Silicon Volley

'Brave' Women in Tech Can't Weed Out Misconduct Alone

The least powerful can't shoulder the entire burden against the most powerful.
Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

This has been the year of "brave" women. And I'm getting sick and tired of women having to be so brave.

The women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault are brave. The women at Fox News who came forward with accounts of sexual harassment are brave. So, too, are the growing numbers of women speaking publicly in recent weeks about sexism, harassment and much worse from some startup investors in Silicon Valley.

These women are absolutely brave. But do the people with the least power have to shoulder responsibility for weeding out misconduct by people with the most?

In many of the recent harassment revelations there were people who knew or suspected something terrible was happening and didn't do enough to stop it. Venture capital firm Lightspeed acknowledged it should have done more to prevent Justin Caldbeck from leaving the firm unscathed after at least one female founder complained about his inappropriate behavior. Elizabeth Yin, a partner at 500 Startups, this week resigned over how the firm handled a claim of sexual misconduct against Dave McClure, the founder of the prominent startup incubator. He has now stepped down after several women said he harassed them.

Caldbeck apologized. McClure called himself a "creep." And powerful male tech investors such as Reid Hoffman have publicly called for systemic changes in the venture capital system. But many more people in positions of authority have to take responsibility for stopping bad behavior.

The sad thing is people will call the latest VC sexual harassment allegations a moment of reckoning for the tech community's treatment of women and other underrepresented groups. But previous turning points didn't change much. Ellen Pao's gender discrimination lawsuit against investment firm Kleiner Perkins was supposed to be a turning point. The embarrassing workplace demographic information from big tech companies was supposed to be a turning point. Yet there are still a good number of people in technology who think everything is fine for women in their industry. 

Life at Work

In a survey of people who left tech jobs, women were more likely than men to report some types of mistreatment at work. The share of respondents who said they personally experienced the following:

Source: Kapor Center for Social Impact

Note: The survey was a nationally representative sample of 2,006 Americans who voluntarily left a job in a tech-related industry or a tech position in a non-tech company in the past three years.

In case the message hasn't gotten through, everything is not fine. In a recent survey of technology workers from the Kapor Center for Social Impact, women were more likely than men to experience or observe unfair treatment in the workplace. The U.S. venture capital firms that play kingmaker for young tech companies are hardly representative of the country. Just 7 percent of decision-makers at more than 200 firms are women, according to an analysis by the news outlet Axios.

The data and the recent stories of VCs behaving beyond badly should finally crush the myth that technology is a meritocracy where the only things that matter are the strength of your ideas and ability to execute on your convictions. Like everywhere else in the world, some powerful people in tech abuse their power and will do whatever it takes to keep it.

The good news is it's not completely business as usual in Silicon Valley. A chain of events at Uber that included Susan Fowler's brave -- there's that word again -- whistle-blowing led to Travis Kalanick's ouster as CEO. But change is disappointingly slow. At a moderated discussion in April between Pao and Anita Hill, the law professor whose sexual harassment testimony was hailed as a turning point for women 26 years ago, the audience was asked to raise their hands if they'd been sexually harassed at work or knew someone who had. Nearly every hand went up among more than 1,500 attendees.

The last two weeks have shown women in technology are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But if they're the only ones who are fed up about systemic abuses of power, then not enough will change.

A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg's Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Shira Ovide in New York at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Daniel Niemi at

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