Benner on Tech: Is Facebook a Sexist Workplace?

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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People are Talking About…

A former Facebook employee named Chia Hong filed a complaint against Facebook and an employee named Anil Wilson this week. Hong, who Facebook fired in 2013, alleges sex and racial discrimination, as well as sex and racial harassment.

Hong says that her colleague Wilson ignored her ideas and her, asking “why she did not just stay home and take care of her child instead of having a career.” He allegedly admonished her for using a company-approved personal day to volunteer at her child's school once a month.

She also alleges that “she was not integrated into the team because she looks different and talks differently” than her former colleagues, being the only person of “Chinese descent.” She says that Wilson told her that she was an “order taker,” and eventually replaced her with a “less qualified, less experienced Indian male.”

A Facebook spokesperson says: "We work extremely hard on issues related to diversity, gender and equality, and we believe we’ve made progress. In this case we have substantive disagreements on the facts, and we believe the record shows the employee was treated fairly."

Lots of people are connecting the ongoing Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins trial and the Hong suit, not least because Hong is represented by Lawless & Lawless, one of the two firms representing Pao.

But people are also paying attention to these suits because discrimination is a hot topic in tech. White males lead nearly all of the largest tech companies. More stories of harassment and discrimination in the industry are cropping up in blogs and on Twitter. And the general public has started to notice that harassment accusations trickle out of tech firms with the regularity of an IV drip. (Many of those incidents are presented in this Newsweek story, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women.”)

I don’t know that these two lawsuits will quell sexism and racism in tech. The Pao v. Kleiner trial will certainly scare small companies and venture firms into having an effective human resources professional on staff and an HR policy that’s easy to find. The case against Facebook -- which could be settled long before it goes to trial -- may or may not expose a few bad actors at a 9,000-person company.

But if you look at finance and media, two former professional boys clubs, it took big class action suits with big, expensive settlements – notably against Morgan Stanley and Newsweek – to shake things up and reset baseline expectations for appropriate behavior at work.

** Related: In the ongoing Pao trial, Kleiner has called several witnesses to the stand who have flatly contradicted key points in Pao’s testimony. Mary Meeker called the firm a great place for women. Private equity investor Andrew Jody Gessow denied Pao's assertion that he and Kleiner partners talked about porn stars and hot women during a private plane ride. Partner Matt Murphy testified that Pao was difficult to deal with and often overstepped her boundaries.

Ventureland

Instacart was hit with a class action lawsuit alleging that the delivery service misclassifies workers as independent contractors, reports Time.

Postmates just got a boost from Starbucks, which will use the service to deliver coffee in Seattle, GeekWire reports.

Uber hit roadblocks in Europe. The Wall Street Journal report that the company’s Paris office was raided by authorities and its low-cost Uber Pop service was banned in two German cities. The Verge notes that Uber execs were charged with operating an illegal taxi ring in South Korea. FedEx CEO Fred Smith told the Journal that Uber isn’t a threat. In good news, Idaho may allow Uber to operate in Boise. It’s a smaller market than Frankfurt, but it’s something.

Bitcoin exchanges will be regulated in the UK, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Y Combinator put out its winter 2015 statistics. They show that 22 percent of its startups had a female founder; nearly 8 percent had a black founder and just over 5 percent had a Hispanic founder.

People and Personnel Moves

Sonny Hashmi, joined Box to help expand the use of the company's products within the Federal Government. Hashmi was previously the CIO of the General Services Administration.

Tim Cook spoke with Fast Company about innovation, the Watch and how Steve Jobs still informs Apple's future.

Companies

Amazon is shutting down Amazon Webstore, which lets small businesses run their own online stores, reports Re/code.

Apple could also be working on an “augmented reality” product, according to analyst Gene Munster. 9to5 Mac has the low-down on all the changes that Apple Stores must undergo to sell the new watch. There’s an Apple Watch face that counts down the seconds to your death, Wired reports.

Google’s self-driving cars are hitting regulatory traffic, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Yahoo is shutting down its China operations as part of the company’s downsizing efforts, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Security Watch

Cisco is willing to ship its wares to fake addresses in order to circumvent NSA interference, the Register reports.

The Evolution Market, an emporium of contraband items, abruptly disappeared, reports Brian Krebs.

Media Files

Sony’s OTT streaming service Vue launched today in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago and will cost between $49.99 and $69.99, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The Guardian, the Financial Times, Reuters and CNN are working together to create their own programmatic advertising product to compete with Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

More ad-tech consolidation: The Wall Street Journal says that AppNexus Inc is acquiring rival Yieldex in a deal worth about $100 million.

News and Notes

The Mall of America used Facebook to track Black Lives Matter supporters, according to the Verge.

If you want a smartwatch that looks like a nice watch, Tag Heuer is partnering with Intel to create a smart version of its Carrera watch, Reuters reports.

Do not read your book in a cafe's laptop only section. (And don’t go online during wi-fi free hours!)

(Corrects description of harassment in first paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net