Tech culture here is just as bad
Elaine Stead: Harassment is a reality that many women in our local industry have had to put up with
A number of prominent women in the Australian tech and startup communities have spoken out about the discrimination, sexism and harassment they regularly encounter in the sector.
The tech, startup and VC sectors lit up over the weekend after the New York Times published an article that included a number of women describing sexual harassment and assault they had encountered in Silicon Valley.
This led several local investors and founders to speak out about the toxic culture that also pervades the Australian tech sector.
The Times article included numerous examples of high-profile, well-regarded and world-renowned investors using their status to proposition and harass women. These included Chris Sacca and Dave McClure, who has now been stood down by the organisation he founded, 500 Startups.
A number of women in the Australian startup community have come forward with their own examples of the kind of behaviour they encounter on a day-to-day basis in the male-dominated Australian industry.
On Monday a large number of investors and founders in the Australian startup sector – women and men – came together to release a statement condemning sexual harassment and pledging to work with industry groups to stamp it out.
A number of female founders and investors have told InnovationAus.com of their own experiences with sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment in the local startup sector.
These include investors falsely claiming that women have slept with them, a female investor losing a potential job due to a male superior spreading a false rumour that he had slept with her, and a board-member groping a female investor at a meeting.
Other incidents recounted include an investor telling another female investee that she “owed him a blow job for his help” and that he has “a job for [her] under the table”.
This is the reality that women in the tech and startup industries face every day, Blue Sky Venture Capital executive director Elaine Stead said.
“It happens all the time. I could name a few incidents in the last few months. We’re just conditioned to be quiet about this stuff,” Ms Stead told InnovationAus.com.
“We don’t want to be seen to be whingers, make things awkward or blow our chances at getting funding or a new job. We’re conditioned to ignore it and brush it off.”
But the recent press coverage in the US has led a number of Australian women to come forward with their own stories.
“It inspired a lot of women in the ecosystem here to say, ‘this happens to me too’. It started this tsunami of commentary which even took me by surprise. It’s obviously more prevalent than anyone really speaks about,” Ms Stead said.
Muru-D co-founder Annie Parker said this is something she has often encountered in her career in tech in Australia.
“I’ve been in positions where I’ve been put on the spot, or have been sexual harassed before. I know what it’s like. It goes an awful lot deeper than we realised. We need to stand up and do something about it,” she said.
This is not a new issue facing the industry, but the recent outpouring of support and women speaking out could be the first step in improving the situation, Ms Stead said.
“We’ve been trying to stamp this out for decades. But at least now we’re seeing people feel okay calling bad behaviour out, and it’s generating real world consequences – people are losing their jobs and funds are blowing up because people don’t want to back them,” she said.
Australian entrepreneur Susan Wu, who is now based in San Francisco, told the New York Times that prominent tech investor Chris Sacca “touched her face without consent in a way that made her feel uncomfortable” at a conference in 2009.
In a follow-up blog post, she said that this is the sort of behaviour women in the industry encounter daily.
“What I experienced did not happen in a vacuum, it happened in an industry that has historically enabled and supported those who have power misusing that power, such that it has become the norm. I am one of many,” Ms Wu wrote.
“The point of speaking out is not about any one person in particular, but to reflect upon the systemic crisis that faces the tech industry. As a female or underrepresented minority founder, startup employee, or investor, you endure many layers of challenges that work in concert to thwart your well-being and success.”
Many of the stories recounted involved men acting inappropriately while in a position of power, like during a funding pitch or job interview.
Ms Wu said that these situations are “extremely precarious” for women.
“Essentially you’re in a vulnerable position of being the subject of male objectification as an economic asset, and at worst a sexual object,” she said.
“In a system where there is such a massive imbalance of power, we are often put in challenging situations where defending yourself or even pointing out that power imbalance can lead to gas-lighting, criticism or worse.”
Tech consultant Sandy Plunkett has worked across Silicon Valley, Israel and Australia, and said that while this behaviour has been going on for decades, the number of women now coming forward publicly could represent a tipping point.
“This has been happening for the last four decades, but it has certainly reached a tipping point,” Ms Plunkett told InnovationAus.com. “The fact that these women are naming and shaming is very different, and there seems to be a real sea change in terms of weight of numbers.”
She said that the Silicon Valley culture, which has come to pervade startup ecosystems around the world, has come to resemble to male-dominated Wall Street culture.
“There has been a convergence of these cultures, and the misogyny aspect of it has been exacerbated by the rise of the celebrity cult status of the Silicon Valley tech titans,” Ms Plunkett said.
“The irony is that these men want to change the world but at the same time they seem to lack a self-awareness of their actions on humanity. The tech tin ear is coming home to roost,” she said.
On Monday afternoon nearly 100 members of the local startup community backed a statement condemning sexual harassment in the sector and pledging to help stamp it out.
“The past week has been a tumultuous one for the local startup community and particularly the hundreds of women within it. These disturbing accounts gives us an opportunity to take a long hard look at the ecosystem and make it clear we do not condone sexual harassment in the Australian startup community,” the statement said.
“We call on all founders, startup executives, investors and journalists to not permit this behaviour, or promote individuals who they know have acted inappropriately towards colleagues or founders. We, the Australian startup community leaders, will not tolerate inappropriate behaviour in our workplace or community.”
The statement, who has been signed by the likes of Seek founder Paul Bassat, Startup Victoria CEO Georgia Beattie and the founders of BlueChilli and Blackbird Ventures, was drafted by Ms Parker, Melbourne investor Atlanta Daniel, tech advisor Nicole Williamson and Rose Powell.
Following the New York Times article and several women sharing similar experiences in the Australian sector, Ms Parker said they decided to take a coordinated approach.
“We realised we had to do this in a coordinated way to make sure everyone understands that this isn’t a blip thing, this is so important and we’ve got to do it together,” Ms Parker told InnovationAus.com.
“We wanted to show that we’re all in this together and we won’t tolerate any form of harassment. If we do that as a coordinated voice its way more likely to make a difference.”
“The burdens of solving these challenges does not lie solely with those on the receiving end of the harassment. It is necessary and urgent that everyone address bad behaviour by their colleagues and peers.
“We declare the Australian startup community will, to the very best of our ability, take action against the kind of behaviour that makes women feel exploited, secondary or unwelcome. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, and we will be stronger together.”
Ms Parker has also called on more people to come forward with their own personal experiences.
“Please do take that risk and stand up. You may feel like you’re the only person standing up but that’s how it starts, that’s how we shift this. We need every single person standing up for something,” she said.