Just how misogynistic is the tech culture? Here are 6 high profile cases in Silicon Valley:
1. CMEA – Sexual Harassment:
Weeks, et al., v. CMEA— Three female executive assistants at San Francisco’s CMEA sued the Silicon Valley venture capital firm and former partner John Haag. The women alleged that Haag created a hostile work environment for them by making lewd comments and inappropriate sexual innuendo. Examples of his behavior included instances where he’d asked female employees about their pubic hair, stating does the “carpet match the drapes.” Haag’s harassment allegedly included repeatedly asking about anal sex, and physically forcing the women into awkward sexual situations while at work. (Status: Settlement pending approval, terms are confidential. Haag has resigned.)
2. ZILLOW – Sexual Harassment & Retaliation:
Rachel Kremer v Zillow — Ms. Kremer, a former sales consultant at Zillow, is suing the company for sexual harassment. The suit alleges that the work environment at Zillow was nothing short of an “adult frat house.” During her employment at Zillow, Kremer claims that she was continuously sent graphic emails and pictures by her supervisors, including pictures of their genitalia. Some of the other offenses Kremer’s male cohorts allegedly committed include ranking Kremer and other female coworkers by breast size and threatening to end her employment if she did not meet their demands of sexual gratification. (Status: Lawsuit remains pending.)
3. KLEINER PERKINS – Gender Discrimination & Retaliation:
Ellen Pao v. Kleiner-Perkins — Ms. Pao alleged a “boy’s club” atmosphere consisting of tawdry comments and exclusion from all-male networking events. She also alleged the unwanted harassment of a married partner with whom she’d had a brief affair. When she complained to HR, she was fired. Kleiner went after Pao at trial, claiming she was fired from her position as a junior partner because “she could not demonstrate the skills necessary for success as an investing venture capitalist” and because she had “conflicts with most of her colleagues, men and women.” They essentially argued that she was too “unlikeable,” and they won. Status: Ms. Pao lost at trial. Kleiner-Perkins has filed an action against her to recover costs of suit totalling $972,814.00.
4. TINDER – Sexual Harassment & Gender Discrimination:
Wolfe v. Tinder — Whitney Wolfe filed a sexual harassment and sex discrimination lawsuit against both Sean Rad and Justin Mateen. Wolfe claims that she was never recognized as a founding member because of her gender and that she was fired from her position at Tinder in April 2014 after being called a “whore” at a company event. Wolfe provided text messages sent to her from Mateen containing vulgar and inappropriate content. In those messages, Mateen calls Wolfe a whore, slut and gold digger, and made racist comments about someone Wolfe was dating. (Status: Settled out of court for approximately $1,000,000.00. Rad was demoted, Mateen was forced to resign.)
5. FACEBOOK – Gender Discrimination, Race Discrimination & Sexual Harassment:
Chia Hong v. Facebook — Ms. Hong is a former Facebook program manager and technology partner. She sued the social networking giant, alleging she suffered three years of harassment during her tenure at Facebook. Ms. Hong claims that after reporting harassment and discrimination suffered by her at the hands of boss, Anil Wilson, she was fired. In the suit, Ms. Hong alleges wrongful termination and retaliation. It is alleged that Wilson asked her why she did “not just stay home and take care of her children.” She further alleged she was punished for taking time off to volunteer at her child’s school, and that she was “ordered to organize parties and serve drinks to male colleagues.” (Status: Lawsuit was dropped in October, 2015, it is unclear if it was settled out of court)
6. TWITTER – Gender Discrimination & Retaliation:
Huang v. Twitter — Tina Huang, who worked for Twitter’s mobile and developer productivity teams, has filed a proposed class action alleging that Twitter’s promotion practices favored her male counterparts. Ms. Huang’s frustration with what she deemed Twitter’s “opaque promotion process” led her to email Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to detail her concerns. Her complaint alleges that after this communication, she was immediately put on leave while the company conducted an investigation. After three months of waiting “without explanation as to the status of the investigation, or mention of any possible time frame for her return to work,” Ms. Huang was left feeling she had no choice but to resign. Her complaint also notes that many early Twitter hires now hold senior management positions – and all of them are men. (Ms. Huang’s case is being pursued as a class action in San Francisco Superior Court, Huang v. Twitter, CGC 15 544813)
In addition to the above suits, tech company Github faced accusations of sexism from a former employee and female engineer. Tinder‘s parent company settled a suit last September that had been brought by a former employee alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment. That suit was settled with no admission of wrong doing. This list is by no means comprehensive. Given the climate, there will be others. Suits for gender discrimination and sexual harassment will likely continue to be filed against tech and venture capital companies throughout Silicon Valley.
It is important to remember that the allegations discussed above are, at this point, only allegations. We do not purport to judge the accuracy of any of the specific claims. On the other hand, one cannot ignore all of the indications regarding the general climate that prevails in the corporate world of Silicon Valley tech.
- In a 2012 South-By-Southwest talk, given by Matt Van Horn, a 28-year-old executive at Path, he spoke of winning over the elusive co-founders of another startup by sending them “bikini shots” from a “nudie calendar” he’d put together using photographs of fellow students he’d met in college. He continued with tips for hiring managers, cautioning against “gangbang interviews” and cracking wise about his fraternity’s recruiting strategy, designed to “attract the hottest girls” on campus. Nobody laughed. Reportedly, he was surprised when women began to get up and leave the talk. But that hadn’t stopped him from thinking his audience would find his statements amusing.
Yet, despite this environment, Ellen Pao was found to have no viable claim. After all, what is the harm if the men want to all play golf together and exclude their female co-workers? Those women who are excluded object because they are losing access to those who can promote them. They object because they understand that to speak up is to risk ostracism, ridicule or termination. In this atmosphere, women are expected to remain silent when they fail to be considered for desired promotions. Some women who hold jobs in these industries, still hope to be promoted. Hoping it will not affect them, or believing they can work around it, they decline to speak up. So the culture continues.
It seems that many do not want to acknowledge this entrenched and pervasive “frat-titude” that women exist, first and foremost, for the pleasure of men. It is still considered when professional women point out this dehumanizing career obstacle. Women are tired of seeing the skills they possess become secondary to the roles they play in the fantasies of misogynistic men surrounding them. Women continue to be sidelined as contenders for the leadership roles and big-money jobs their male counterparts enjoy. While it must be acknowledged that not all men feel this way, enough exist to keep the numbers of female executives in tech and venture capital firms alarmingly out of balance with the talent available. The numbers average out at 70:30 male to female.
In a culture where investors can respond to inquiries for startup financing by women (Kathryn Tucker of RedRover) with quips like “I don’t like the way women think. They haven’t mastered linear thinking,” there is a long, long way to go before women see a gender-equal hiring structure.
If you are experiencing behavior like the kind discussed in this article, call an experienced employment attorney today. And keep those texts and emails, just in case.
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