'I was terrifed': Women in tech explain why they don't report sexual harassment

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Silicon Valley firms are facing unprecedented scrutiny about the way they handle sexual harassment, after a slew of cases from woman claiming discriminiation, inappropriate behaviour, and even assault.

In 2015, there was Ellen Pao, who launched a landmark but unsuccessful suit against her former employer, investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Earlier this year, former Uber employee Susan Fowler alleged harassment and discrimination and claimed her former manager had propositioned her. And then there were the dozen female founders and venture capital partners who came forward to allege harassment from vaunted Silicon Valley names like 500 Startups founder Dave McClure, Binary Capital cofounder Justin Caldbeck, and Lowercase Capital founder Chris Sacca.

All in all, it feels like more women are speaking out about bad treatment than ever before. But these women are outliers — because most sexual harassment goes unreported.

US nonprofit Women Who Tech has started to collect anonymous stories from women too afraid to speak out, as part of a wider survey of 950 workers in tech including both men and women. It’s early days, so only 10 women have shared their stories so far.

Here is why the women said they don’t go to their bosses:

  • By then, I had already more-or-less decided to leave the company. I feared retaliation and further ill-will from my supervisor, and publicity about my issue among my department management (supervisor’s supervisor) and was not keen to proceed knowing I might need his support (professional reference) after I left the org.
  • Because my director is so untouchable. And I was terrified I would be dismissed as overreacting, and be taken off the team. I needed work.
  • Such behavior seemed commonplace and accepted. Most male execs joked amongst each other. Once I was talking about a project with a senior exec in hallway. A new intern walked by, and he commented “I wonder what she would look like without pants on.”
  • I did not feel there was sufficient documentation. The most egregious sexual harassment occurred in my car, with only myself and the harasser present. He was highly inebriated.
  • It happens so frequently, that it felt like the norm. I guess I felt like I could handle it.

There are common themes: not feeling like they had the proof, not wanting to kick up a fuss, and fearing retaliation.

Women Who Tech’s survey found 53% of female respondents had experienced some kind of harassment at work, versus 18% of men.

Most women who were harassed said it had come from another employee or their supervisor. And 72% said they suffered sexist discrimination, 51% said they received offensive slurs, and 45% said they suffered sexual harassment.

The concerns from male employees was different: most said they suffered from offensive slurs or jokes, ageism, or comments about their professional character. Sexual and gender harassment was low on the list.

You can see the full survey here.

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