This week on Too Embarrassed to Ask, the team tackled the issues of sexism and sexual harassment in tech companies. Niniane Wang is a Silicon Valley engineer and startup founder who spoke out against the harassment she experienced at a venture capital firm. Joelle Emerson is the founder of Paradigm, which works with Silicon Valley companies to recognize and eliminate unconscious bias. Unlike many hand-wringing conversations in the press, they offered concrete suggestions for how to improve the situation moving forward.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at the link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode, senior technology editor at The Verge.
KS: And you’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network. This is the show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about tech.
LG: It could be anything, like, “What’s blockchain?” Kara’s an expert in blockchain now.
KS: Not even slightly.
LG: “Why’s everyone making a big deal about AR and VR?” We talked to Google’s head of virtual reality, Clay Bavor, about that topic last week.
KS: It was cool.
LG: “Should I buy a new MacBook or a new Surface laptop?” What do you think, Kara?
KS: Neither. I don’t want to buy a laptop. Nobody buys laptops anymore.
KS: Go ahead, move along.
LG: Laptops are dead, according to Kara Swisher.
KS: They are.
LG: “When is Kara going to skip her mayoral campaign and just go for president?” Because we could really use someone with some sense right now.
KS: I am telling you, I am so politicized today I can’t even tell you.
LG: Why’s that?
KS: I’m furious about this transgender ban in the military. It’s enough. Enough. I literally wanted to quit this morning and start just political activism.
LG: Well, I think you should. Hopefully by the time you listen to this, you will have recovered from the president’s tweets on Wednesday, but there’ll probably be something new to listen to and respond to.
KS: Kara’s mad as wet hen, as my grandmother used to say. And we’re going to be talking about an issue that also makes me furious. Anyway, send us your questions. We do read them all. Find us on Twitter and tweet them to us @recode or to myself or to Lauren with the #tooembarrassed.
LG: And we also have an email address. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. And a friendly reminder, embarrassed has two Rs and two Ss.
LG: So today we’re not going to be talking about a consumer product or an app like we usually do on the show, but we are talking about something that everyone who uses tech, who follows the tech industry, and especially everybody who works in tech should care about. And that’s gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment.
KS: Yes, there’s been a huge number of widely publicized incidents of sexism and sexual harassment recently — not that they’re new or anything — but most famously Uber and also at a bunch of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. There’s also been questions about how Facebook is treating coding done by female programmers and about why there appears to be a pay disparity ... there doesn’t appear to be, there is a pay disparity at Google. They’re trying to fix that. I do know. But it’s all these issues that have been really brewing in the tech industry that have been going on for years and years and years, but now are getting a lot of attention. And justified attention.
LG: Absolutely. And we’ve been getting a lot of questions about this in general, to the point that we’ve decided to discuss it in an episode and try to get some answers to your questions. Although, we won’t purport to solve these problems in one podcast.
KS: No, not at all. But one of the things we’re doing is trying to keep attention and focus on it. Recode’s very committed to this, about removing bad actors from the scene, and is doubling down on making sure that this issue, which has had a lot of discussion lately, doesn’t fall by the wayside with the next, I don’t know, iPhone 8 release. That it’s going to be a continued effort by Recode to push this issue forward so people are talking about it till it’s solved. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about with two guests in the studio, Joelle Emerson and Niniane Wang.
LG: Joelle is a former employment lawyer who has founded and runs Paradigm, a firm that works with some of Silicon Valley’s top companies to try to eliminate unconscious biases from the ground up. She’s been featured in the Atlantic, Forbes, Fortune, USA Today, and our own publications for her work. And side note, she most recently got into a Twitter spat with a very well-known actor and investor about this topic and we are going to talk about that.
KS: Exactly. I love a Twitter spat. And Niniane Wang is the chief executive officer of 3-D animation company Evertoon, and was the former CTO of Minted as well as an engineering lead at Google and Microsoft prior to that. She’s also one of the group of women who’ve spoken on the record about being sexually harassed by Justin Caldbeck, a venture capitalist who is said to have sexually harassed multiple women in the tech industry and has subsequently stepped down from that role. Joelle and Niniane, welcome to Too Embarrassed to Ask.
Niniane Wang: Thanks for having us.
KS: Thank you for coming.
NW: It’s good to be here.
KS: Let’s start with you, Niniane. You’re a super-prominent tech executive and engineer and very top of your game. One of the things we talked about before you came in here is that you want to show that it’s at all levels in all places. It’s not the way it’s been painted. Sometimes it seems as if it’s minor and stuff like that, or for people on lower levels being preyed upon. What was the point — for you personally — that made you decide it was the right time to speak out against this issue? Because this obviously has been going on for a long time.
NW: I think that women should be strategic in when they report harassment and that what matters is measurable results. So there’s been a lot more women speaking out recently because we were able to achieve results in having the predator removed from a position of power. And in fact, the entire firm then canceled the fund, the third fund to be closed in Silicon Valley history of 30 years. And both of his other partners resigned as well. And then with subsequent reports like Dave McClure, there are also resignations, as well as Ignition Partners. We have in fact had five resignations in the last month of managing partners or CEOs due to sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct.
For me, my harassment actually occurred seven years ago, in 2010. And by 2012 I had known about two other Asian female CEOs that were harassed by the same person, Justin Caldbeck. I felt that just speaking up alone in a he-said-she-said manner was not going to achieve my objective of protecting women, so I was one at a time warning other women for a long time. And some of them reached out recently and said that they remembered my warnings.
A few months ago I was contacted through one of the other women who were harassed who encouraged me to work with a reporter, Reed Albergotti. And we felt that now that Justin has harassed so many women — there were six women willing to speak out in this article — that we would be able to actually achieve results in terms of warning other women, and then eventually getting his resignation.
Also, what you see in the press is the tip of the iceberg. The women who are willing to speak out and attach their names to it, especially, are the ones who said no and did not give in to the advances. For every person that says no, there’s always other people who were too afraid to say no. But those people ...
KS: Yeah, look at the Fox News thing.
NW: Yeah. Those people are generally not willing to ... They were much more afraid and more embarrassed. They’re not willing to say what happened to them in public. But often, we will know in private what happened to those people. And it was one of those stories of something that is so much worse than what’s been reported in the media that led me to decide enough it enough, and this is a chance to actually get results.
KS: Right. Because a predator often gets their prey, is the point you’re making.
NW: Yes, there’s studies that show that a predator generally has between six to eight victims by the time that they’re first caught. And there’s a reason why when someone is convicted of a sexual offense they have to register publicly as a sexual offender, but for other crimes, like robbery or dealing drugs, you don’t have to register, because the level of relapse is more likely. This is why, with sexual harassers and predators in a position of power, it’s very important to make that public and to remove them from the positions of power when it’s multiple offenses.
LG: And you decided to go on the record and make your name and your story known. Some other women didn’t. What went into that decision process for you to actually use your name, put it out there?
NW: Originally, we were told that all of us could be anonymous and the reporter went to Binary Capital and told them of all the allegations. Binary said that it was character assassination and that they were all false, that people were lying and extorting and many other things. Then they told their LPs that women and The Information were trying to extort them. So at that point the article would have been killed if no one agreed to go on the record. And I thought about it and I spoke to a friend who was a director at Google who previously went on the record for her sexual harassment when she was in private school. Her high school teacher. And she told me that, for her, it sometimes feels thankless, but that she has backbone and for her, at night, when she puts her head down on the pillow she wants to know that she did the right thing.
NW: And so then, I felt after hearing her story, that this is important to do for other people. And I knew that Justin was continuing to harass more and more women and it was still ongoing. So I felt that if I didn’t do it and the article didn’t come out, more people would be harassed.
KS: And names matter. Sadly enough, nobody just believes ... when you have six or seven people, that should be certainly enough. And we debate that at Recode all the time. We did it anyway around Amit and others at Google, but it perceptively changes the discussion when there’s real people with their real names. They are real people, obviously, but for some reason it does make a difference. It’s sad that it does.
Just by way of background, I testified in a sexual harassment trial in my 20s and he got off. He paid off the person eventually and there was an article in the Washington Post and I went on the record with my name because I thought you have to have your name. It mattered because then it would just blow away, you know what I mean? It adds some weight to it.
NW: I think that in my particular case, I know many VCs, so when they saw that it was me, someone they’ve actually known for years, it also helped make it seem more credible. And in addition, I realized after the fact that because I’d used my name, I was then able ... during the real work, which was after the article, of convincing LPs to take this seriously, there was a lot that I did in reaching out to the LPs. Getting other accusers to reach out to the LPs, finding common contacts who could convince the LPs, presenting more evidence of coverup. All those things that I had to do publicly with my name.
KS: All right, Joelle, why don’t we get you into this. I’m going to go back and forth between you on these questions and so is Lauren. You focus on a lot of data and the actual data about showing women’s issues at tech companies. And you said that the underrepresentation of women in tech and overt sexism are not unrelated and they’re very related. Can you explain that?
JE: Yeah, I’m noticing an interesting conversation happening right now where men who see themselves as good guys, leaders in the space, are distancing themselves from these harassment stories and saying, “I would never touch someone’s knee under the table or show up at someone’s hotel room.”
KS: Well, thanks.
JE: “I would never sexually harass people.” Great.
KS: “I’d never murder someone.” I don’t know about you.
JE: Really, really impressive. Bravo. But I think what they don’t understand is they’re contributing to the cultural contexts, the cultural norms, in which this type of harassment and overt discrimination is able to happen. When voices aren’t present at the table, when women aren’t present at the table, it makes it easier for sexist jokes to get told. It makes it easier for these types of harassment to happen. There’s far less accountability. When there are more women in the room there’s a lower likelihood of this type of behavior.
KS: It’s an interesting thing because it’s an “I can’t control myself” kind of thing without women there. And so: The cleanup woman. I feel like that at Uber they suddenly bring in a lot of women to clean up the mess. Is that necessary, because at some level it sort of takes responsibility away from people, from like ... even Mike Pence can’t have lunch with a woman. “I can’t control myself.” It’s insane.
LG: Or like in media, the Ellen Pao trial. A group of men saying, “Well, we thought if we got together and women were invited to this event people wouldn’t be as loose. It wouldn’t be as much fun.”
KS: Why is that? I think it’s an abrogation of responsibility, myself.
JE: Yeah, I don’t think the idea is that women are there to control men and that men otherwise have sexual urges that they won’t be able to control. I think the idea is that we set better cultural norms, better processes, better policies, better organizational structures when women are in the room. And so it’s not about those individual harassers, it’s about creating a culture where there’s accountability for that type of thing. And I think when a culture is created by any homogenous group, there’s going to be less accountability. It’s just like how tech’s overwhelming whiteness allows for racism in the industry. I think tech’s overwhelming maleness allows for sexism.
LG: You mentioned tech specifically, and there’s been a lot of conversation in recent days about whether this is a tech thing. We all happen to be here, we’re all in San Francisco right now, but a couple of us live and work in Silicon Valley. We’re in this bubble, right?
KS: And it’s the same difference.
LG: But is this a Silicon Valley problem? How far does it extend into other industries? How should we kind of frame this in Silicon Valley?
JE: It seems like just a relevant question. I hear a lot of people saying, “Well, it’s worse in other industries,” and I think ...
KS: Vinod Khosla just said this onstage. A 100 percent, he said it.
JE: Right, so that’s one example. I hear a lot of people saying these things. He said it. I think it’s really interesting to point fingers at the industries and organizations you have no control over. Of course sexism exists in other industries. I can remember from ... we work with law firms, we work with financial services companies. Sexism exists everywhere. But people have control over their own particular sphere of influence. I don’t know why tech leaders, leaders in VC, are pointing to other types of companies. We heard this from Uber a few months back. “This is nothing compared to the problems that exist in other industries.” Is that the low bar you want to set?
KS: It’s not as bad as in “Game of Thrones” where they dismembered that woman or shot her through with an arrow.
LG: Or someone will say it’s not as bad as academia or whatever it is and they just try to head fake you.
KS: Why do they do that here? Why are they doing that and what do you think about that concept?
NW: Saying that it’s not as bad as other industries?
NW: Well, I was just at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen and during the town hall they asked a woman from a top financial firm which was worse and she said actually 17 percent of portfolio managers in the finance industry are women but only 6 percent of VCs are women. So she thinks that tech is now worse than finance.
KS: It is. Finance has changed. That’s what several people in finance have told me. Even as bad as it was, I think a lot of people feel that at least it’s becoming more equal. It’s moving in that direction. Because of abuses that were then fixed. We’re going to get to solutions in a minute. But why do you think that happens and how do you look at that?
NW: The Gloria Steinem Foundation tells me that when there’s a hyper-masculine environment, harassment begins to occur. Whether it’s the military, police force, prison, if something is overwhelmingly male, then this type of harassment will occur. And we can do medium-term work to get rid of the bad actors and put processes in place to remove them, but the truly long-term fix is to create more diversity and that that will create systematic change that helps men understand women more if they are working with them every day. And that will naturally help them make better decisions to change the system to remove harassment.
KS: And we’re going to share a little bit about the resistance to that, but there’s a lot of discussion about the pipeline problem. You hear it all the time. There’s not enough this and that and getting women in the door at tech companies, the talent pool and this and that. I want each of you to talk about this. First Joelle. And then you have been in the system and have moved up in very prominent positions. Can you both talk about that idea of the pipeline problem?
JE: Yeah, I think it’s a false dichotomy to say it’s either a problem with the educational pipeline or it’s a problem of sexist cultures in technology companies. It’s both, and they’re actually directly related. What we know from research is that it is the culture that exists in technology that creates the pipeline problem.
The reason more women don’t want to enter the tech industry, the reason women are underrepresented in computer science programs — which they are — is because they’re looking at an industry that tells them we don’t want you here, you’re not going to belong here, we’re not going to view you as smart like your male counterparts. Because we don’t see this in all STEM fields. Women are better represented than men in biology, for example. It’s something about the tech industry. These things are related. It is both an educational pipeline problem and a culture problem, and the two are directly reinforcing one another.
KS: What about from a workforce?
NW: Well, I’ve been in engineering for 20 years and I think that there is engineering culture that can be difficult for women. I started programming when I was 5. I started taking calculus in college when I was 11. I graduated from Cal Tech ...
KS: What? I still haven’t taken calculus and I’m old.
NW: So I have as much coding cred as anyone else. I graduated from Cal Tech in computer science when I was 18. But even for me ...
KS: Just astonishing.
NW: I still feel constant ... People’s first impressions are something I need to overcome. It’s actually, now, from me, enjoyable. When someone meets me I can see that they are stereotyping me because I think, “You’re going to be embarrassed in about two minutes and you’re going to remember me for a long time.”
KS: What do they see? What’s the stereotype that you feel?
LG: What are the things you hear or feel?
NW: I just think when someone sees a woman who dresses reasonably well and is articulate, they actually think that you must have devoted energy into those things and not just focused 100 percent on coding all the time.
KS: So you showered, is the problem.
NW: Yeah, basically.
JE: You’re like, “Well, I’m a woman, so I can do both.”
NW: And I think that in engineering there is a culture sometimes of debating intellectual nuances ad infinitum.
KS: Yeah, they do. I’ve seen those boards. They just go on and on and on.
NW: Right. And being very confrontational about it. I think that can be off-putting to women and men.
KS: You’re a CEO, you’re a CTO, those are prominent. You were at Google. You hire and fire people, presumably. How do you deal with that?
NW: Deal with people’s impressions of me, or?
KS: No, not you. In getting people in the system. How do you change that? Because you’ve been in positions of power to do that.
NW: I think that you can be a role model. You can create a culture that is more welcoming to all people. And if you hire a diverse set of people, naturally, people will feel welcome. Just ... there’s a lot of unsaid nuances and body language in what’s considered acceptable. When you create a diverse workplace, as soon as people walk in the door, they feel welcome.
LG: Just very briefly on the pipeline thing. It seems as though that’s just such a very convenient excuse for people who are not hiring in a diverse way, who are not considering gender when they hire. And there’s other data, as you well know, that shows the issues that once women are in a certain technical role, they may not feel fulfilled. They don’t stay, they leave mid-career.
JE: At twice the rate as men.
LG: They’re not satisfied. Right?
KS: I just happened to talk with Erica at Slack, she just felt like she wasn’t getting the management support and was labeled a troublemaker to start with. Problem wasn’t hiring, which was great, it was staying, which I think is really so common. Not just among women, among a lot of different kinds of people. Not creating the environments.
JE: Companies create these cultures that are really designed around a very narrow and particular type of person and then they’re shocked when people that don’t look like that don’t advance or they leave, or they don’t perform their best. That’s another barrier we see a lot, where people from underrepresented groups are actually not able to do their best work in cultures that don’t set them up for success. And then it’s very easy to say, “Well, they’re not top performers.” And it’s like, well, you have to wonder why statistically people from particular backgrounds may not be performing as well in your company. Either you believe that they have less ability, or you have to turn the mirror inward.
KS: Which many do. Which many do.
LG: You also lose people to look up to. If you enter an organization as a young person and you don’t see a woman who’s moved up the ranks, who’s maintained a successful career with someone ... I can look up to Kara, she’s right here next to me, right? She’s more experienced than me. But for people that enter a work organization that are facing challenges, that don’t have that, it can be incredibly discouraging.
KS: I was trying to get you to look down at me.
We want to get to solutions in a second, but we have two more questions for each of you. Joelle, you recently replied to Ashton Kutcher, who I know pretty well, who wrote a publicly ... they were obtuse questions about this topic. He means well. You know what I mean?
JE: A lot of people mean well.
KS: You know what I mean?
LG: He asked about flirting.
KS: I hate even to say that. He asked about flirting and whether investors possibly accepting the idea of less merit in order to create equality. I’ve always noticed that standards are only asked about women and people of color. It’s never brought up with idiotic men. It’s fascinating that that word always pops up just in that context. Can you talk about that? And then, Niniane, we’ll get to your question, let’s answer yours first, Joelle.
JE: I got a lot of responses after I did that from men who were saying it’s threads like these that make me terrified to participate in this conversation.
KS: Right, they’re scared. Poor babies.
JE: And I thought that was so interesting because it seems to reflect an assumption that you should be able to say whatever pops into your head without doing any research at all and not get called out for it. I think men should absolutely be participating in this conversation, but they should start by learning, by doing a little bit of research on their own before putting their thoughts out there on Twitter. And if they don’t, I think they should be able to be critiqued for it. I think this concept that we should be able to talk without putting thought into what we’re saying, and that if we get called out for it that’s somehow unfair or a witch hunt, is just a little bit too sensitive, snowflakey.
KS: It’s called broflake. That’s my word.
JE: Broflakey. I think, especially a celebrity can deal with a little bit of criticism online. I didn’t see any of those same men reaching out to me and asking how I felt about how on that same thread people were calling me an ugly bitch. That’s the internet for you. I’m hearing from a lot of men, “We’re afraid to participate in the conversation,” and I think my feedback is always, “Start by listening.” Start by participating in the conversation by listening to what other people are saying.
KS: Or understanding something. I had a discussion with my son yesterday about the words feminine and masculine and I he was like, “I don’t think that way about feminine.” I said, “Yeah, but most people do.” And he said, “But I don’t think that way.” And I said, “I understand the world revolves around you, but when do we ever say feminine in a positive way? It’s always sissy or words like that.” And then he finally was like, “Oh, I really should look into that,” and I was like, “Yeah, you really should.”
If you want to comment on that, Niniane, it would be great. But one of the things you talked about is that it was written that you don’t buy that someone like Caldbeck could possibly change, especially since he was swapping his stance on this in such a short amount of time. I think he’s just a liar. I think that’s really pretty much it. What do you think needs to happen to get people to actually change? And we’re going to get into solutions next because obviously we want to go towards solutions. We don’t want to just beat on people. I want to beat on people for a while longer, but you know what I’m saying.
NW: Sure. Well, firstly, a big part of the reason why I said I didn’t believe Justin Caldbeck could change overnight was that he had been doing this for 10 years and had been actively thwarting attempts to reveal him. So it was not as though he was ignorant of what he was doing.
In terms of solutions, firstly, I think people should try to get in front of the problem. We’ve seen five resignations in the last month, and for the firms that try to minimize, deny — for example, Binary Capital is now basically nearly shut down. For the firms that really took it seriously like Ignition Partners, they put out a public statement that their managing partner, Frank Artale, has resigned due to inappropriate conduct. They called all of their LPs and notified them proactively and they have a much better chance of coming out of this than Binary Capital.
KS: So proactiveness. Proactive.
NW: I think proactiveness. Just like when we design a product, we would first interview the user. A lot of men say they don’t know what to do because they haven’t been harassed. But they all know how a startup should design a product. They would say get out of the building and go talk to your users. They should apply the same principle. They should go talk to female founders. Sixty percent of female founders say — of women in tech — say that they have experienced unwanted sexual advances.
NW: If they go ask five women in tech, they will probably get two or three who have personally experienced it and they can listen firsthand to that information.
KS: That’s a really good point.
NW: If this were a software product, as an analogy, and somebody said, “This product has had five systemic failures in the last month and we’re not going to interview any of the customers who are involved, we’re not going to do any post-mortems,” the people who designed the original system will go in a room, they are not the users of the product. A month from now they’ll come and present the new solution to you.
LG: Yeah, they’ll pat themselves on the back and they’ll say, “We did it, everybody.”
NW: I just think if we were using this to design a startup or a software product, every VC would criticize that approach — with good reason. Let’s treat the system the same way. They can ask users. And of course, if a product has had failures, it might be uncomfortable to have the first conversation. But it’s important.
KS: It is fascinating that little meme that goes back. Every woman has a story and every good man had no idea. And at some point you’re like, wow, that’s really ... something’s going on. It’s certainly not up to the women to have to volunteer [stories] because they’re very painful. Most of them are very painful, and usually range from the very mini aggressions that you should smile more. Or it starts there and then it moves up ...
LG: Well, as Joelle said, they’re not unrelated, this sort of subtle sexism and the overt harassment.
KS: No, no. It’s all completely related, but the asking part. Why isn’t ...?
NW: I think that, especially for the women who have spoken up, I asked many of them and they said no VC has yet approached them to ask them more questions. But we hear that VCs are working on solutions. I think that, like VCs always say, let’s ask our users.
KS: But they don’t want to know. They don’t want to know.
NW: A few other solutions that I would like to suggest, I was saying earlier that when people are convicted of a sexual crime they have to register publicly. Similarly, I applaud what Ignition Partners did where they publicly described that the resignation of Frank Artale was due to multiple incidents of inappropriate conduct.
KS: So they were very clear.
NW: Yes. And they had some details. We’ve seen cases where, even when a founder has gone through all the work to expose what happened to them — such as Katrina Lake telling Lightspeed — it just gets swept under the rug. And Lightspeed gave excellent references to Justin, and then put Katrina under a non-disparagement.
I think that when a predator must resign due to multiple incidents of harassment, when there’s evidence and screenshots and credible accounts, that should be publicly disclosed so that they do not just get a new job two weeks later and then they continue their harassment.
KS: There’s been a lot of payoffs in the industry. I’ve been collecting information on that for a long, long time. The payoffs, the quietness. I think not telling ... I literally had one VC saying, “You know more than I do,” and I’m like, “That’s crazy since you can hire private detectives, you have so much money, you have hundreds of millions of dollars here.” It’s crazy.
NW: Well, even without hiring private detectives ...
KS: Whatever. They have more tools. They have more tools to find things out.
NW: Well, just with the information that they have, which may be incomplete, but if a person has to lose their job due to multiple incidents with evidence, right now the industry standard is to keep that quiet.
NW: And I understand that firings are generally kept quiet for a good reason because often it’s due to fit. And someone who is not a fit at one firm may be a star at a different firm with a different culture. I think it’s very fair with other types of firings to keep it quiet. There’s also legal ramifications, I understand.
I think it makes sense for other types of firings to continue the industry standard of keeping it quiet. But, just like how the law makes a distinction with registered sex offenders, I feel that we, as an industry, should make a difference for the exact same type of crime when it applies to harassing founders. Just like Ignition Partners put out that statement, other firms should also be doing that.
KS: A very good idea. Joelle, how does that work? You’re a lawyer. It’s really hard. Because I know I’ve come up against it several times, which we want to say it but we can’t, from major companies. And a lot of people inside want to say it, too.
JE: There are a lot of legal implications of sharing confidential personnel information. But I think there are ways around a lot of those things. I don’t think it’s necessarily confidential personnel information to share that there have been reports of harassment against a particular employee. And I think the other thing is companies have to decide to take a stand at some point on what uphill battles they want to fight.
If I were in a leadership position at one of these firms, I would much rather be sued for a violation of breach of privacy from an employee who harasses people than from people who were harassed. And I would much rather make that call. I think we know that harassers don’t do this once, they usually have multiple victims. So making a call that you’re willing to take this person potentially suing you for breaching their privacy over them continuing to harass people, that’d be a call I’d be comfortable making.
LG: I’m wondering where this all goes from here. Because the Ellen Pao trial was a couple of years ago and we all very publicly, in fact Recode covered it very closely, and then it seemed as though not all people, but some people forgot about it, right? And I keep wondering if some of these VCs who have been fired or asked to leave in recent months, a year from now may start up a fund again and they’re going to start attracting talent and who’s going to go work for them, and what that’s going to look like. How do things actually change from here?
KS: Joelle, why don’t you start.
JE: Men get so many chances. They’re allowed to make so many mistakes. They’re like cats, they have so many lives. Harassers in particular. We see this a lot. I think part of this is thinking about broader culture change. And I’m not the most optimistic right now because I really do see so many firms, so many leaders distancing themselves from these things and saying, “We’re going to create this great solution. We’re going to create this great mechanism.”
Usually the people you see talking about those types of changes believe that it won’t impact them at all. And I think what leaders need to understand, if you’re advocating change that doesn’t require you to do anything differently, that change is not going to have any kind of impact.
KS: So saying something publicly and then not doing the action.
JE: Saying something publicly or creating a set of rules that don’t actually change what you have to do on a day-to-day basis.
KS: Talk about the two that were suggested. And then I want each of you to give actual solutions. The one, the decency pledge, which I think is just fucking ridiculous. And then the second one was the blacklist, which I find disturbing because you just never know what’s accurate. It’s not rigorous, I guess. It can’t be a rigorous thing.
JE: Pledges are almost never enough, right? You have to make pledges so simple to sign on to to get enough people to sign on that they almost never drive any type of change. So I’m not that excited by that. I also think, as I’ve talked about a little bit, the idea ...
KS: This is the decency pledge. I pledge to be decent.
JE: I pledge to be decent. I also think it’s obscuring the fact that I do think there are potential legal rights for founders who are sexually harassed. I think just because the law covering and employee and employment relationships doesn’t apply here — I do think California Civil Rights Law, the Unruh Civil Rights Act may. I think, let’s not stop talking about that. I think all these conversations that are outside the legal realm are shifting attention away from that. I think women should consider pursuing their legal rights that I believe they may have.
KS: The list.
JE: And then the idea of a list. I actually talked to a woman recently, and I think she hasn’t shared this publicly yet, who’s working on an idea that is a bit more nuanced than that and it’s a reporting mechanism that has legal experts to whom you report as a founder. And they then provide you different avenues of potential relief. I think that’s actually pretty compelling. And then once they’ve collected, there will be a certain standard by which, once they’ve collected a certain number of reports against the same person, that will be released publicly. I think that type of idea is potentially compelling.
KS: What about those two for you?
NW: I spoke to the President of the NVCA, National Venture Capital Association, last week, and I also suggested having an ombudsperson. Some people have called it an industry-wide HR function, but a place where founders can report harassment where it can be investigated. Right now the only place where they can report is the press. So they are calling the New York Times, Bloomberg, The Information, to be the only place they can actually get justice. That’s not good for anyone. It’s causing negative headlines for the industry every week because it’s bad for the VCs themselves. It’s also bad for the founders to relive their harassment in public, and it can be inaccurate. A lot of the most painful details are not in public.
If there were a third party who could assess each situation and recommend a course of action that actually is taken by the VCs, and then publish stats ... another common saying we have is: What you don’t measure can’t improve. We are not measuring harassment. The fact that one study says 60 percent of women have been harassed, and then another person has said it’s close to 0 percent means that clearly this metric is not being measured at all.
KS: It’s all anecdotal at this point.
NW: This is an important metric and it should be reported each year by some third party in the industry, how many cases of harassment were reported in 2017. Of those, how many actions were taken by each firm? How many resignations occurred? Not the individual names or details, but if the overall stats are reported, then we can start to make progress.
KS: Who is that person?
NW: I think we are still working that out. And there’s a lot of conversations between entrepreneurs and NVCA and other people about who can do this.
KS: But give me an idea.
LG: And who funds it.
JE: Who funds it. That’s my concern.
NW: Well, I think that each VC who’s taken the decency pledge should pay some amount of money to fund this.
JE: I’m concerned about that, right, because the thing that I’m most worried about with this idea ...
KS: That the foxes pay for their ...
JE: Yeah. I mean, just like companies who pay for HR functions. When I was a lawyer, right, you get a complaint of harassment, you usually hire a third-party external investigator, but you’re paying that person. Is it surprising that they always find that there was no harassment when they’re being hired by the company? So if there could be the woman that I’m talking to that’s working on this other idea, would be funded externally and you could pass on the reports to an ombudsperson, but I think anything that is funded by the people who are being accused of harassment is potentially problematic.
KS: It’s like the cigarette manufacturers talking about .... But who is that? That’s the problem. The press is really the only ...
NW: Well, I think that we can look at other industries. I have had many founders say to me, “I have been harassed by multiple VCs but I have to keep working in this industry.” But I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’ve been groped by multiple doctors but I have to go to the hospital.” And that’s also ...
KS: That’s a really good point.
NW: Doctors are in the position of power, of authority. The patient in a hospital is in a very vulnerable position, but there are very few reported cases of sexual harassment by doctors.
KS: When they get caught it comes down on them.
JE: And the Civil Rights Act covers that too. It’s a great analogy.
NW: So I think we can look at other industries where there is a power differential and yet, very little harassment and learn from them.
KS: Or harassment that gets dealt with on some level.
NW: Yes, like you don’t have these cases of doctors that have harassed 10 patients over 10 years that are finally exposed.
KS: Before we get to questions from the audience — we had quite a few of them and we want to get through them, and we want you both to answer them. Focus on solutions. Very, very briefly, do you think this current administration’s stance on women’s issues and women’s rights and treatment of women does impact it, or is it just part of the same continuum?
JE: No, I think when you make sexism okay at the most senior levels of government then it only perpetuates what can happen within companies. I think companies often mirror what’s going on in broader society, so I would say, absolutely.
NW: I think that it has a polarizing effect, where there is a backlash against the president’s sexist views. And there are more people willing to take action and to contribute to fighting sexism as a result, also.
JE: That’s so optimistic. I love that.
KS: Well, she’s an engineer. She’s going to go for solutions.
LG: Hashtag resist.
KS: I really think your hospital thing is a really good analogy.
NW: Thank you.
KS: It’s a fantastic one. In just a minute, we’re going to take some questions about sexual harassment from our readers and listeners, and Joelle and Niniane are going to answer them. But first we’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsor.
LG: Did you include me in your will?
KS: No, you are not, absolutely. In fact, I’m taking money from you and giving it to others.
KS: Anyway, we’re back with Joelle Emerson and Niniane Wang, talking about sexual harassment in tech. We’re going to take some questions from our readers and listeners. There were great questions this week. Lauren, you want to read the first question?
LG: I would love to. The first question is from Amanda. She’s @ayymanduh, D-U-H, on Twitter. “How can we create a supportive environment for those who want to speak out but are fearful that they won’t be employable in the future?”
KS: Retaliation. Niniane, you should talk about that. You’re very high-ranking, you have more at stake.
NW: I actually think that people need to be strategic about collecting enough evidence and presenting their evidence in a way that is logically convincing such that they can then get the harasser out of a position of power if they have enough evidence. I think that if it is not enough evidence, they may want to wait until they do have enough evidence to report it because ...
KS: The long game.
NW: Yes. If you can get the predator to confess to what has happened, and the firm to confirm that in a resignation, for example, or some kind of apology or removal from position of power, that accomplishes two purposes. Firstly, it protects other women from that predator. It also protects the person who makes the accusation because they have been validated and their claims have been confirmed by the employer of the harasser.
It’s not just about having courage and blurting it out. You have to be strategic in collecting evidence and presenting it in a logical manner. I think it should be like making a PowerPoint for work. What is the goal? The goal is get this predator so they cannot harass more people. What is the amount of evidence that will convince any logical observer of that, then accumulate that with timelines, details, screenshots until you have that entire narrative. If you need people to review it, or an editor to help you, they can contact me, I can help them find people to do that. But create that convincing backstory.
KS: Of proof. You’re right.
JE: And reach out to a lawyer, I think, before you decide to wait. There are statutes of limitations on these types of things.
KS: Yes, there are.
JE: I’m wary of just giving advice to wait till you have enough evidence. That’s also a huge burden to place on people that already have a full-time job.
KS: And have been victimized.
JE: And have been victimized, might be dealing with post-traumatic stress and other reactions. So I would say reaching out to a lawyer. There are also nonprofits like equal rights advocates that give free legal advice on these types of things.
KS: Such as?
JE: Equal rights advocates, it’s equalrights.org. They have an advice and counseling hotline that’s free. That’s where I used to work. A little plug for my former nonprofit. So just getting advice about whether waiting makes sense, what type of evidence you should be collecting, that type of legal advice is really invaluable in situations like this.
NW: I should be more clear. I don’t mean wait to take any action. But I just mean ...
KS: Collect your evidence.
NW: Certainly start taking action by consulting experts on what makes the most sense. All I’m saying is, do it strategically. Do not just think that all it takes is to speak out because think of the goal that you have and then think of what it takes to get to that goal.
KS: Yeah, 100 percent. I think the thing around Justin and Dave McClure were because there was evidence. There was an incredible series of proof, and then with Justin, the numbers of people that spoke on the record.
Two questions from Tom Heberlein. “Is harassment more likely to happen in groups, and if so, what size groups? Like mob mentality?” And, “How often is it the case that the perpetrator is unaware of their behavior of harassment?” A lot of them tell me this. This drives me nuts. Why don’t you start with the first one.
JE: I don’t know of any research that suggests that harassment is more common in groups. Harassment is often invisible. Not invisible, but not visible to others. It’s often happening behind closed doors just between two individuals. And I think on the second question, I don’t believe any harasser who says they were unaware that their behavior was inappropriate.
NW: I think that the harasser is aware that they’re doing something they shouldn’t. But often in a group, many of the observers are too shocked to say anything in the moment. And I would encourage for all the people who want to be supportive to make some small negative gesture. Even if it’s just frowning. A long time ago, when the Civil Rights movement started, there was the concept of frown power where you were not willing to say something vocally but you would just frown. And that had a chilling enough effect.
KS: That’s a really good point.
NW: I think if you’re in a group and you see something inappropriate go on, make some noise, even just clear your throat or frown. Do something to indicate ...
KS: Give them your RBF, you know what I mean?
NW: Exactly. Make some small statement that indicates ... You don’t have to come out and loudly start shouting “No!” but make some small statement so that it indicates that you want it to stop.
KS: That’s an interesting ...
JE: I would just say all men in leadership, something I’ve been telling some of the leaders I work with, come up with a plan for the thing you’re going to say when someone in a room says something inappropriate or does something inappropriate. I hear so many leaders say, “I have heard sexist jokes and I just didn’t know what to say in the moment.” I can tell you right now, you’re definitely going to hear more of that stuff, so plan like today what are you going to say next time.
KS: I think that’s a really good point.
NW: And I want to say that people sometimes ask about the women who have not said no to these harassers, the women who were too afraid. People often ask, “Well, why did she not just say no?”
KS: Oh, god. I hate that.
NW: But those same people will then say, “Well, last time I was in a meeting and someone made a sexist comment, I was too shocked so I did nothing.”
KS: “I didn’t do something.”
NW: Those are correlated.
KS: Absolutely. That’s a really good point. Next question.
LG: Next question is from Louisa @wuulu on Twitter. “What roles do business schools/universities play in cultivating this behavior which results in harassment?” She goes on to say, “I highly doubt anyone had really sexist classmates in high school, so where does this behavior come from?” First of all, I don’t necessarily agree with the fact that sexism doesn’t happen in high school.
KS: We had some good ones in my high school.
LG: I think it definitely does. But what role do you think that higher education institutions have?
KS: We just had Frances Frei on Decode this week, and boy is she good at spinning some stuff. Pebbles, not boulders.
JE: I think, first of all, it is important to note that we see sexual assault happening in high schools all across the country, so this isn’t something that magically appears later in life. And I actually just co-taught a class at the Stanford Business School on building diversely inclusive organizations. I think graduate schools, colleges, high schools, and even earlier have an obligation to teach students in age-appropriate ways about good behavior. At the business school, graduate school level, actually teaching students about how to be inclusive, what it actually means to create environments that are supportive for everyone. The tactics behind that, what it actually looks like to call out bad behavior when you see it. I think those should be core components of curriculum.
KS: And other things you can put into place.
KS: I actually listened to the Frances Frei podcast because she talked about her experience at Harvard where they had some great results. They saw women’s grades go down and enrollment and they initiated something called Unapologetic, which I thought was super interesting. And there’s a lot of tips in that particular thing. But it happens everywhere. This has to be corrected everywhere.
LG: Another woman followed up named Rachel Spurrier. She says she “had a similar experience, maybe different for others. Didn’t experience overt, blatant sexism until I reached the workplace.”
KS: And then the next one. Read the other two.
LG: Louisa went on to say, “The environments between high school and workplace have a strong impact on how one’s personality and worldviews develop.” And then she asked the question that she asked earlier, weighing in on what’s going on in higher education.
Next question is from Joshisarealboy. That’s a good name on Twitter.
KS: Look at that ... @bananas_mcgee. All right.
LG: Bananas McGee. All right, Josh. You be you. “Are men more mindful right now because they actually recognize their bad behavior they’re working to correct, or because they fear they’re getting in trouble?”
KS: Both of you. Niniane?
NW: I think that this is a gradual process of realization. And I think that as long as there’s progress then I feel optimistic. As long as there is active discussion and people continuing to think about it, learn about it, then we are moving in the right direction. I’m actually more positive about some things like ...
KS: I like your positivity.
NW: ... the decency pledge because to me it feels like even if ... I don’t think we should let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
KS: That’s a really good ... now you make me feel bad. I’m going to go see “Atomic Blonde” on Saturday. I’m going to start [taking notes].
NW: Even if something is not all the way there, if it moves us one step forward ... It’s going to take many, many steps to get all the protections that we want. So if people are making initiatives that get us a few steps forward, then I still feel optimistic.
KS: You’re good, Niniane.
LG: So you say even if the motivation is the fear of repercussion, you’re saying that’s still okay because someone is making the move to change, potentially?
NW: I want continual progress. To me the worst is deafening silence. If 94 percent of VCs are men and they’re not speaking out, that is an enormous number of people who are not paying attention to this issue. To me, even if they start with one motive ... many times people start with a self-protective motive, but as they learn more they develop more empathy. So I’m okay with them having more self-protective motives in the beginning as long as then they make continual progress.
KS: And hopefully the penny will drop with more of them than less. You’re like one of these people who gets beaten up in some horrible country and then you’re like, “Let’s forgive everyone.” I’m like no.
NW: No, not forgiving, they need to still take action.
KS: No, I get it. I get it. But what if they don’t? Then can you go “Atomic Blonde” on me?
NW: Yes. Then, yes.
KS: Thank you. Okay, you’re with me with that one. I’m literally the worst person. I would be the worst helper of people. Jessica Swarner: “I’m wondering if it would be just as bad in tech businesses outside of Silicon Valley. Austin, Phoenix, etc., or mainly it’s confined here.” And why do you think the issue’s more prominently discussed in the tech industry? I think that Susan Fowler thing really did set it off for this round of stuff. But do you think it’s elsewhere?
JE: It’s absolutely elsewhere. We work with companies in all types of industries and this exists everywhere. And I think it’s important to address everywhere. I think it’s particularly important, though, in the industry that’s contributing so much to what the future of our world looks like. The different backgrounds and perspectives are being represented in that process. And I think right now, the perspectives of women, of people of color, are being left out because of things like racism and sexism. So while I think this exists everywhere, it is especially important that we get this right in tech.
KS: This is the concentrated center of that.
LG: There was a really good article in Recode a few weeks ago written by Carolina Milanesi who pointed out that if it’s a bunch of men in tech who are training the AIs that are going to build our future, then are those AIs going to be biased?
NW: And we’ve seen that AIs have shown a lot of racial and sexist bias after being trained on things like Twitter.
KS: Because guess who trains them. Next one, Lauren.
LG: Next question is from another Josh, @projectjosh. “Which influencer in tech could make the most difference by helping to reduce the problems the industry faces currently? Would a female leader of Uber make a considerable positive impact?”
KS: Niniane, I’m going to ask you the first one, and then you answer the second one.
NW: I think it actually requires many, many voices over a long-sustained period of time. I don’t think there’s a quick, easy solution. If we do this next week, then 10 days from now the problem will be solved. It took many years for this problem to develop and it will take a long-sustained effort for this to be fixed. I read Gloria Steinem’s book, and she’s been working on feminism for decades. To me, all men and women need to speak up in their own small ways, and then together we can make progress over time.
KS: I’m going to do hashtag frown. What about the female leader at Uber?
JE: I agree that this is less about one particular leader of one particular company and what every person in a position of power is doing. I think I love to see female leaders of as many companies as possible, but I think the bigger question is what do they do to change? What are the new practices that they’re putting into place?
KS: It doesn’t matter.
JE: What’s actually changing? That’s much more important to me than who the particular leader is.
KS: So you’re good with an old, white guy, which is probably what we’re going to get, in my guess?
JE: I’m not great with it, but that’s who we’re going to get.
KS: Or a young, white guy. One of them.
Productive Citizen @technosucks: “Do you think tech executives are going to change their behavior in the wake of recent issues with CEOs and VCs?” That’s the big question.
NW: Well, a number of entrepreneurs, including me and the NME.CA and some VCs are trying to work on longer-term solutions in terms of policy change. Ideally we can make legal clauses in contracts that offer protection. And so I think it’s that long-sustained changes that will result in behavior change.
JE: I mean, I think tech leaders have a pretty simple question to ask themselves, really, which is do I want to just mirror all the shit that’s going on around me, do I want to amplify it, which we’re seeing some companies do, make things even worse inside my walls than they are outside. Or do I want to be better? We hear all these tech leaders talk about changing the world. Well, how do you think about creating a workforce where all of the social inequality that exists outside your doors actually doesn’t show up and effect things like who gets hired, how people are treated, who gets promoted? I’m hearing from a lot of leaders that are asking what can they be doing better. And that’s great because I have a lot of ideas.
LG: A follow-up question to that is, every year these companies are now putting out diversity reports. This has happened over the past few years. And it’s all of the big tech companies. It’s Google and Apple and Facebook and all the ones that we pay a lot of attention to. And often we see incremental increases or things remain flat. We might see a 1 percentage point increase in gender diversity, more women than the prior year.
I never know how to look at those, in the sense that I look at that and I say, well, they’re employee base is in the tens of thousands. So even a 1 percent increase could be fairly significant when you look at that size. And then other times I say, should we be looking at what kinds of roles are they? Or, could that 1 percent be so much better? As we see companies make incremental changes, what’s the thing that people should really be paying attention to?
JE: I think it’s all of that. Yes, I think that 1 percent is too small. Yes, I think we should be looking at what particular roles that improvement is concentrated in. We should also be looking at things like attrition. Oftentimes the patterns are more nuanced than they seemed. So maybe you’ve improved by 1 percent but you’ve actually lost a huge percentage of your employees of color. So what’s going on within your workforce that’s leading to those outcomes? I think, actually, it’s about asking those follow-up questions and noticing where improvement is happening.
There are smaller companies where we’re seeing changes happen a little bit faster. Not as quickly as anyone would hope. I think it’s about asking all of those questions and looking at the nuances within each organization and not assuming that 1 percent is horrible, or that it’s good.
KS: Does it have to come from the top? I think it does. I don’t know how it doesn’t work without ... like, you’ve been a top leader.
NW: I think that the people at the top are setting the policies in terms of compensation. All kinds of corporate policies of the employee handbook ...
KS: Of what works. This is your priorities.
NW: What is permissible. And also setting an example with their own behavior. I do think the people at the top really shape the culture of the company. I would say that just like with a software product, you look at a combination of metrics as well as more qualitative user surveys. With a company, you would look at the metrics and then they should listen to their employees and use that to form a holistic view of what they can do to improve.
KS: Let’s finish up, I think.
LG: We got a thank you from Maria Petrova, who’s one of our long-time listeners and has written in before. Thank you, Maria. We also got some emails from some of our readers and listeners who wrote in about their personal experiences, follow-up questions that they had, some really great stuff. And unfortunately we do not have time to get to all of those today.
KS: But they were really terrific.
LG: They were terrific, and we greatly appreciate all of you who wrote in and encouraged us to do this topic because it’s something that we want to address and we want to continue to address.
KS: And we will continue. I’m going to finish up with you each giving three critical solutions. You’ve talked about them, probably, but if you could synopsize them. Three solutions that have to happen and one thing to be avoided. What has to be avoided? Why don’t we start with you?
JE: I’ll focus my solutions on people in positions of power because I think they have the most opportunity for influence and are currently doing the least. I think the first is to do exactly what Niniane just talked about, actually understand what’s going on in your organization. Understand the data, what it has to say about employees’ experiences. Hear from people and then design solutions. I think the second thing is to learn. Do some reading. Don’t just assume that you know everything. Do a little googling. There’s a lot of information online that can help you learn about these problems.
KS: If only we had this search engine where we could find things.
JE: If only you could do 30 minutes of googling before saying something pretty problematic on the internet. Do a little bit of reading, a little bit of learning before you opine on these issues. And then, third, be a vocal ally for these things. Speak up publicly in support of people that are underrepresented in tech and use this as an opportunity to reflect on your own behavior. Even if you’re not sexually harassing someone, I guarantee you’re doing something that is helping create a culture where this is allowed to happen.
KS: And one thing that has to stop?
JE: Only one.
KS: A behavior.
JE: The lack of accountability for bad behavior.
KS: Niniane, finish it up.
NW: I think that each person should talk to five female founders and hear their actual firsthand ...
KS: Or executives.
NW: Or executives. Women in tech. And hear their actual firsthand experiences, the way you would conduct a user survey. Secondly, frown power. I think when you see something occur in your daily business, actually say something about it, or frown. And then thirdly, work to increase diversity, because that is the true long-term solution to this overall problem.
And then for the thing to avoid, I would say is just staying silent or thinking this doesn’t involve me, or being so afraid of being criticized that you say nothing. I think the deafening silence is the worst. To me, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you say a small thing, that’s better than nothing.
KS: Absolutely. If you see something, say something. People really have a hard time with that. It’s fascinating. People who are powerful suddenly become powerless.
NW: I also think that people can get better at it over time. Someone who makes a comment that’s small, next time maybe makes a bigger comment. People don’t just start out and immediately become the most enlightened advocate in one week. Maybe the first week they just frown for the first month. And then, later they learn to make small comments and they learn to build up their skill over time. And then maybe they become a true advocate. And I believe in allowing them to grow that over time.
KS: And people at all levels of power can do that. I think people do feel powerless. My son, sorry to mention my son again, but the other day we were talking about the use of the word fag and gay and stuff like it among his friends. And he said now when anyone says something he goes, “Well, thank you. I think I look good too.” You know what I mean? When they call him that he’s like, “I think that’s a compliment. Thank you for that compliment, I really appreciate it.” It was a small thing, and it just absolutely cut into whatever someone was saying and I thought it was nice, and it was humorful, it wasn’t angry. I don’t know. It worked really well. I think people have a lot more power than they think and they allow it to be taken away from them.
But anyway, speaking of power, thank you so much. We owe a debt of gratitude to you for coming forward and pushing ...
LG: Incredibly brave.
KS: Absolutely. I don’t think you understand. I know you don’t want to get kudos for it, but being a decent person is a hard thing to do. And Joelle, thank you so much for coming.
LG: We’re proud of what you do.
KS: And again, it’s Joelle Emerson and Niniane Wang, and we’re talking about an issue we are not going to stop talking about. And this has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Joelle, Niniane, thank you for joining us.
LG: Yes, thank you.
JE: Thank you.
NW: Great, thanks.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.