clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Meeting with potential funders shouldn't be an opportunity for sexual harassment

Just in time for the holiday party season, here are six defensive strategies every woman should know.

Gal Gadget as “Wonder Woman” DC

This is a contributed article from Tanya Loh, who is an independent consultant in the tech industry.

We’ve had a tough year of sexism, discrimination and abusive behavior by men in power. Tech, media, entertainment, politics, music — it seems no industry is safe. Rarely a day goes by without a harassment claim or a takedown of yet another male mogul filling up my newsfeed.

I’ve worked in Hollywood and in Silicon Valley — with a bout of business school in between — and I’ve seen women operate in a variety of settings, from the male-dominated confines of corporate America to the male-dominated arenas of rapid-growth startups. Some women wrapped their smarts in elegant suiting and extreme professionalism, rarely cracking a smile or acknowledging their personal lives. Others commanded quiet authority while dressed in hoodies and jeans, leading teams of brogrammers by relying more on aptitude than attitude.

What is a woman in tech to do?

Sheryl Sandberg says lean in. Sarah Lacy says fight back. And Ellen Pao showed it is in fact possible to be too passive and too pushy, too quiet and too opinionated, all at the same time. Sallie Krawcheck demonstrated that you may be a seasoned, award-winning executive with more than 20 years leading multinational banks with tens of thousands of employees, but even when you’re speaking from your area of expertise, you’ll still get mansplained.

Truth is, there’s no one right way to be a woman at work in the tech sphere, but at least there’s a growing array of possibilities, thanks to exciting new role models. From Stitch Fix’s Katrina Lake to Silicon Valley’s new girls club of VCs to Lesbians Who Tech, these women exhibit intelligence, assertiveness and passion for what they do in ways that make even Gal Gadot’s “Wonder Woman” look like a bit player.

But how can you navigate what you think of as a professional networking opportunity when the men around you think it’s a meeting of another kind? If you’re out there trying to get advice or find money for your startup, frat-party basics apply, especially when potential predators are looking for signals to pounce.

Whether you’re getting coffee at Coupa, rosé at the Rosewood or schmoozing at that secret hideaway in Fi-Di:

Always bring a “co-founder.” Even if you’re a solo entrepreneur, bring that “founding team” friend who is your operations shortstop, and keep each other in line of sight. Adopt a signal for “get me out of here” — whether that’s a sly pull on an earlobe, an urgent text or a subtly uttered safety word. Treat every event like homecoming — don’t go behind the bleachers without a buddy.

Plan for your exit. Whether you’re pre-IPO or looking to get acquired, make sure you have an exit route in your more immediate future. Remember that “thing” you and your friend just have to get to (which is why your Lyft is waiting outside)? Unless he’s focused entirely on your tech stack and not eyeing your rack, leave the gathering at a predetermined time. Life’s too short to waste your attention on a perv with a bad agenda.

Monitor your inputs. What if he offers to go get you one of those smoky artisanal cocktails with the hand-cut ice? You don’t know what he has in the pockets of that unassuming Patagonia vest! Don’t accept any beverage you haven’t watched from stir to sip, and drink slowly. Alternate each with a glass of water. If you need a quick escape, the ladies room is your friend.

Monitor your outputs. Be wary of the signals you may be sending just by using industry terms. Save the “deep dive” into your “horizontal strategy” and your enthusiasm for “penetration testing” for daylight hours in a sterile conference room with glass walls and open doors. Don’t “leverage” any “synergies” ever, and especially not after 4 pm.

Speak cogent “nerd” incessantly to thwart his advances. Talk a lot of shop and don’t let him steer the conversation elsewhere. My hunch is those who seek to take advantage of women will eventually be repulsed and give up, true to heteronormative archetypes. If he’s turned on in another way, who knows? Maybe you’ve found an investor after all.

If he’s still getting too close, fake the sudden onset of an allergy or cold. Start sneezing, coughing and/or itching at the mysterious condition spreading over your hands, arms and neck. Men of stature are notorious germaphobes who hate getting sick because time is money and money is power, and any illness takes time away from generating revenue.

It is truly sad that these basic tips you no doubt learned in college are still useful, given the brain power we have in Silicon Valley and the meritocracy that tech purports to be, not to mention all the progress this country has made since the suffrage movement. Women shouldn’t have to be on guard like this.

And yet, the #MeToo reckoning is far from over, so until everyone feels safe and the industry becomes more civil, female founders may end up further perpetuating the gender gap in VC funding. Defending your technology and business model is hard enough without needing to protect your hoo-ha from the who’s who of venture capital.

Tanya Loh is a startup junkie and marketer who has worked across entertainment, technology and health care. Her articles have appeared in the LA Times, Chicago Business and Realtor Magazine, among others. She's an independent consultant to some of the largest companies and newest emerging brands. Connect with her @tloh.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.