60% Of Women Polled At SXSW Have Received Unwanted Sexual Attention In Their Offices

Elephant in the Valley: At SXSW, some of the biggest women in tech are speaking frankly about the issues that face females in the workplace.

60% Of Women Polled At SXSW Have Received Unwanted Sexual Attention In Their Offices
[Photo: Flickr user Jesse Freeman]

60% of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. 88% have colleagues and clients who address questions to their male peers that should have been addressed to them.


The statistics from the recent Elephant in the Valley survey are shocking. But sadly, it’s not exactly news that women have it tough on the job. At SXSW, four women at the center of the problem discussed a variety of reasons why the problem exists–and importantly, they pointed to possible solutions.

Data Time

The panelists–United States CTO Megan Smith (a Google alumna), Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers strategist Trae Vassallo, and Code2040’s Laura Weidman Powers–suggested that the national conversation needs to shift to personal stories backed up with research. Onstage, the panelists shared their personal experiences, including sexual harassment in the workplace, coupled with data from the survey and an informal poll of female attendees at SXSW.

The Elephant in the Valley survey, which several of the panelists were directly involved with, polled more than 200 women with at least 10 years of professional experience. The survey focused on five areas: Feedback and promotions, inclusion, unconscious biases, motherhood, and harassment in the workplace.

Vassallo said she initiated the research after she spoke in a packed courtroom about sexual harassment at the venture firm Kleiner Perkins. Last year, the firm was unsuccessfully sued for gender discrimination by Vassallo’s former colleague Ellen Pao. “A lot of women reached out (after the case) and said ‘here’s my story’,” she said. “All my friends had similar stories.”


Among the more shocking stats:

  • 60% of women responded that they had experienced unwanted sexual advances. Many were concerned about retribution. 20% of the women said they were too embarrassed to talk about it.
  • An informal pool at SXSW found that 60% of female attendees at the conference (a slightly younger group) have also experienced unwanted sexual advances.
  • 66% of respondents have felt excluded from key networking opportunities.
  • 84% of women experienced male colleagues and clients who couldn’t make eye contact (45% experienced this on a monthly basis).
  • 88% have colleagues and clients who address questions to their male peers that should have been addressed to them.
  • 75% of women were asked about marital status in interviews.
  • 50% of women have been told that they’re “too quiet” in performance reviews.
Photo: Flickr user Jesse Freeman

Possible Solutions

The survey launched out of curiosity, but Vassallo is hoping it will bolster greater awareness of the issue and result in a discussion about potential solutions.

The panelists agreed that old boys’ club venture capital firms needed to prioritize adding more diversity to their ranks. Vassallo praised a friend who allocated a “pool of capital” for more diverse investors. Nearly two-thirds of the top 71 investment funds have no women as senior investment team members, according to 2015 data from the Social and Capital Partnership and The Information. The hope is that more diverse investors will seek out or just be more open to startups founded by women and persons of color.

The panelists also discussed reframing conversations about recruiting a more equitable workforce. Weidman Powers said she is often asked about whether it will lower the bar if companies are under pressure to hire more women and people of color. Instead, she recommends to HR departments that they discuss how to “raise the bar” by hiring people who have come from diverse backgrounds. (Indeed, research indicates that hiring women is good for your company.)

To ensure a steady stream of talented female computer science graduates, Vassallo and Smith said recruitment needs to start at a much earlier age. But how can we encourage women in Generation Z, otherwise known as post-millennials, to embrace STEM education (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math)?

Vassallo suggested that parents actively “push on their daughters” to embrace STEM subjects. Vassallo’s said her own daughter was initially resistant to trying a math league or taking a computer class. “But once I got her over the threshold… she realized she did fit in.”


Moderator Michele Madansky, who formerly worked at Yahoo, praised a growing number of female-only networking groups, which are vitally important venues through which women are able to share their experiences and find out about new job opportunities. Apps like Vina and Glassbreakers are dedicated to helping women in the tech industry make friends and network.

Ultimately, the panelists declared that we don’t need to wait decades for some of these solutions to be implemented, because tech culture is all about swift progress. “I think we can move quickly in the tech industry because that’s how we roll,” pointed out Smith.


About the author

Christina Farr is a San Francisco-based journalist specializing in health and technology. Before joining Fast Company, Christina worked as a reporter for VentureBeat, Reuters and KQED