System malfunction

A well-respected figure in tech recently asked me if I might like to co-author a piece with him on the subject of diversity. As we sat down to brainstorm, he joked, as an almost apologetic preface: “Just to be clear, I haven’t sexually harassed anyone, so I’m not doing this to cover up for anything.” The possibility hadn’t been on my mind, but as soon as he named it, I was saddened by how plausible it could be.

Time named its 2017 Person of the Year to be ‘The Silence Breakers’: the brave women and men who spoke up and unleashed that wave of reckoning. They were not the first to speak, but theirs were the voices that resonated and were able to break through, which is as much a statement about them as it is about the world that would finally hear them.

In the tech industry, the first big harassment story of 2017 was that of Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer. Her self-penned account of her very “strange” year at Uber was measured and effective, her anecdotes specific and salacious, documenting systemic harassment and discrimination at the company. A few months later, in June 2017, six women went on record with The Information to name Justin Caldbeck, an investor at Binary Capital, for sexual harassment. Shortly after that, the New York Times went on to name several more prominent investors, including Dave McClure of 500 Startups, for their misconduct. There were ramifications: Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to step down, and Caldbeck and McClure as well, from the firms they had helped to start. All of this presaged the #MeToo stories and fallout soon to come in Hollywood, media and politics.

And yet, almost a year later, and on the other side of the Harvey Weinstein reports, which broke in October, it feels like the force of that reckoning in tech has already abated. #MeToo in tech is not a trending hashtag. In the tech world, today, in 2018, despite everything, conferences are still hosting events at strip clubs, known offenders are still going on speaking tours, and people who’ve been fired for sexual harassment simply pop up elsewhere to pick up new plum appointments.

The worst behaved in tech have largely come from the ranks of investing, the venture capitalists (VCs). They control access to capital. Some companies manage to get off the ground without the infusions of cash that VCs provide, but most need that money to even have a shot at trying to achieve their start-up dreams. The percentage of female investors at top venture firms currently stands at no more than eight per cent. A female founder trying to secure funding for her company has no choice but to pitch many male VCs, and in most cases the founder is vulnerable. Furthermore, the legal protections that are theoretically if not practically helpful within companies, among co-workers in the same corporate environment, do not exist at all in the hazy grey area of founder/potential investor relations. For all of that, female founders only get two per cent of all venture money. (Editor’s note: Since this piece went to print, Tracy helped to launch a project called #MovingForward, which encourages VC firms to codify and publish their inclusion and anti-harassment policies for external parties, alongside points of contact, so there is both guidance and recourse for founders.)

The follow-on effects for the rest of the tech industry are clear: men keep their stranglehold on leadership in the small tech start-ups of today, out of which come the big tech corporations of tomorrow. These men continue to hire and promote their mostly male friends, not necessarily nefariously or even consciously biased, but often simply out of convenience and comfort.

Just as male-written, -directed and -produced Hollywood means an untold loss of storytelling from women, male-designed, -engineered and -funded Silicon Valley misses out on critical ideas and perspectives even as it seeks to craft the future of the world we live in. To study the example of one hot-button subject of late, the role of tech platforms in proliferating hate and harassment: women were the proverbial canary in the coal mine for this, yet our experiences of being harassed, trolled, stalked and doxxed hardly informed better tools for managing public discourse and protecting individuals from abuse. There are belated efforts underway now, but being able to say “I told you so” is scarce comfort.

Some companies, undervalued and dismissed because they are built by and/or sell to women, struggle at the start yet manage to break through anyway: Pinterest, the visual-bookmarking site, and Stitch Fix, the personal shopping service, are good examples in recent history. But so many others are lost in that early struggle. Take the case of Naya Health, which makes a smart breast pump that is Food and Drug Administration-approved, loved by mums, and yet can’t win over the Silicon Valley gatekeepers of capital. The founders, a husband and wife team, has had to turn to crowdfunding and validation via Kickstarter instead.

In the era of #MeToo, why has it been so hard for change to come to the tech industry, an industry that itself wants to change the world? Far more dangerous and insidious than a few bad men are the systems and power structures that have enabled them. At its most fundamental, sexual harassment is not about sex, it is about power and being able to abuse it. In business, it is economic and financial power and the ability to make deals, projects, or even companies and careers, that men are abusing.

The #MeToo movement fights back with the power of public accountability, but it isn’t always there, and it isn’t always enough. In Hollywood, media and politics, the spectacle of celebrities and public figures sharing or figuring in #MeToo stories has been an incredible media draw. The testimony of women like Salma Hayek, Lupita Nyong’o and Uma Thurman, speaking to Harvey Weinstein’s monstrosity, has been some of the most devastating. For most people seeing actors, newscasters and elected officials being implicated in #MeToo accusations is far more arresting a sight than tech insider takedowns. At the same time, accusations and consequences do not unfold independently of the press coverage and public attention. Where legal recourse has repeatedly been unsuccessful, in some cases the court of public opinion can demand accountability – as long as the public cares to have an opinion.

In tech, we will have to go about fixing our broken operating systems in our own slow, boring and not particularly newsworthy ways. For those who are not activists or diversity practitioners, the litany of recommended changes is a list more likely to inspire eye glaze: more inclusive recruiting; fairer, more calibrated hiring and promotion processes; more evidence-based decision-making, less of the kind based on gut feel and pattern matching; more work schedule flexibility; more supportive family/caretaker leave policies and benefits; third-party ombuds programs and other non-conflicted reporting and accountability mechanisms; etc, etc.

The list doesn’t make for much of a hashtag – but hopefully it makes for lasting change.

This story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Vogue Australia.

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One thought on “System malfunction

  1. Tracy,

    Thank you for writing ‘SYSTEM MALFUNCTION’. Regarding the list of things that should be fixed in order to get to equality for women in tech, do you know of a good resource that list them all somewhere? I’m hoping to collaborate with women in tech members at my company to build a visual ‘causal loop’ of why tech cannot fix this gender imbalance problem (I recently learned about this to describe systemic problems.)

    ‘more inclusive recruiting; fairer, more calibrated hiring and promotion processes; more evidence-based decision-making, less of the kind based on gut feel and pattern matching; more work schedule flexibility; more supportive family/caretaker leave policies and benefits; third-party ombuds programs and other non-conflicted reporting and accountability mechanisms; etc, etc’

    Tony

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