LAST YEAR’S NATIONAL conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace began in the tech industry. In the months that followed Susan J. Fowler’s February blog post about sexual harassment at Uber, a number of well-known tech executives—particularly venture capitalists and startup executives—were ousted from positions of power after allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct.
But with the October downfall of Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood took the lead on the conversation. In the wake of the many reports of harassment in entertainment, the industry launched initiatives, held high-profile protests, and grabbed headlines. Earlier this month, 300 women in Hollywood created Times Up, an anti-harassment initiative that includes a legal-defense fund for victims of harassment. They donned black dresses and pins supporting the effort at the Golden Globes ceremony while speaking out in their acceptance speeches.
Comparatively, calls for reform in tech have faded into the background, leading some to wonder whether techies are hoping the problem quietly disappears. Limited partners (the investors in venture funds) remain interested in backing certain ousted investors, according to TechCrunch. “I’m not doing [my job as an institutional investor] for social justice. I do that in my philanthropy,” one investor told TechCrunch.
Accused harassers like former Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck have already re-emerged. Caldbeck spoke to Duke University students about the dangers of “bro culture” in November and has been sending nearly identical apology messages to his public critics. Andy Rubin, the entrepreneur accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate at Google, returned to his job at smartphone startup Essential after a two-week leave of absence.
Industry leaders are proceeding cautiously. The National Venture Capital Association spent the better part of last year working with law firms, HR specialists and venture partners to create a suggested list of HR policies and best practices for venture firms, including detailed sections defining harassment and discrimination and guidelines for handling it. The group also plans to offer suggested ways firms can facilitate education and training around harassment and discrimination. But it has not yet released the results. “We’ve been careful to be deliberate rather than quick,” says NVCA CEO Bobby Franklin.
Firms will not have to adopt NVCA’s proposals, and the group isn’t planning to track the industry’s progress, Franklin says. Many venture firms are small partnerships, which means some employment laws may not apply. Franklin says many firms quietly adopted education programs and updated their HR policies after the wave of harassment allegations, but they are skittish about advertising their efforts because “they know on the overall diversity stuff they’re not where they need to be.” He adds, “Not many firms can claim they have a nice balance of diversity, so they’re just afraid that if they try to put their best foot forward, someone will point out a wart they have somewhere else.”
Venture capital is a tricky business for employment law. Many of the harassment charges leveled at venture capitalists happen in informal situations—in a gray area between personal and professional.” Entrepreneurs pitching their startups don’t have a formal business relationship with a venture capitalist; even when a VC firm invests, no employment laws or company policies cover such interactions. “The firms that [adopt policies] probably don’t have that problem to begin with,” says Patrick Quinlan, CEO of HR analytics company Convercent. “You’re not going to get the bad actor to volunteer for that.” In September, California State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson proposed changing state employment law to offer legal protections to entrepreneurs.
Yet plenty of techies remain hopeful about efforts underway to fix the industry’s problems. If anything, companies are motivated by the business damage they risk by not addressing toxic workplace cultures that enable harassment. A year ago Uber, the world’s most-valuable privately held startup, felt untouchable. But the company’s 2017 troubles—from executive turnover to a messy board fight over the ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick—have shown all startups how ugly things can get. Convercent’s Quinlan says he’s noticed a shift in how tech companies are addressing the problem. Previously, “companies wanted to have the ostrich view of ethics, which is, ‘If I don’t hear it and see it, it’s not happening,’” he says. “A big change we have seen is that companies realize you’re much better off identifying the problem and working to solve it. That evolution is happening fast.”
In 2017, the number of sexual harassment reports across Convercent’s clients (including non-tech companies) in the second half of the year jumped 67% compared to the same period in 2016. Quinlan says companies are addressing harassment more proactively, reiterating values in every employee meeting, as opposed to sharing codes of conduct once a year. “What we are seeing and hearing is the desire to have very continuous conversations,” he says. “One of the big trends is ‘tone from the top.’ How do you make sure you’re saying the right things, and consistently?”
Convercent and others are trying to apply artificial intelligence to the problem. Typically, agents on HR hotlines must follow a script, which doesn’t allow for flexible conversations and may not generate a full understanding of what happened. Further, hotlines make it difficult to follow up on anonymous tips that may not provide all the necessary information. In October, Convercent introduced a product that uses text messages and a chatbot to gather information through a “conversation” with people reporting harassment. (The reporters can remain anonymous if they prefer.)
For the venture industry’s unique set of problems, one solution might look like the services of Callisto, a technology nonprofit that’s used on 12 college campuses and two locations of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy school. Callisto provides a neutral third-party system for victims to report harassment. In the reports, victims are asked whether they would want to be connected to other victims of the same assailant if there is a match in the system. CEO Jessica Ladd says 15% of the victims who have opted into this service have matched other victims of the same assailant.
The #MeToo movement and the stories of harassment in tech have shown the world what Ladd already knows—the power of numbers. When victims speak together, they’re more likely to be believed, and less likely to be sued. Callisto’s system is designed to help victims in those situations, and to increase their choices. Not all victims want to sue for damages, which would mean going public with their accusations. Some want to see their assailant removed from campus or face criminal charges. Some merely seek to avoid personal interactions with that person. Others want to change the person’s behavior, using the Callisto database to monitor for future incidents.
Applying such a system to venture capital would pose a key problem: Who would have access to the central database. Ladd suggests the industry appoint an independent ombudsperson to review the submissions. She notes that lawyers are trained to steer victims toward lawsuits, when that’s not what many victims want. “A lot of victims … don’t want to be the face of this in the New York Times. If we can create other options, we would prefer that, as would the limited partners and the other partners,” Ladd says. “They’d rather know about this before it ends up in the press.”
Ladd acknowledges that such a system may result in less transparency and awareness about instances of harassment, but believes it’s more important to settle situations in the way the victims want. “True change from this is not going to be coming from a never ending #MeToo movement of an endless media frenzy. People are going to get bored and we need to have other ways to dealing with it,” she says.
In the meantime, women in venture, who comprise just 6 percent of the industry’s investing partners, are taking initiatives. Led by Sequoia Capital Partner Jess Lee, a group of venture investors has created Female Founder Office Hours, a series of events aimed at connecting female founders with female investors. One hundred female founders attended each of the group’s first two events, held in San Francisco and New York, with plans for more events in more cities.
Upfront Ventures Partner Kara Nortman says the initiative is meant to help founders but has had the side effect of increased communication among the small community of female venture investors. Now they discuss everything from deals to the latest news about sexual harassment over a WhatsApp group, which Nortman says is necessary in an industry where venture firms and startup boards of directors rarely have more than one woman. She says there have been “a lot of positive side benefits like camaraderie and inclusiveness that hasn’t happened before.”
Few expect sweeping changes to happen overnight. “I think it’s going take a long, long time with methodical, consistent effort,” Nortman says. “It’s great that we’re shining a spotlight on the worst behavior, but the hardest thing is going to be creating a space for women to shine and get the promotions they deserve and hired as CEOs and venture partners.”
- By keeping settlements secret, nondisclosure agreements can facilitate repeat offenders. Some lawmakers want to curb secrecy clauses.
- A survey found many startup founders doubt the extent of sexual harassment.
- Responsibility for preventing harassment extends to the board of directors of a company.