Accusations of sexism in the technology sector are nothing new and sadly unsurprising, considering the male-to-female ratio in the industry. However, a viral blog post from former Uber employee Susan J. Fowler recently forced tech companies to examine their corporate cultures to ensure their female employees not only are treated fairly, but also feel safe coming to work.
Sixty percent of female technology workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and 39 percent of them failed to report the harassment for fear of retaliation, according to “Elephant in the Valley,” a survey from Trae Vassallo and Michele Madansky. The survey also found that 60 percent of those who reported sexual harassment were unsatisfied with the conclusion.
A Culture of Gender Bias
Countless scientific and cultural advances have come about due to technology, but executives in this field may have trouble seeing the bias that exists right in front of them.
“I think mistreatment of women in the workplace — tech or not — has been an issue over many decades, and while we have made progress in this area as a society, a lot more needs to be done,” says Vivek Bhaskaran, CEO and founder of QuestionPro, a provider of workforce intelligence solutions. “Think of how Mitch McConnell treated Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor, where she was reprimanded for reading a letter. Now, we all know this was partially politically motivated. However, the same circumstance by a male member of the Senate would probably not have drawn this level of rebuke.”
Bhaskaran believes the tech world is, to an extent, convinced it has already solved its sexism problem —but that’s not exactly true.
“The fact is we’ve attempted, but we still haven’t solved it,” he says. “The surprising part is perception. The Silicon Valley tech world thinks they have solved all of humanity’s problems, whereas the truth is that we are all attempting to solve these issues.”
According to Bhaskaran, Silicon Valley does itself a disservice by idealizing itself this way. Executives can only self-reflect and identify problems in their own organizations if they are “honest and authentic in [their] rhetoric,” Bhaskaran says.
In addition to this bias blind spot, there is a simpler fact driving sexual harassment in the Valley: People do it because they can.
“Mistreatment is commonplace because a lot of folks think they can get away with it,” says Bhaskaran. “Discrimination of any sort — be it race- or gender-oriented — usually occurs if it is condoned by the leadership. I think leadership in Silicon Valley has drunk its own Kool-Aid. Since most of Silicon Valley is ultra-liberal, they believe we are always doing the right things. The fact is, we can learn and make an active effort to bring workplace equality.”
The Inevitable Evolution of the Tech Sector
To fight back and build cultures of inclusion, tech companies must start by bringing more women into the tech workforce.
“When I graduated as a computer engineer from [Brigham Young University], in a class of 100 or so students, we only had five women in my batch,” Bhaskaran recalls. “The tech sector — especially engineering — has been male-dominated from the bottom up.”
Many of today’s tech companies are starting to make an effort, working with leadership to center inclusion and diversity initiatives as key business focuses.
“This has a trickle-down effect across the organization and is getting built into the DNA of the hiring policies of companies,” Bhaskaran says. “Most HR functions do have mandates around diversity and inclusion as part of the overall structures of the organizations. We see a lot more companies deploying solutions, using tools that actively look at gender bias, and investing in people analytics solutions to identify and rectify issues within the organization.”
Organizations can also gather meaningful data on gender bias and sexual harassment from workers by leveraging the right tools. For example, QuestionPro offers mobile feedback tools that allow employees to give candid feedback directly to managers.
“This allows everyone to get ahead of any simmering problems,” Bhaskaran says. “We can only improve what we measure, and if we want a more just and fair workplace, we need to start measuring our performance on a weekly basis.”