allies in difficult situations is just as important as hearing experiences people are comfortable sharing.
The topic of harassment goes beyond work experiences, so there should be an opportunity for both men and women to participate in the conversation. When discussing this topic, I’ve heard stories of a man escorting a drunk guy out of a party to stop him from bugging everyone else there, a woman calling out a harasser on the subway, or a woman vocalizing concern for someone being preyed upon by a street hustler. Talking about harassment isn’t just sexual, or a limited experience to women.
Treat stories as data points, not accusations.
If a woman or man tells you a personal experience, record the data point. Many times the default response to harassment stories is disbelief and questioning of whether the storyteller is being honest. It can be brushed off as “I know him and I don’t think he would do that” or “I’m a woman and he’s never done that to me so I don’t buy it.” A painful reward for being open, right?
We are all different and we get treated differently. Respect the story as a data point, don’t try to take action without a plan. Sharing stories is not permission for vigilante justice, it’s a tool for letting your colleagues vocalize their own experiences. You are opening a door to conversation, not seeking gossip stories. Thoughtful action is important, but it should come after.
Define and collaborate on a policy. Revisit regularly.
Adding transparency to your process is empowering. A common policy among our industry can create a foundation for wider conversation and set best practices for action.
Below is a simple policy that addresses they key topics of unacceptable behavior, how incidents should be reported, how the loop is closed for action, and what happens to repeat offenders. I encourage you to improve upon this policy for you and your working relationships.
- No harassment in the workplace. No groping, unwanted sexual advances, harassing language, or offensive remarks based on gender/race*. More details: EEOC guidelines. If harassment takes place, report it.
- Policy applies, even out of the office. Any work related meeting is considered the workplace, from boardrooms to hotel lobbies, the policy still applies.
- Disclose personal relationships. Conflicts of interest related to personal relationships should be disclosed before, during, or after an investment. If you are in any way unsure of the nature of your relationship, communicate explicitly with words.
- Over report, don’t under report. All incidents should be reported, either with name or anonymously. All incidents will be recorded and reported to the offending party. Whether you are a witness or a victim, your complaint will be recorded.
- Deliver feedback as soon as possible. Once the incident is delivered to the offending party, there will be a documented conversation with management/peers/colleagues. Action steps could include: a letter of apology, a signed record of the misconduct with planned steps to prevent a repeat offense, and/or a request to seek professional counseling.
- Repeat behavior will be met with more action. If the same behavior is repeated after a prior warning. The company will take additional action to have the individual seek professional help or move on from the company. The company will communicate accordingly about the incident to prevent future harm.
- Intoxication is not an excuse. The policy applies, even when there is alcohol or other substances that impair judgement. If you cannot act appropriately when you imbibe: don’t drink or don’t participate in the event.
Small actions add up.
I challenge you to put these practices into place and to revisit them often. Report behavior to trusted allies. Speak up. Allies, risk fumbling rather than remaining silent. Brave women opened the conversation, now we as the tech community have the opportunity to keep the discussion moving forward.
Let’s continue to innovate on ending harassment. Use the tag #DecencyAlly to share support, ideas, positive stories, feedback, or to signal that you’re open to joining the conversation.
Follow along with the #DiversityAlly & Reid Hoffman’s #DecencyPledge. If I can be a resource, sounding board, or collaborator, say hello on Twitter @br_ttany.
There is not a lot of transparency or discussion around offensive and inappropriate remarks, I call these invisible lines. Have an “invisible line” you’d like to shed light on? Share it anonymously here. I will aggregate and share in a future post to further open the conversation.