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This Is How We Fix Silicon Valley’s Sexual Harassment Problem

“If we want to solve the issue of pervasive sexual harassment, we must do more than gawk at these offenses and then go back to business as normal.”

This Is How We Fix Silicon Valley’s Sexual Harassment Problem
[Photo: Eddy Joaquim/Getty Images]

Here it is again: more reports of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. The news of sexism in tech is starting to feel as commonplace as a presidential tweet tirade–disturbing every time, but no longer shocking.

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Women profiled in last Friday’s New York Times report and those who are now coming forward as a result of it have risked alienating potential funders and even the entire VC community by going public with their experiences. But will these sacrifices make a real difference? Or will there be a show of outrage that slowly blows over until six months from now, when the next scandal emerges?

If we want to solve the issue of pervasive sexual harassment, we must do more than gawk at these offenses and then go back to business as normal. It’s time to take action, and here’s where to start.

Look Deeper Than The Individual Perpetrators

Of course, the problematic behavior of individuals and companies should be called out and dealt with accordingly. But the conversations around these incidents need to be more nuanced than “Travis is a dick,” “McClure is a creep,” “Caldbeck is a predator.” If we want to mitigate sexist behavior on a systemic level, we need to identify the cultural factors that encourage and support it, because the problem of sexual harassment and sexism in Silicon Valley does not lie solely with just a few individuals. A necessary part of this conversation is: Why do women have less power than men in the tech industry? What practices support that hierarchy? What cultural norms sustain it?

Don’t Vilify Others At The Expense Of Examining Yourself

Just because your company isn’t as sexist as Uber or your moral compass isn’t as bent as Dave McClure’s, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. It may be tempting to pat yourself on the back and reassure yourself, “compared to [fill in the blank], I’m doing great.” But when it comes to fighting sexism, this them versus us mentality isn’t helpful (i.e., “they’re the sexists over there, we’re doing just fine!”) Blaming a few individuals can obscure the fact that we’re all guilty of sexism to some degree, because we are all part of a sexist culture.

If we want to solve the sexism endemic in Silicon Valley (and beyond), we can’t only chastise others, we have to do the hard work of identifying the misogynistic norms in our own thoughts, behaviors, and company cultures.

Recognize Problems In Your Company Before They Get Bigger

While most individuals and companies are not guilty of the more egregious actions described in various articles over the past few months, many of us are guilty of behaviors that are part of the same spectrum. If we look at sexual harassment as being on the more extreme end of a continuum of misogyny, then closer to the lesser end might be things like holding meetings at strip clubs, company cultures where team bonding means getting black-out drunk, having an almost exclusively male leadership team, or naming all your conference rooms after male scientists.

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Instead of ignoring the culture cues you’re sending until there is a formal sexual harassment issue, understand these more subtle signs that communicate that women aren’t as valued as men.

Build A Culture Of Empathy And Understanding

The worst thing that can come out of this New York Times report and others like it is a “war of the sexes” or a sense that it’s men versus women. That division only deepens gender problems. The more empathy and understanding employees of your company can have around one another’s experiences and the more connected employees are to each other, the less likely it is that problematic behaviors will pop up–be it sexual harassment, or other issues related to gender, or even race, religion, sexuality, age, etc.

Talk About Sexual Harassment In A Real Way

Decades of sexual harassment trainings focus solely on explaining what sexual harassment is, and asking people not to do it. We need to understand this issue in a deeper and more real way. We need to discuss the confusion of being a man raised in a culture that tells you if you’re not aggressively hitting on women, you’re a total wuss. We need to understand that one’s relative power and influence has everything to do with what behavior is considered sexual harassment, and exactly why sexual harassment is so problematic. And we need to be honest about how startup cultures where you’re buddy-buddy with the founder or your direct manager can create some tough-to-navigate situations.

I don’t have all the answers to the questions and topics introduced here. No one does. But I do know that if we want to create any sort of change, we need to be willing to reflect on our own thoughts and behavior, be open to listening to one another, and begin to recognize the complexities of these issues and just how deep they go.


Amber Madison is a licensed therapist, author, gender expert, and award-winning lecturer. She is the founder of Peoplism, a comprehensive program to undermine bias and foster inclusion.