Sex discrimination lawsuits pile up in Silicon Valley—and there’s no end in sight
Even for a Silicon Valley sexual harassment lawsuit, the case against UploadVR contains some bizarre details.
Among the various sordid allegations from the company’s former head of social media, the company’s San Francisco office had a room with a bed dubbed the “kink room.” That’s just one of the pieces of a lawsuit that alleges sexual harassment and discrimination at the company.
Not a surprise to Bari Williams.
“None of this shocks me anymore, sadly,” said Williams, a noted voice in the tech industry for advocating for diversity and inclusion. Williams is also head of business operations at StubHub.
UploadVR is just one of numerous tech companies to be hit by claims of sexual harassment and discrimination in the past six months. Magic Leap, among the buzziest and most secretive startups, settled a lawsuit in May. Elon Musk’s Tesla fired a female employee who had accused the auto manufacturer of wage discrimination and ignoring sexual harassment. Google and Oracle are both fighting off federal allegations of gender pay gaps. Uber is going through multiple internal investigations after a blog post revealed toxic workplace culture issues. Out of 215 claims reviewed by law firms Perkins Coie, 47 were related to sexual harassment.
It’s been almost two years since Ellen Pao brought the issue of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley to the forefront. She lost her case against Kleiner Perkins, in which she alleged the venture capital firm discriminated against women and then punished her for lodging a complaint. In her wake are other women who have refused to tolerate the “boys’ club”-mentalities of the companies that employ them: Susan Fowler Rigetti and Uber; Tannen Campbell and Magic Leap; AJ Vandermeyden and Tesla; Elizabeth Scott and UploadVR.
“You’re not going to have 25-year-old or a 30-year-old in a charge of multibillion dollar company in anywhere else except tech”
Uber and those lawsuits are making headlines, but that doesn’t mean much in Silicon Valley. Change remains elusive in a male-dominated tech industry that throws billions of dollars at young founders and cares almost entirely about how fast they can grow. That system shows few signs of changing.
“There are plenty of other women who deal with similar things and just say, ‘I’m going to move to a different group within the company.’ These kinds of things get talked about amongst women like ‘such and such company you don’t want to work there,’ but we’ve seen a larger number of women taking action,” said Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president of marketing, alliances, and programs at Anita Borg Institute (ABI), which advocates for women in the tech industry.
Gender discrimination and harassment might have a higher profile since Pao’s case, but it’s not clear that it’s a problem that’s actually being addressed—even with companies at higher risk of lawsuits and bad press.
Uber, which was one of the companies that women engineers whispered about, provides a study in contrasts. The San Francisco-based firm appeared to be taking the situation seriously, hiring former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate workplace issues after former employee Fowler Rigetti exposed the harassment she faced working there. Uber’s board members received Holder’s report last week, and it’s expected to be presented to all employees on June 13 during the weekly all-hands meeting.
It sounded promising until ABI dropped Uber as a partner last month and openly questioned the company’s commitment to change.
“One of the things we look for is, What is the commitment from the top? Are you looking at the numbers in detail? Are you looking at the sentiment? What are you doing to make sure you’re looking at every process?” Ames said. Just hiring women to “fix your numbers” won’t cut it.
And why should these companies commit to change? Silicon Valley’s worldview tends to applaud when founders move fast and break things. To this crowd, issues like gender discrimination are acceptable roadbumps for companies that are going to change the world.
That’s why much of the industry tends to treat discrimination and harassment claims with a sense of dismissive detachment.
Techmeme, the tech news aggregator Silicon Valley types love to refresh daily, doesn’t even typically share news about sexual harassment within the industry.
“If we cover every tiny iteration of the scandal, do people think we are championing this as an issue too much? Is Techmeme turning into an advocacy platform for this issue?” Gabe Rivera told BuzzFeed in a profile of his company. According to the story, Techmeme will cover “cultural topics to the extent that they matter to the industry, or to a given company’s bottom line.”
And there’s the rub. Advocates can point to research that has found diverse companies tend to perform better, but those arguments aren’t being absorbed by the industry. Instead, the entrenched system is unchanged. One wide-ranging study found women account for only 11 percent of VC partners. In 2017, only 17 percent of startups had a female founder. When race is brought into the mix, women of color end up barely represented at all.
Those stats are easier to understand against the backdrop of surveys that show investors just don’t care about diversity issues.
The result is mostly white male founders getting millions of dollars from mostly white male investors with one directive—succeed at all costs.
“You’re not going to have 25-year-old or a 30-year-old in a charge of multibillion dollar company in anywhere else except tech,” said Leslie Miley, who currently works at Slack and became a whistleblower in diversity advocacy after he went public about Twitter’s problems. “In other organizations you have to work your way up.”
That’s not going to change anytime soon. Venture capitalists might claim they think outside the box, but they have recipes for success like everyone else. The system, as they see it, is working.
“I am obsessed in results. And the way to be successful is to emulate successful people,” investor and former Square COO Keith Rabois recently tweeted. He had been embroiled in a debate over whether it was reasonable to expect startup employees to work long hours—another issue that tends to alienate women, especially working mothers.
Until those recipes start to change, success isn’t the only thing that is repeating itself in the tech industry. Gender discrimination, race discrimination, and other problems are more visible, but just part of the cost of doing business.
Which is how you end up with beds with “kink rooms” in offices—and weary industry veterans who aren’t surprised by them.