Silicon Valley doesn’t need more apologies for sexism — it needs a plan

Meena Harris
Meena Harris is an entrepreneur and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign. She’s devised a framework for how Silicon Valley can deal with sexual harassment and make actual progress. Meena Harris

Finally, the ugly reality of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley is getting the extensive coverage it always warranted. That has happened because of courageous women like Susan Fowler, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, Leiti Hsu, and so many others who have spoken out. Now industry leaders like Reid Hoffman have begun to highlight sexual harassment as an issue that the tech community must grapple with and solve. But we must take it a step further.

The real question is whether the tech community will implement new practices that address sexual harassment in a serious, comprehensive way. Will there be carrots and sticks to incentivise the right behaviour? Will women be treated with respect, and victims with dignity? Will the industry embrace measures that require the same transparency, openness, and accountability it claims to thrive on? Or will there be lots more piecemeal pontificating in blog posts, but no real action?

Actual progress requires two steps. First, we must have a paradigm shift, the outcome of which is embracing new shared values: mutual respect, individual dignity, a level playing field, and a rejection of the abuse of power. As a community, Silicon Valley must adopt principles that reflect our abhorrence toward sexual harassment — and it is these principles that must guide our collective behaviour. Second, we must create a standalone, trusted body to ensure that the values are put into practice at the organizational level.

Hoffman’s own “Decency Pledge” is a promising idea and a good start. It posits that the industry should create “a kind of industry-wide HR function, so that venture capitalists who engage in such behaviour face the same sort of consequences that they would if their overtures were directed at an employee.”

Change, however, will not come from new rules or institutions. While sexual harassment manifests as individual incidents at individual firms, the problem itself is ubiquitous: no startup, well-established tech company, or VC firm is immune. Encouraging individual firms to develop forward-leaning policies that address sexual harassment is necessary, but alone such prescriptions are insufficient.

I offer the below recommendations for change not as a sexual harassment expert, but simply as a woman in tech. I know what sexual harassment looks like. I’m also a lawyer by training and am highly aware that these behaviours should have real consequences.

A New Framework for the Valley

Imagine the vast majority of Silicon Valley firms signing onto a joint statement of principles. What might such a statement look like? It should be emblematic of the entrepreneurial, progressive spirit that typifies Silicon Valley, yet reflective of the oft-stated value embraced by all who work here — the best ideas win. For example:

  • We believe in Zero Tolerance. We will never tolerate or ignore sexual harassment, of any kind or in any form. Period.
  • We believe in the Obligation to Investigate. We will investigate any allegation of sexual harassment, and will not ignore such behaviour. We will make no distinction between openly sanctioning and wilfully ignoring sexual harassment behaviour or claims.
  • We believe in a Prompt and Certain Response. As soon as we are aware of an incident of sexual harassment, we commit to taking immediate action to stop it, deal with it, and prevent its recurrence. We also commit to communicate fully with sexual harassment victims about the steps we are taking to address the harassment and the perpetrator.
  • We believe in a Fair Process. We believe in seeking accountability for sexual harassment through processes that both respect the dignity and privacy of the victim, as well as protect the rights of the accused.
  • We believe in Continual Learning. We believe that there must be a commitment to raising self-awareness about these issue through continual education. As more of Silicon Valley learns about the many forms sexual harassment can take — that it’s not always flagrant or overt, but always unacceptable — and how common its occurrence is, we will be better about identifying and eradicating it.
  • We believe in Metrics. We know that if you measure it, you’ll focus on it, prioritise it, and expend resources on it. We commit to measuring statistics related to sexual harassment claims and incidents (e.g., number of allegations, incidents found credible, disciplinary actions taken, etc.) and using that data as a yardstick against which to measure improvement.
  • We believe in Funding More Women. We recognise that this issue is about an imbalance of power, a result of which is that women still are not an integrated part of the Valley. A way to change that is to commit to funding more women. We are still an industry that believes that the best ideas win, regardless of who brings those ideas to the table, and our funding ought to reflect that meritocracy.

These might be laudable principles, but what does it look like to put values into practice? After all, commitment to a set of principles is one thing, but how that commitment manifests itself — where the rubber meets the road — is another. Hoffman’s idea of a HR function for VCs rightly centres accountability at the individual firm level, but how do we as a community hold the firms accountable, when we know that in the most troubling cases firms have ignored or even enabled wrongdoing?

Because we cannot rely on firms to self-police, I propose a trusted, third party. This body would be comprised in part of respected Silicon Valley leaders, who can certify the progress of individual companies against a common metric. The third party would use anti-harassment best practices drawn from a variety of sources and industries to measure progress, and it would incorporate trusted techniques — like survey data drawn anonymously from individuals — to assess the environment of different firms specifically on the topic of sexual harassment. This third party would publish the data and rank firms accordingly, so that peer review and peer pressure are brought to bear to push firms to do better. All of this would be performed based on an adherence to the statement of principles articulated earlier.

Here are some of the things a trusted, third-party body could evaluate:

  • Best-Practices Certification. The third-party organisation could certify companies and firms (giving them a rating or some other clear metric of progress), which would be based on data collected (anonymously where appropriate) that measure a firm’s sexual harassment environment. Good examples of how this might work exist in the compliance and ethics space, where credible companies work hard for recognition and certification by trusted third parties in connection with their efforts to conduct business in an ethical and legal manner. Such review in the sexual harassment context creates pressure for individual firms to maintain their certification from year to year, which also encourages constant improvement. Third-party certification also will create objective measures for success, and clear accountability when success is not achieved.
  • Standards and Practices. There are certain standards and practices that everyone in the industry should follow as a baseline. E.g., there may be pushback regarding a standard that meetings between founders and VCs only occur in professional environments during regular business hours, due to concerns of a chilling effect where women are deprived of social interactions where business takes place. Perhaps the baseline standard then becomes that a formal relationship should always be established first, before allowing an informal relationship to develop naturally. As an example, when I worked at a corporate law firm for a big-name partner, our relationship started off very formal, as was customary, but as I began to do more work for this partner and we developed a friendly rapport, grabbing drinks was something that became mutually acceptable. It was not, however, the starting point for our work relationship.
  • Grievance Processes. Adopt an accessible, trusted grievance process that’s made available to victims of sexual harassment. This might include an anonymous hotline or online service. It might also include voluntary informal methods (e.g., mediation) for resolving some types of sexual harassment complaints, but access to a formal complaint process should always be available.
  • Complainant’s Bill of Rights. Just as victims must clearly understand processes available to resolve their claims, they also must have universally recognised rights within that process. E.g., every complainant must have the right to present a case. This might include the right (for both parties) to an impartial investigation and the right to present witnesses and other evidence.
  • Sexual Harassment Awareness Training. Preventative measures should be taken to provide the fundamentals of recognising and addressing sexual harassment. If all community members are required to undergo such training, it will be assumed in any case of sexual harassment that the perpetrator understood the effect of his actions.
  • Increased Funding for Women. To guard against the adoption of any of these recommendations perpetuating women founders not receiving the same funding as men, individual firms should actively increase funding for women. To ensure real commitment to changing the funding disparity, this must include annual goal-setting and progress reporting.
  • Annual Progress Reports. Publish (anonymized) progress reports as another guarantor of public accountability, and also as a transparency and information-sharing tool that allows for community-wide problem-solving. Two reports could be published on the topics of: (1) the status of sexual harassment in the VC community; and (2) progress on the commitment to fund more women.

Now is the time to find actionable solutions. Sexual harassment has been a pervasive issue for a very long time — and I speak for many women in wishing that these revelations from Hoffman and others happened much sooner. But it’s apparent that this is our moment to push for industry-wide change, and I’m heartened to see individuals — indeed, male investors — step up to get involved.

This will not be easy. In fact, my recommendations call for a huge undertaking that require staffing and overhead. But meaningful change requires putting your money where your mouth is (or where your #DecencyPledge is, in this case). I hope these insights will inform a long overdue and important change in our industry.

And in the meantime, I hope brave women continue to speak boldly and loudly.

Meena Harris is an entrepreneur and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign. She started her career in tech right out of college, when she worked at Facebook. Most recently she ran policy at Slack, and before that, she practiced law at Covington & Burling, where she advised major tech companies in the areas of data privacy and cybersecurity.

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