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Tesla, GitHub, tech bro VCs... Silicon Valley sexism row explodes as more women go public

What's the solution?

By Kieren McCarthy, 5 Jul 2017

Analysis Simmering anger over Silicon Valley sexism has exploded, with a slew of women going public with allegations of unwanted sexual advances at the top of the tech industry.

In the latest example of snowballing allegations, top angel investor David McClure was accused of sexual assault by Cheryl Sew Hoy hours after he resigned from his job, having been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment by a dozen women.

In pure Silicon Valley style, McClure wrote a blog post titled "I'm a Creep. I'm Sorry" after leaving his company 500 Startups. In it he half-apologized for his "past actions [that] hurt or offended several women," but stressed he was "not a bad or evil person."

That McClure's mea culpa was then met with applause and praise infuriated Sew Hoy to the extent that she decided to go public with her experience of McClure's sexual advances against her.

"While Dave acknowledged and apologized for his 'inappropriate behavior' towards multiple women, I felt it generalized his actions to inappropriate comments made in a 'setting he thought was social'," fumed Sew Hoy, adding: "It definitely didn't address the severity of his sexual advances towards me and potentially others."

She then relates how she was shocked when McClure followed her into her bedroom at her apartment and propositioned her. When she told him to leave he "pushed himself onto me to the point where I was backed into a corner."

She goes on: "The fact that I had to say no multiple times, and that he had pushed himself onto me and kissed me without my consent was way more than crossing the line of inappropriateness. It's sexual assault."

Two dozen

McClure was just one of several high-profile venture capitalists named in a New York Times article last week where more than two dozen women provided numerous examples of harassment – in person and over text and social media – typically by men in a position to further the women's goals through large financial investments on behalf of their companies.

In addition to McClure, Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital, Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital, and investor Pavel Curda were also called out for alleged inappropriate behavior.

Inevitably, Sacca produced a blog post in which he noted that he had "personally contributed to the problem," but at the same time strongly disputed specific accusations of harassment. Meanwhile, Caldbeck said he was "so, so sorry" for his own "behavior." Curda privately apologized, we're told.

While there has been an aspect of "safety in numbers" when it comes to sexism and harassment in Silicon Valley, the persistent and repeated claims of damaged work cultures has started calls for a more structured and determined approach to handling the issue beyond firing individuals.

One of those fired individuals was not someone accused of harassment, but a female employee who went public with her concerns over workplace culture at electric car maker Tesla.

AJ Vandermeyden was driven to tell her tale of harassment after the now-famous blog post of engineer Susan Fowler was published, which detailed extraordinary levels of sexism at ride-sharing app company Uber.

Fowler wrote her post after she had left the company and it resulted in a report that eventually led to the firing of Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick, as well as his top lieutenant and no fewer than 20 Uber employees.

You're fired

Vandermeyden outlined similar problems at Tesla in a discrimination lawsuit against the car manufacturer, and went public in February with her allegations, arguing that "until somebody stands up, nothing is going to change."

Three months later, she was fired because she had "falsely attacked" Tesla in the press, according to the automaker. However, she claims that at a company "town hall" meeting, male executives were shocked by a string of examples of harassment provided by their female staffers.

One woman said parts of the company's large factory were "predator zones," and others said they felt unsafe around certain male managers, or were repeatedly cat-called. They also complained of being talked over at meetings and the lack of women in leadership roles – age-old complaints from women in the workplace, but still surprising coming from modern tech companies in the liberal Bay Area.

Despite confirmation of the problem, in May, Vandermeyden was given a choice: resign with a payoff, or be fired, she claimed. She refused to resign and was fired. Two days later, CEO Elon Musk sent out an all-company email in which he dismissively referenced her complaint.

"If you are part of a less represented group, you don't get a free pass on being a jerk yourself," wrote Musk. "We have had a few cases at Tesla where someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren't promoted enough. That is obviously not cool."

In a statement to The Register, Tesla claimed Vandermeyden's allegations were misleading. The biz did not deny she had been axed, we note.

"Ms Vandermeyden’s version of events is not accurate," a spokeswoman told us. "Prior to the meeting, [Tesla's Chief People Officer] Gaby Toledano had conveyed to Ms Vandermeyden that they were meeting to try to resolve Ms Vandermeyden’s issues in a mutually agreeable way for Tesla and Ms Vandermeyden. Gaby also conveyed that exiting the company was a possibility if they could not come to an alternative resolution.

"It was agreed by Ms Vandermeyden and Gaby that this meeting be without lawyers to attempt to positively and mutually resolve the matter together.

"Gaby did not intimidate Ms Vandermeyden. She disagrees that there was any intimidation, nor did Ms. Vandermeyden ever express feeling intimidated during the meeting. In fact, they both had a positive rapport and expressed mutual support, as Gaby was new to her role at Tesla and was attempting to resolve the matter in a positive and mutually supportive manner for the company and for Ms Vandermeyden.

"Ms Vandermeyden was also told that we could get all her things together for her at the office and bring them to her but she declined this, saying she would contact security directly."

And now... GitHub

Adding to the growing list of women coming forward to complain about work cultures, a blog post on Wednesday by coder Coraline Ada Ehmke outlined issues at online code repository GitHub.

"At first I had my doubts. I was well aware of GitHub's very problematic past, from its promotion of meritocracy in place of a management system to the horrible treatment and abuse of its female employees and other people from diverse backgrounds," she writes, before outlining how she felt poorly treated at the company.

A spokeswoman for GitHub told The Register today: “As a matter of company policy, we don’t comment on personnel issues. At GitHub, we have worked hard to build a diverse and inclusive culture and are committed to these values at every level of the company."

Ehmke's complaint reflects numerous other tales of boorish, sexist, tech bro behavior: from virtual reality startup UploadVR to fake-technology poster child Magic Leap (which was actually sued for sex discrimination by the very person it hired to stamp out sex discrimination).

As more and more women come forward in support of one another and push back against efforts to diminish their complaints or minimize them with the firing of individuals, the conversation is slowly starting to move toward effective solutions.

One of those efforts came in the most recent blog post by Cheryl Sew Hoy in which she outlined David McClure's sexually aggressive behavior.

A fix?

"This is where it has to be fixed – the fact the burden of proof always falls on the person reporting the incident," she argues. "That the unfortunate victim didn't have a framework for which to report the incident and wasn't provided training on how to identify the different degrees of harassment in the first place."

So she provides a suggested framework: four levels of increasingly inappropriate behavior:

  • A: Verbal or gender harassment
  • B: Direct sexual propositions or seductive behavior
  • C: Sexual bribery or coercion
  • D: Sexual imposition (such as forceful grabbing or kissing)

This approach was recently supported by female VC Brittany Laughlin, who argued that the system for reporting sexual harassment was part of the problem.

"This model of reporting is broken," she wrote. "We can reduce bad behavior by having more open conversations when someone crosses the line, instead of an all-or-nothing approach. Creating smaller feedback loops will help make change faster."

Sew Hoy also wants to see companies create a safe channel for reporting harassment, training of management to identify and recognize different levels of harassment, and regular sexual harassment surveys.

Of course, large parts of corporate America have long had such policies in place, but Silicon Valley is still suffering from the recent glut in tech companies started and run by young male coders surrounded by a co-dependent culture of venture capitalists that come from largely the same peer group.

For years, San Francisco has complained about tech bro culture – white, male, boorish, arrogant. These latest public complaints focused on sexism highlight that there needs to be yet another set of improvements made to tech company culture. ®

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