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We All Knew

We All Knew

July 2, 2017 8:26 pmComments are Disabled

All of a sudden, professional sexual harassment in Silicon Valley is being laid bare in the open, and most would argue it’s a good thing. Big-name CEOs and VCs are being brought down by, in some cases, major corroborated allegations of sexual harassment of employees, entrepreneurs, and coworkers. It’s a developing story, because people will continue to come forward and heads will continue to roll.

What’s most interesting to me is, this isn’t a surprise to anyone in the industry, especially women. But not just women.

We all knew this was happening.

We’ve all had friends, coworkers, and significant others harassed by coworkers, managers, CEOs and VCs.

Off the top of my head I can name a handful of (hitherto unreported) VCs and C-level executives who have harassed women I know.

I’ve even been personally harassed on behalf of women I know.

I have long waited for these people to be reported by someone. I can only imagine how victims feel. The waiting must be infuriating.

And therein lies the problem. Everyone was just waiting. This story was trying to ‘break’ for years–because everyone knew and was just waiting. It seems to me that cultural progress happens piecemeal and slowly, until it doesn’t, and the floodgates open. In this case, the culture was dammed up. Victims had to come forward to change the culture, and the culture needed to become more accepting of victims coming forward, so everyone just waited patiently.

Finally, this week, a cultural earthquake hit, and I think we should all be forced to think about why it didn’t happen sooner.

Though my experience is mostly secondhand and I certainly can’t tell victims’ stories for them, I don’t know if I would come forward if I were a victim myself. Professional repercussions from smearing the character of a powerful person would be one reason. But most of all, I would just be afraid to be believed. The private space in which social interactions occur between colleagues is a fuzzy area. “He said she said” dynamics abound. After all, often the harassment is verbal, not on the record. And even on the record, much actual, mutual flirting and sexual dynamics do take place in the very youthful, single world of tech. So although in each individual situation of harassment may be obvious to the victims involved, it has almost never been clear cut enough for the public.

In order for victims to come forward, culture needs to change. It needs to become more accepting (and believing) of women’s stories. The public needs to be willing and able to hear those stories and respond to them. A lot of people are crediting this latest wave of cultural tectonics to Susan Fowler’s blog post detailing her treatment at Uber, and before that, Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. Despite the criticism and attacks these and other women have faced (which may have discouraged more from coming forward) it’s clear that these stories build on each other to form a narrative, and when the narrative becomes undeniable, it helps to corroborate the experiences of victims going through the same thing.

And thus ultimately, in order for culture to change, we rely on the victims, the people who know better than anyone else, to tell us what’s happening, and to protect other potential victims out there. In all of these stories, there are lots of people who know before everyone else. Axios reported that Justin Caldbeck’s behavior “seemed to be an open secret among a subset of Silicon Valley’s small (but tight) network of women VCs and founders.” But as Lazaro Gamio wrote in that article, “The unfortunate truth is that I simply could not write this until Albergotti published, as I didn’t have anyone on the record, which is virtually essential from a journalistic perspective.”

That’s the great service that brave women who have put their names out there have done to shine a light on this behavior. And I’m glad that journalists are able to protect the victims who don’t want to go on the record from public exposure. It makes it likely that more people will come forward.

Even so, it’s incredible that it took so long–almost a decade–for this particular story to go public. And once it did, the repercussions were immediate and brutal. The question I have is, would the same consequences have arisen if the victims had come forward years ago?

Regardless, the obvious conclusion to draw here is that growth requires sunlight.

Which is why now, more than ever, we must realize the importance of journalists and bloggers, as the guardians and perpetrators of our culture, even when they get it wrong. Perhaps, if nothing else, because of these public revelations the threat of bad PR, lost business opportunity and reputation will force a change in behavior.

Because the thing I realized a long time ago is, there are bad apples out there who spoil the whole bunch. One bad CEO can destroy the culture of an entire company. One bad VC can torch opportunities for good entrepreneurs with the wrong chromosomes. It doesn’t require a ‘culture of sexism,’ or even ‘systemic’ sexism. It just requires a handful of individuals who ruin it for everyone else.

And I say everyone else, because good companies can’t get built that deprive themselves of the full talent and potential of half of the population. We all lose out on market making opportunities. We lose out on the benefit of having more mentors and colleagues to innovate and create with, to disrupt industries, to ‘kill it,’ in Valley parlance.

Unfortunately, so much of the damage has already been done. As we all know, this has been going on for years. For decades. For centuries. And in our own industry, in our own century, we’ve lost good people who may never come back.

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