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What Silicon Valley doesn’t understand about men harassing women

Apology letters, “decency pledges” and press releases are toothless substitutes for real change.

To paraphrase Uber SVP Frances Frei: As more and more people speak out about harassment in tech, the industry has a chance to capitalize on that openness. Whether it has the willpower to follow through remains an open question.

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, diversity advocate Erica Baker and ProDay CEO Sarah Kunst explained how we got to this point of culture crisis and why the responses of Silicon Valley leaders have often felt lacking.

“I feel like there’s a lot of that in Silicon Valley, where people know that one of their employees has harassed people, but because that person is good at their job, executes well, writes good code, makes good deals, brings in a lot of money in some shape or form, everything they do is pushed aside,” Baker said. “‘Oh, that’s just him. We’ll just move him to a different team. We’ll just make sure he doesn’t have contact with women.’”

“At some point, some VC was just not allowed to have contact with Asian women because his co-founder knew,” she added. “‘We’ll just move you away, but we won’t do anything that harms you.’ There are no repercussions, no serious consequences. Nothing has teeth.”

Kunst agreed, saying mea culpa efforts like Reid Hoffman’s decency pledge or the emerging genre of sorry-I-was-a-creep apology letters stop short of being useful. The pledge, she pointed out, fails to call for more hiring or funding of women, and the letters are “gross” and not earnest.

“If it’s a meritocracy, sorry guys, you proved your merit that you don’t deserve to be here,” Kunst said. “It doesn’t mean that you get thrown in prison for the rest of your lives, but it does mean that maybe you have to go take a job that’s not paying you six or seven figures a year, to work 40 weeks a year. ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of a venture capital two and twenty fee structure’ is not inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. I don’t care if they apologize — when you’re not sorry until you get caught, you’re not really sorry.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

So, what comes next? Baker and Kunst agreed that the answer is for anyone else who has been harassed to speak up publicly, ideally with their real name attached, rather than backchanneling their experience to other women in the industry, which they said has been the norm.

“I personally believe, as Rev. Run says, secrets make you sick,” Kunst said. “The more that you just expose it, sunlight’s the best disinfectant. We’ve had this whisper economy in Silicon Valley for basically the whole time it’s been around and it has not helped us. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to try turning the lights on full blast, and if all the cockroaches have to run back under the fridge, good.”

For more possible solutions to harassment, check out last Friday’s Too Embarrassed to Ask, in which Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode spoke with Evertoon CEO Niniane Wang and Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge's Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts— and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

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