Sexual Harassment Suit Exposes Silicon Valley's Seedy Underbelly

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on February 23, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's sort of an open secret in Silicon Valley that the tech industry is a man's world. Data bear this out: Only 11 percent of executive positions are filled by women, reports Business Insider, compared with 16 percent in the S&P 100.

It gets worse when it comes to tech-specific jobs, where over 80 percent of Google's international tech jobs are staffed by men (non-tech jobs, on the other hand, are staffed by 52 percent staffed by men). With this huge gender disparity comes allegations of sexual harassment, as one venture capital firm is finding out.

Just Another Day in the Valley

A high-profile lawsuit, brought by Harvard Law grad Ellen Pao, is set to go to trial this week. The lawsuit pits Pao against her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. Pao claims she was pressured into having an affair with a married co-worker, who then retaliated when she broke it off, reports The New York Times. After she complained about the incident, she received poor reviews and was ultimately dismissed from the company.

Unfortunately, these types of allegations are nothing new in Silicon Valley. Just last month, one of the co-founders of data mining company Palantir, Joe Lonsdale, got hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former Stanford student who was an intern with the company. After the student, Elise Cloughtery, told Stanford about it, Lonsdale was banned from the campus for 10 years. (The suit is ongoing.)

A Vicious Cycle

Male-dominated workplaces aren't just a hotbed of sexism; they're also rife with sexual harassment, as Jennifer Berdahl observed in 2007 in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Berdahl's research found that "women in male-dominated organizations were harassed more than women in female-dominated organizations, and that women in male-dominated organizations who had relatively masculine personalities were sexually harassed the most."

That's an extra layer of problem: Female executives like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg has been telling women to "lean in" and basically act more aggressively in the workplace, and yet, if Berdahl is correct, the more aggressive a woman acts, the more likely she is to be sexually harassed.

Apparently, you'd damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Part of the problem is a feedback cycle in which men dominate STEM jobs, become hired into engineering positions, and then hire their friends -- who are also men. This creates a "bro"-y atmosphere in which women are seen less as coworkers and more as exotic outsiders.

GCs at tech startups, venture capital firms, and other places of the like must be on guard, along with the human resources department (to the extent there is one), to promote diversity of all kinds and avoid sexist attitudes that allegedly led to where Kleiner Perkins is now.

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