Sexism and Misogyny in Tech: How Investors Can Help Drive Change
The image of some technology startups has been tarnished of late by bad behavior. It might be up to investors who are board members to ensure changes get made.
Accusations of sexism and misogyny have circled Tinder, the dating-app startup owned by IAC. If the charges prove to be true, it is just one recent example of a sometimes hostile environment for women in tech circles. In recent months, allegations that include sexual assault, harassment, and misogynistic messages have been linked to CEOs of Snapchat, Urban Airship, and GitHub.
Everyone agrees offensive behavior has no place in any workplace—and the innovation community will be damaged by it the longer it persists. The question is what to do about it.
“There is a cultural problem,” says Ed Zimmerman, chair of the tech group at law firm Lowenstein Sandler in New York. “That is what we need to fix. The gender bias, the antifeminism, and the chauvinism are just pathetic and despicable.”
He is talking about a far bigger problem also seen in many parts of society—and he is far from alone in wanting positive change for the technology scene. Groups such as Girls Who Code and the NYTM Coalition for Women in Tech support the presence of women as founders and creators of new technology and businesses. Yet, fairness and respect remain elusive on some fronts.
“As is evident from recent headlines, the observations, and experiences of women throughout the community, the tech sector isn’t always a very welcoming place to people from underrepresented groups,” says Jessica Lawrence, executive director of New York Tech Meetup (NYTM), via e-mail.
Media coverage has helped expose the reality of what women have to cope with in tech, she says, though there continue to be deniers of the issue. “For many people, it can be difficult to believe that sexism could still be so pervasive, given how much progress we have made in so many other areas,” Lawrence says. “Seeing the often angry, sexist, and even threatening reactions to women when they do share their stories is further proof of the problem that exists.”
Cementing more roles for women in the innovation movement continues to be an uphill fight. “Girls from a young age are still often being steered away from technology and engineering careers or are not being exposed to them as an option,” Lawrence says.
Lack of diversity, she says, is a challenge for the technology sector—and things might not be moving in the right direction. “The number of women graduating with computer science degrees has been going down,” she says. “In New York City, the technology community as a whole is only about 29 percent women.” Lawrence also cites a 2012 report by Startup Genome that estimated female-founded startups made up about 20 percent of the New York community.
So what should be done? To make the tech scene fairer and more respectful of women, Lawrence believes technology literacy must be integrated into all public education, starting with pre-kindergarten. “When girls are exposed early to technology, we increase the likelihood that they will pursue careers in those fields,” she says.
Technology companies also need to make sure they are welcoming to people of all backgrounds, Lawrence says. Furthermore, she says, investors have an important role to play, by paying more attention to the diversity of founding teams before providing funding.
Indeed, the paucity of funding for women-led startups is an issue that boils down to fair treatment, says Jules Pieri, CEO and co-founder of The Grommet, a Boston-area Internet firm. “When funding is a more difficult obstacle than the business, you have to ask how you are going to do this if basically you’re not welcome,” she says of the startup fundraising process.
The hope, as Pieri puts it, is that more diversity should also increase respect for others in the innovation scene. But to investors, startup culture and diversity can be seen as separate from issues of bad behavior. Brad Feld, a managing director at Foundry Group in Colorado, says via e-mail that board members “have a clearly defined responsibility. It’s not around ‘the culture’—every company develops its own culture—but what to do around inappropriate behavior in the company when it arises.”
David Teten, a partner with ff Venture Capital in New York, says a primary obligation of board members is to make sure the companies they back comply with the law regarding issues in the workplace—but that is not enough. “By the time you’re worried about lawbreaking, you’re already in trouble,” he says. “It implies you haven’t set up systems and processes to lower the odds of violating the law.” Investors and CEOs, he says, should think about putting measures in place to make sure the rights of staff are upheld.
Moreover, he says board members need to do more than just satisfy the law. “Investors and the board, in general, should step up if a problem occurs at the company, regardless of what that problem is,” Teten says. That can include strategic issues as well as personal problems within the executive ranks. The remedy for these problems might be recruiting new leadership for the company, he says.
Founders should take note that bad behavior may also cost them a shot at funding. When investors first get to know the leadership at startups, Teten says, they look for someone with the maturity to properly manage the money they get from backers. If there are issues such as sexism, that is a problem for investors, he says. “But there are lots of other ways they can be immature,” says Teten. “Investors should be looking out for all of this before they sign what is effectively a 10-year contract with the company.”
Recent press coverage of accusations of misogyny, he says, has made the venture capital world a bit more mindful to watch for these issues. And Teten has outlined some steps to prevent workplace problems from occurring, articulate the kind of culture a company wants to have, and drive towards more diversity in the startup community.
Being more mindful of the culture of the startups they back is in the best interests of investors, says Zimmerman. Investors who are on the board of directors may have personal liability, he says, if a sexual harassment issue or a hostile work environment problem arises at a startup they back. If they were aware of (or should have known there was) such an issue, yet failed to ensure appropriate action took place, they may be culpable, he adds.
Even if an investor is not on the board, and does not have responsibility in the eyes of the law, Zimmerman says, he or she may still face some fallout. “You’re probably going to lose some money because there’s a really negative set of things that will happen at that company,” he says. That could include costly litigation, fines, and loss of business or deals that sour the market value of the company.
He says even when board members do step in when issues arise, it still points to an underlying problem. “If board members are called up to do the right thing, it’s because some senior executive [at a startup] has behaved like a jackass,” he says.
Part of the problem, says Julie Levinson Werner, a Lowenstein Sandler attorney who specializes in employment law, may stem from startups’ natural growing pains. Companies often begin with a small group of friends who perhaps went to school together but do not realize their culture must evolve, she says.
“As they grow, they don’t appreciate it’s different than something that started in their basement or dorm room,” says Werner. New levels of accountability pile on, especially after taking funding and hiring employees, she says. “This isn’t just about hanging out and having fun.”
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