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The Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab at the University of Washington is now a member of the blogging community! We will be using Decoded as a forum for disseminating our research on women and computer science and discussing current issues related to the field of computer science including: women's involvement and how computer science is changing the way we live. We would love to hear your thoughts and comments on our posts.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Sexual Harassment in Silicon Valley Reveals About Tech Culture


Silicon Valley usually attracts media attention for technological innovation, but recently, sexual harassment allegations against prominent male investors have exposed the darker side of America’s tech hub. First, six women reported that venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck had subjected them to inappropriate encounters, from late-night texts to groping. Then a Facebook message to a potential employee written by 500 Startups founder Dave McClure went public: “I didn’t know whether to hire you or hit on you.” In the wake of the scandals, both Caldbeck and McClure resigned, and more than two dozen women came forward to share their experiences.
At the Stereotypes, Identity, & Belonging Lab, we see the prevalence of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley as confirmation that blatant gendered behaviors still affect women in computer science. While some venture capitalists have signed a “decency pledge” drafted by LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman, our research shows that attempting to reform individuals’ behavior is not enough to fix an environment that promotes inequality. The sexual harassment scandals are a symptom of a much larger problem, and in order to solve it, Silicon Valley’s culture needs an upgrade.

Sexual harassment thrives in systems with high power differentials and a lack of external accountability. Silicon Valley, with its wealthy investors and skewed gender ratio, fits those criteria to a T: this article from The Guardian described Silicon Valley as “an industry where money rules and male investors are treated like demigods.Because entrepreneurs work in an incredibly high-stakes environment -- about 90% of startups fail -- they are often desperate for money and publicity. Investors are perfectly positioned to exploit entrepreneurs, and because the negotiations lack regulations, there’s nothing to stop them.
The prevalence of “frat boy culture” and harassment in Silicon Valley are part of a larger pattern of gender inequality in computer science and technology. Women are less likely to pursue computer science than men, and female innovators are underrepresented in leadership positions and in the media. Our research has shown that even subtly masculine cues (like stereotypically geeky office decor) can create a pervasive sense of unbelonging for women who don’t fit programmer stereotypes. From inconspicuous cues to blatant harassment, women in computer science experience disadvantage at every level of interaction.
Unfortunately, most proposed “solutions” to Silicon Valley’s sexual harassment problem only operate on one or two of those levels. For instance, Hoffman’s decency pledge encourages male investors to maintain professional relationships with entrepreneurs and avoid crossing boundaries, but it does not address the larger culture of gender inequality. Even when workplaces try to dispel inequalities by closing the gender gap, they often adopt a quick-fix approach -- putting the pressure on women to change, for example, or hosting workshops on gender bias and assuming that their job is done. While well-intentioned, these attempts often fail to produce any meaningful results.
Aileen Lee, who left the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2012 to found Cowboy Ventures, told The Mercury News that she thinks the answer is to get more high-level women into venture capital firms. “We need to figure out how to double the number of women partners at VC firms from 5 percent to 10 percent,” she said, emphasizing what the change would take: “That means a lot more women would have to enter the industry, and 50 to 100 more women have to become general partner level -- that’s sadly not a thing that can happen overnight.”
Lee is right; change isn’t easy, especially when patterns of masculine privilege are deeply entrenched. The problem with her solution is that we can’t simply recruit more women to venture capital firms. Instead, we have to address the underlying culture that discouraged women from getting involved in venture capitalism in the first place. The bottom line? Whether we’re trying to curtail investors’ inappropriate behavior or encourage more women to choose careers in currently male-dominated fields, shifting the culture is a necessary prerequisite. As long as Silicon Valley is routinely described as a fraternity-like world where “brogrammers” wield fortune and fame, the sexual harassment is unlikely to stop.
How do you think we can promote a culture shift in the tech community? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and like us on Facebook to stay up to date on research insights.


Posted by Ella J. Lombard

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