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Silicon Valley's dirty secret: The way it treats women

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/3/2017 Jessica Guynn, and Marco della Cava

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SAN FRANCISCO — When former Uber engineer Susan Fowler went public with sexual harassment and discrimination allegations last month, social media erupted with shock and dismay.

But many women were far from surprised. Silicon Valley's dirty little secret: women throughout the male-dominated tech sector have stories just like hers. Stories of harassment, lesser pay and stalled careers. Stories of management turning a blind eye. 

"This is at all tech companies," says Ellen Pao, who unsuccessfully sued venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for sexual discrimination. "It may not be as bad as this (Uber), but this is the culture of tech."

And, since Fowler went public with her charges, more women are now hiring lawyers, according to Pao.

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"It will be interesting to see how the companies respond," she said. 

For the tech industry, gender inequity has proven to be a hard problem to solve. Employment lawyers say women from Silicon Valley and the tech industry have been walking through their doors for years with sexual harassment and discrimination complaints. These cases show no signs of letting up.

And they are not just complaints against start-up companies with young managers and loose policies. Among companies that have faced lawsuits from women over their treatment are Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter.

Attorney Kelly Dermody, head of the employment practice at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, which is representing women suing Microsoft for gender discrimination, says she gets calls every single week from women in the tech industry.

"It's not abating," says David Lowe, partner with Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe, whose firm represented Pao. "You would think by now that these sorts of harassment issues would not come up as often, that people would be more knowledgeable, more sensitive, more trained. But the publicity from these cases has not made a dent in the number of cases we have seen."

"The thing that made him and the company successful is now causing havoc," Brad Stone, author of The Upstarts, which chronicles category-altering companies such as Uber and Airbnb, says of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.© Will Oliver, USA TODAY "The thing that made him and the company successful is now causing havoc," Brad Stone, author of The Upstarts, which chronicles category-altering companies such as Uber and Airbnb, says of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Six out of 10 women working in Silicon Valley experience unwanted sexual advances, according to the Elephant in the Valley survey of more than 200 women released last year. About two-thirds of these women said these advances were from a superior, and some 66% said they felt excluded in tech because of their gender.

And those statistics have names and faces.

In 2014, Tinder and its parent IAC/InterActiveCorp settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Whitney Wolfe. An early female employee of the dating app, Wolfe alleged the company co-founders subjected her "to a barrage of horrendously sexist, racist and otherwise inappropriate comments" and stripped her of a co-founder title because she was a "young female."

Three women are alleging gender discrimination at Microsoft, claiming the tech giant's performance evaluation, pay and promotion practices discriminate against women in technical and engineering roles. Microsoft says it disputes the claims.

Tannen Campbell, a former female executive at Magic Leap who says she was hired to make the augmented reality startup "less of a boys club," sued the company in February for sex discrimination.

And last fall, A.J. Vandermeyden sued Tesla for sexual discrimination, alleging she was paid less than men for doing the same work and was subjected to harassing behavior such as catcalls in a work environment dominated by men. Elon Musk's electric car company disputes the charges, saying its investigation found no evidence of harassment and discrimination

Vandermeyden's attorney, Therese Lawless of Lawless & Lawless, says Vandermeyden tried to change things inside the company but couldn't. "So she decided to do it from the outside," Lawless said. 

“Until (a company) realizes they have a problem, nothing is going to change," said Lawless, who also represented Pao. "A fish rots from the head down is the old cliché. Leadership has to say: We have a problem and this is how we’re going to handle it, or there will be more women coming out.”

Pao says Silicon Valley has to stop shooting the messengers. The jury found Kleiner Perkins did not discriminate against Pao but her case brought national attention to the challenges women face in the tech industry and in Silicon Valley in particular. 

"I hope that instead people start listening," said Pao, who's now chief diversity and inclusion officer for Kapor Center for Social Impact and a venture partner at Kapor Capital. "And whether that's HR, whether that's the manager, whether that's the press, whether that's the general public, everybody should be paying attention to these stories and to these experiences and thinking about: How do we prevent them?"

Complaints not likely to stop

Gender inequality is an issue technology companies would do well to address quickly, if not simply for moral reasons than financial. 

Women use the latest apps and gadgets in equal, if not greater, numbers. And they outnumber men at the top schools and in the workforce. But they are in noticeably short supply in Silicon Valley. Critics say tech giants have not built a workforce that reflects available talent, whether among women or people of color, particularly in engineering and leadership roles that are disproportionately held by white men.

Seven out of 10 workers at major tech companies such as Google and Facebook are men. Women comprise 20% or less of technical staff. Few women reach the senior executive level or the boardroom. And they don't fare much better as entrepreneurs. A sliver of venture capital funding goes to women and a small percentage of venture capital investors are women.

Studies warn that tech's gender gap is only widening as women are being held back by stereotypes, biases and work environments that make them feel marginalized, unwelcome or even threatened.

Fowler's Uber saga — which she titled "Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber" — bears that out, featuring stories of being sexually propositioned by her boss on her first day of work; of being told by HR that her complaints would go nowhere because her boss was a prized employee; of being left with choices that included putting up with his advances and accepting a bad evaluation or moving departments. On Thursday, she tweeted that she had hired an attorney

But most stories of misconduct in tech are never shared publicly.

Women, especially those early in their careers, fear fallout from being known as the next Ellen Pao, who endured having her life scrutinized for three years during her legal case. Instead they quietly change jobs to flee harassment and discrimination, or they negotiate confidential settlements. 

Lawless says employees do not file lawsuits lightly.

“Most individuals, men or women, really want to work out these things internally, with their managers or with human resources,” she said. “In my experience it isn’t until it is so bad, when they’re terminated or they quit, that it gets escalated.”

A disruptive but often toxic culture

Lowe says he's not a psychiatrist, but suspects the root causes of these toxic work environments include inexperienced and often youthful management, a rule-breaking ethos, a sense of entitlement, and too little respect for boundaries.

For example, back in 2014, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, now 26, apologized for sexually graphic emails he sent as a Stanford University student in which he talked about making 300 Jell-O shots to get sorority girls drunk and urinating on one woman.

"Any company that grows explosively is at risk of running afoul of worker protection laws because it may neglect to put necessary compliance policies and practices into place, both as rules and as cultural realities," says Jahan Sagafi, a partner with Outten & Golden who represents workers in claims against employers.

But change is always possible. Earlier this week, an Uber driver dashcam video surfaced showing Kalanick berating the driver. The CEO immediately sent a confessional email to his staff, calling the embarrassing video "a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it."

"The flourishing of discrimination in Silicon Valley is reminiscent of what we saw with the last new economy boom, in the world of high finance that really took off in the 1980s," Sagafi says.

"There’s a small, insular world dominated by white men who are creating a new industry and disrupting outdated ways of doing business," he says. "But their justifiable pride in changing the old rules can bleed into disdain for all the rules, including society’s core protections against unfair treatment in the workplace."

Follow USA TODAY tech reporters Jessica Guynn and Marco della Cava on Twitter.

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