Tech disruptors need to remember their ideals.
Whenever I hear the word disruptor, I imagine creative thought and startup boards as diverse as the U.S. customs lines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Silicon Valley has the chance to get equality in the workplace right, to bleach out the mold that hangs in the corners of the old establishment. So when celebrated Uber engineer Susan Fowler was propositioned by her boss and presented screen shots to prove it, one would hope that it was a lone case and that human resources stepped up and did the right thing.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. And now Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is busy cleaning up the mess.
Last week I visited a technology startup in an office so inviting, I wanted to spend the night there. Comfy couches, beer on tap, trendy music, and the buzz in the air brought to mind that worn-out word: disruption. While I’ve never worked at a startup, the no-walled, open floor plan, and overly familiar environment of cozy work quarters reminded me of the Wall Street trading floors I have worked on.
But the similarities don’t end there. According to a survey released last year, 60% women in technology reported being victims of sexual harassment. As one millennial startup employee recently told me, “The hookup culture of college has moved with us to our workplaces.”
What’s hard to believe is the extent to which this behavior exists in an industry that prides itself on doing everything better, cooler, and more inclusive than ever before. Far from the stodgy, old boy practices of bankers, Silicon Valley should be the antithesis of fart-joking bros. They should see gender and color as blindly as first graders, pay men and women the same for the same work, and have no tolerance for misogyny or sexual harassment.
While Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and now Tesla have faced accusations of gender discrimination, the problem seems even worse with the smaller and younger entrants given their lack of structures, rules, and human resources departments. They often lack an obvious “parent in the room” to consult in sticky situations. Why is an industry that is so new replicating the mistakes of the industries it distances itself from? One friend’s law firm that specializes in employment law tells me technology employment law is gaining on Wall Street as the fastest-growing part of his business. So what’s up with this?
Part of the reason has to do with friends hiring friends, and inadvertently creating more homogeneity in the C-suite than already exists. Wasn’t that exactly what the founders of Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns did when they were starting out? They hired the friends that looked like them. They created a club that eventually felt exclusive to other employees who weren’t in the inner circle. They valued those employees less.
Isn’t this the opposite of what startups intended from the beginning? Human resources departments are a badge of maturity, and many firms are too small or too busy disrupting to prioritize putting them together. Skirting employment law goes hand in hand with a mentality of rethinking everything, but maybe it’s time for Silicon Valley to hit the pause button and look inward for a bit. By studying the patterns of power grabs, exclusion, sexual harassment, and unequal pay in the industries they vowed to never be like, they have the chance to really and truly disrupt sexism in the workplace.