In the last two weeks, a deluge of women in tech has come forward with a spate of stories about facing harassment from powerful men in Silicon Valley. Individually each story is damning, but the collective result is chilling. This time, the outrage machine seems to be tuned in to a worthy cause: Two powerful VCs stepped down last week after reports came out on their behavior, and if Twitter chatter is to be believed, it seems the industry may finally be ready to acknowledge its pernicious bro culture and begin to repent.
Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior editor at Backchannel.
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But my question is: Why now? It’s no secret that, as an industry, tech has long been unwelcoming to women—particularly women of color. The numbers bear this out. Mammoth institutions, like Facebook and Google, face a gentle media scolding each year when their diversity reports show scant women, especially in leadership and engineering roles. On the startup end, the figures are equally dire. Compared to companies helmed by men, female founders receive a fraction of venture funding. That system contributes to the slew of successful Zuckerberg clones, riding their unicorns to fame, prestige, and Palo Alto mansion compounds.
And yet…it’s not just tech. In academia, fewer women receive tenure. In journalism, just looking at the VIDA report—the annual rundown of bylines written by men versus women—is enough to bring on a wave of depression. Across the board, the pay gap is real.
It’s not a coincidence that these industries all value the kind of soft skills that make it difficult to discern between genuine talent and bias. Trying to hire someone to consult on long-range missile targeting? You’re probably looking for specific, quantifiable skills. (And good aim.) But predicting which company is going to be the next Airbnb, and is thus worthy of investment, is a lot like predicting which academic will lead a career worthy of tenure—both rely on the kind of assessments of soft skills that come from the gut. And how do you decide where to put your money? You do your research, often over coffees and dinners and glasses of wine—not siloed away in boardrooms.
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That’s why industries like tech (and journalism and academia) are bred on relationships. These relationships are good—they’re how you learn your trade when your industry doesn’t have a degree program, and they’re crucial to building a successful career. But it’s easier for sexual harassment—in both subtle and flagrant forms—to seep into these more intimate relationships. It’s no coincidence that industries like academia, which is built on the kind of individual mentorship that can make or break a career, have had their own rash of harassment reports in recent years.
But unlike academia, where each year a barrage of newly minted post-docs competes for a slim array of jobs, the tech sector is booming. Especially in technical roles, there are more jobs than there are skilled people to fill them. That’s an important part of what allows women like Susan Fowler—whose graphic blog post about her time at Uber launched this most recent wave of harassment reports—to risk speaking out. Near the end of her blog post, she describes the moment she knew the situation at Uber had become untenable.
“I had a new job offer in my hands less than a week later,” she wrote.
There’s no question that the women in tech are taking risks by speaking out en masse. They’re demonstrably, objectively brave. But they’re also able to be brave because, relative to women in other industries, they have some power. They can tell their experiences and know that, in most cases, it won’t put their livelihoods at risk.
We’re in a sweet spot—a moment when the technology industry’s miraculous job growth is pressing up against the country’s sudden willingness to care about inclusion. Hopefully that signals the start of a culture shift—one that doesn’t exclude those women with less freedom to speak out.