As Ellen K. Pao recently predicted, sharing her story of harassment and gender discrimination created a ripple effect in Silicon Valley and beyond.
Fast Company reported when Pao made headlines for the gender discrimination suit she brought against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and again for the outrage she provoked as interim CEO of Reddit. Though she lost the case as well as the top job at Reddit, Pao maintains that it’s important to speak up, because it will help others who are going through the same thing.
Pao’s experience was an "inspiration of sorts" to former KPCB colleague Trae Vassallo (who also testified against the firm), former Yahoo executive Michele Madansky, and others to embark on a study they ultimately titled Elephant in the Valley. They said:
What we realized is that while many women shared similar workplace stories, most men were simply shocked and unaware of the issues facing women in the workplace. In an effort to correct the massive information disparity, we decided to get the data and the stories.
Vassallo and Madansky surveyed more than 200 women who had at least 10 years of work experience, many of whom are employed at Google, Apple, or other large companies, as well as tech startups. Although they are primarily located in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, the range of ages is broad, and 75% have children.
Among their more significant findings about harassment in the workplace:
- 90% witnessed sexist behavior at company offsites and/or industry conferences
- 60% reported being the target of unwanted sexual advances from a superior
- 60% who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the outcome
- One in three say they felt afraid for their personal safety because of work-related circumstances
The stories of these women’s experiences are disturbing.
"Once a client asked me to sit on his lap if I wanted him to buy my products," one woman reports. "My company didn't do anything about it when I told my boss, so unfortunately I asked to be taken off that client, but it's not like they can fire the client."
Another writes that she was groped by her boss while in public at a company event. "After learning this had happened to other women in my department, and then reporting the event to HR, I was retaliated against and had to leave the company," she explains.
According to the survey, bias—unconscious or not—is alive and well in this tech community:
- 47% have been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to do (e.g., note-taking, ordering food, etc.)
- 66% say they’ve been excluded from social or networking opportunities because of gender
- 88% have had clients or colleagues address questions to male peers rather than to them
- 87% have been on the receiving end of demeaning comments from male colleagues
- 75% say they were asked about marriage and family in interviews
We know from a recent report that "office housework" extends far beyond the tech industry and Silicon Valley. Plenty of women are called on to take notes in meetings or plan office parties and outings across industries, regardless of their position in the company.
In the cases of the survey respondents, stories that have been shared about these experiences have been called "death by a thousand cuts," including examples such as being taken to Hooters for lunch or to a strip club during a conference, or having offsites consisting of completely physical activities while the woman was pregnant. A more overt exclusion occurred when "all the men gathered in the suite of the head of sales, drinking late into the night, and then all shaved their heads as a bonding exercise."
The repercussions of such behavior has forced women to make decisions on how they act and what they feel comfortable discussing in the workplace.
- 40% feel the need to speak less about their family to be taken more seriously
- Of those who took maternity leave, 52% shortened their leave because they thought it would negatively impact their career
- 30% stayed mum about being harassed because they didn’t want to remember it happened
- 29% signed a non-disparagement agreement
One respondent reports that a male partner once said of a female employee, "We don't have to worry about her bonus or promotion because she just got married. So she'll probably have a baby and quit soon." Another said her direct supervisor told her that a having a second child would be "career-limiting."
This behavior sets a tone among the staff. The results can be as simple as causing one woman to take away the photos of her kids that she displayed on her desk, to devastating in the cases of harassment.
When one respondent was asked what she might have done differently after being the target of an unwanted sexual advance that she didn’t report, she admits it’s tough to say.
After I left, I know he continued to harass other women, which makes me wish I had filed a complaint. I'm not proud of how I handled it, but I was afraid and didn't want to invest any more time or emotional energy. It was behind closed doors, no one else was there, so I knew it would be a he said/she said.
Another woman learned a very clear lesson to speak up.
Not complaining was a mistake. The colleague later criticized me in a review as "not putting in enough hours." If I'd filed a complaint, his spiteful slap back at me would have been put in context. But I wouldn't have known whom to complain to or how.
Elephant in the Valley maintains an open site for women to continue to anonymously share their stories.