Sexual harassment has dominated headlines in recent weeks, with the Harvey Weinstein exposé closely followed by revelations about Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. But workplace sexual harassment isn’t limited to Hollywood. Many companies in the tech industry have also made headlines for sexual harassment allegations in the past of couple years. Women have come forward to speak out about discrimination and harassment they experienced at companies such as Uber, Google, and Microsoft.
The ongoing problem of sexual harassment in tech
In early 2017, former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler published a blog post detailing the systemic sexism and sexual harassment she experienced during her one year with the company. Though she reported the incidents to HR, they were repeatedly brushed under the rug. In one case, after Fowler reported that she had been propositioned for sex by a member of upper management, she was told that Uber did not want to ruin the career of such a “high performer.”
When Fowler joined Uber in November 2015, over 25% percent of the company’s engineers were women. A year later, that number had dropped to just 3%. In the months following Fowler’s blog post, internal and external investigations into the toxic culture of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation have resulted in 20 firings and an exodus of executive talent.
Earlier this fall, Uber’s SVP of Engineering, Amit Singhal, was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose the circumstances of his departure from Google the previous year. As reported by Recode, Singhal left Google in the wake of a sexual assault allegation. Singhal denied the claims, but Google found them “credible” and had been prepared to fire him before Singhal resigned.
The problem isn’t limited to Uber. Three female engineers have filed a lawsuit against Microsoft accusing the company of pervasive gender discrimination that they claim has cost women at Microsoft more than 500 promotions and between $100 million and $238 million in pay. If the case wins class-action status, the women will represent 8,630 peers worldwide.
Google is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for “systemic compensation disparities” between male and female employees that violate federal employment laws. Janet Herold, a representative for the Department of Labor, said in April, “The government’s analysis at this point indicates that discrimination against women in Google is quite extreme, even in this industry.”
Even in this industry assumes that such issues exist everywhere in tech, it’s just a matter of severity and getting caught. Indeed, it is hard to name a major company in Silicon Valley that hasn’t been accused of tolerating a culture of sexism, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
Many of the men that have made headlines for their inappropriate behavior have received consequences for their actions. They’ve been removed from power, their projects cancelled, and their reputations irrevocably tarnished.
That’s all well and good, but punishing past transgressions doesn’t do anything to prevent future incidents or change a working culture that permits incidents like these from not only happening but from going unreported – sometimes for decades. If we really want to make progress, we need to dedicate as much energy to advocating for women as we do to punishing men.
What qualifies as workplace sexual harassment?
Most of us probably feel confident that we would recognize and call out sexual harassment if we were to see it. But in many cases, harassment falls into grey areas that may not be explicitly outlined in sexual harassment training. Behavior that falls into grey areas is more likely to go unchallenged or unreported.
There are two broad categories of sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Quid pro quo harassment: Employment decisions (such as promotions and raises) are made contingent on an employee’s acceptance of sexual advances or willingness to perform sexual favors.
- Hostile work environment: The unwelcome conduct of supervisors, coworkers, or contractors that creates an intimidating or offensive working environment.
Behavior that can fall into these categories includes:
- Sexual jokes
- Suggestive comments
- Discussion of sexual activities
- Requests for sexual favors
- Unnecessary touching
- Commenting on physical attributes
- Using innappropriate terminology
- Sexual advances
- Lewd body language
Sexual harassment includes both physical and nonphysical forms of harassment, and it is often the nonphysical forms that can become most pervasive in a toxic work environment.
Why do people tolerate unacceptable behavior at work?
Many of the women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein are doing so now after keeping their experiences private for years, or even decades. In discussions like those surrounding Weinstein, it’s acknowledged that victims of assault are often reluctant to come forward because they fear the consequences of speaking out against someone in power.
We may understand why women (or victims) keep quiet, but in most of these cases, the general response has been, “Everyone knew. It was an open secret, but no one said anything.”
So why don’t people who witness inappropriate workplace behavior intervene?
- They’re not sure what’s acceptable.
When a person is in a position of power, the prevailing assumption is that whatever they do must surely be allowed. Many of us are taught not to speak up to authority figures, even if we feel we know better.
- They don’t feel they have the power to speak up.
Standing up to a bully is intimidating, whether that bully is on the playground or wearing a suit and signing your paychecks. Some people don’t feel they have the courage to speak up or the strength to stand behind an allegation. They may also feel like their voice won’t make a difference.
- They fear retaliation.
Someone who witnesses harassment may be just as vulnerable to retaliation as the victim if they speak out. Fear of retaliation creates a toxic environment in which inappropriate behavior is permitted to continue while the majority of employees exist in discomfort and fear.
What can men do to prevent sexual harassment among colleagues?
Everyone goes through sexual harassment training their first day on the job. Most of us understand intuitively what is and isn’t appropriate behavior toward colleagues. And yet unacceptable behavior is frequently tolerated or ignored. The responsibility falls on men to change cultures of harassment in the workplace.
Here’s what men can do to prevent workplace sexual harassment:
- Pay more attention. It’s easier to look away from unacceptable behavior than it is to confront it, especially when the behavior falls into the grey area. We can close our ears to inappropriate remarks or pretend not to notice a wandering eye. Start paying more attention to the behavior of men in your office – and more importantly, to the body language of women on the receiving end. Learn to read their discomfort.
- Hold your male colleagues accountable. Cultures of harassment form when men don’t hold each other accountable for their actions. If you overhear male coworkers speaking inappropriately to or about a female colleague, call them out. Make it known that you won’t tolerate hearing such language in the office. Harassers are more likely to respond to a third party challenging their behavior, especially if that person is another man.
- Be an ally for your female colleagues. If a female colleague comes forward with an allegation of harassment or discrimination, believe her. Stand up for her to colleagues who dismiss or ridicule her claims. Protect her from retaliation.
- Speak up when women can’t. Women often don’t feel safe reporting an incident of harassment. If you witness such an incident, take responsibility. Talk to your female colleague and ask her if she would be comfortable with you taking the issue to HR or a manager in her stead. Respect her wishes, but make it clear that you will support her.
- Keep extensive notes. This is the most passive action you can take, but it’s still important and it’s better than doing nothing. If you witness an incident of harassment or discrimination, document it. Write down the date, time, details of what was said or done, who else was present, and where you were. Documentation from a third-party witness will corroborate any claim the victim files with HR or law enforcement.
- Escalate the issue until it’s dealt with. The first person you should report an incident of harassment to is your manager. If they neglect to take action, bring the issue to HR. Unfortunately, as in the case of Susan Fowler, HR doesn’t always take the action it should. In that case, you can escalate the issue even further by going to a government agency such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (at the federal level) or the Fair Employment Practices Agency (at the state or local level).
Sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley and in workplaces across our nation will not go away on its own. It will require a fundamental shift in workplace culture to one of accountability, equality, and respect. The responsibility for that shift falls primarily on men. If one man at a time takes it upon himself to speak up for women and treat female colleagues as equals, norms will change and the tide will start to turn.
Hold yourself to a higher standard, and hold your male colleagues to one as well.