One of the most vivid memories I have from my early days working in a technical role was walking down the office hall and, out of nowhere, a male colleague walked up to me and snapped my bra. He quickly turned beet red and muttered “Sorry.” I was livid and mortified that he felt he had the right to come up to me (or any other person) and sexually harass me.
Unless I quit, there was no escaping this creep who was also married with two kids. Our offices were across the hall from each other and I had to collaborate with him on projects. I should have immediately reported him to HR, but I was embarrassed to report it at the time, and scared I would lose a job that I needed.
As time went on, I learned that my experience with sexual harassment in the tech sector was not unique. I’ve heard women share absolutely harrowing stories of being groped and sexually assaulted by their boss. One woman was thrown against a wall at a company party. And a friend of mine was psychologically tortured by her cofounder for years.
To understand just how prevalent harassment in tech really is, Women Who Tech, the organization that I founded, set out to study the occurrences, trends, and patterns of harassment over the last three years. Our latest findings, detailed in the State of Women In Tech report are startling, underscoring how in 2020, harassment in tech is more widespread and pervasive as ever.
Women Founders Are Harassed At Alarming Rates
44% of women founders said they experienced harassment. This has remained unchanged since our initial survey in 2017. Women of color (47%) and LGBTQ founders (65%) both experience persistent harassment. 43% of those who experienced harassment said it occurred within the last 12 months, after the peak of the #MeToo movement.
“I was blackmailed and told I must go on a date in order to sign a key contract; I was threatened with being reported to immigration,” shared one woman founder. Others said they were sexually assaulted and some were raped.
Of the women of color founders who were harassed, 46% were harassed by a potential investor, compared to 38% of white women founders.
Despite Diversity & Inclusion Pledges, 2.7% of VC Funding Goes to Women-Led Startups; 0.02% is Invested in Black Women Founders
With startups shuttering due to both COVID-19 and the fact that 97.3% of funding still goes to startups led by men, there is a need for diverse innovation more than ever. But how can we expect women founders and women in tech to thrive in a broken system where 44% of women founders experienced harassment, and where 59% who were sexually harassed were explicitly propositioned for sex in exchange for funding and introductions.
“I Would Fund You, If Only You Had A Beard”
A few years ago, a startup with enormous potential to disrupt sound technology shared the challenges with me that she’s faced raising her funding round. One investor actually told her that he would have funded her if she had a beard. Curious how many others founders were told something similar, we asked founders in our 2020 survey if they were ever told that they would raise more money if they were a man or had a cofounder who was a man. Half of women founders (49%) said yes!
Women Working In Tech Continue To Experience Rampant Harassment
According to our survey findings, 48% of women working in tech as employees experienced harassment compared to 11% of men. 43% of this harassment was sexual in nature.
“He asked if he could rub my feet and if I would take explicit photos,” one woman surveyed shared anonymously.
Of the women working in tech who were sexually harassed:
- 75% were told offensive “jokes”
- 54% experienced unwanted physical contact
- 51% had sexual slurs directed at them
- 35% were propositioned for sex, up 5% from 2017
76% of women in tech who experienced harassment said it was by another employee, a 13% increase since 2017. And 42% said their harassment was perpetrated by a supervisor.
I’m not sure what would have happened to the creepy guy who snapped my bra if I had reported the sexual harassment I experienced to HR, but my guess is nothing based on our report data:
When women reported harassment to HR, 85% said their harasser faced no repercussions.
It is this very data that illustrates how the existing systems in HR contribute to the barriers women face, while doubly protecting the very power structures that construct and proliferate them.
Of the women working in tech who were harassed, 30% reported it to HR and 45% reported it to senior leadership. 35%, however, worked at a company with no HR department to report it to, or were unsure. And even worse, 45% of women working in tech said they faced negative repercussions after reporting the harassment.
Despite the #MeToo movement that spurred trending hashtags, diversity pledges among Silicon Valley’s biggest VCs, and the hiring of Chief Diversity Officers at every major tech company, sexism, harassment, and racism are as prevalent as ever.
Welcome to Silicon Valley, where everyone wants to disrupt everything but still can’t figure out basic social skills and how to treat other human beings decently.