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The Problem With Being a “Cool Girl” in Tech

Kris Duggan of BetterworksKris Duggan of Betterworks
Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorksPhotograph by Scott R. Kline

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BetterWorks, a provider of performance management software, and its CEO Kris Duggan, regional VP Matt Hart and VP of People Operations Tamara Cooksey, have been sued for assault, harassment, and discrimination. In other words, a company that makes HR software is accused of treating its employees badly.

Two things:

• BetterWorks is backed by $35 million in funding from Emergence Capital Partners and Kleiner Perkins. But the relationship with Kleiner goes deeper: Duggan and John Doerr wrote an advice book together, which is scheduled to come out in the fall. It’s about OKR’s – basically, business goals and how to manage them. The book is a series of case studies, including one chapter about BetterWorks itself.

• There are lots of horrible details in the lawsuit, which can be read here. But I was particularly disgusted by the accusation that BetterWorks’ VP of People Operations, Tamara Cooksey, allegedly dismissed complaints as “cattiness” and “a female thing” while advising women against raising formal complaints and telling them to be “a cool girl.”

If the phrase “cool girl” does not make you want to scream into a pillow, I recommend any of these articles that explain the concept: The myth of the “cool tech girl.” The dangers of the cool girl ideal. Against cool girl feminism.

So much of the sexism and discrimination women encounter in the workplace – any workplace, not just the tech industry – is subtle and difficult to pinpoint. The pressure to be a “cool girl” and shrug it off only perpetuates the problem.

Over the last couple of weeks, a number of women in tech have told me that while they’ve never experienced sexual harassment from investors or coworkers, they have been discriminated against in ways that are too nuanced and complicated to do anything about. These are women who have decided they’ll never work at all-male partnerships again, or who have jumped from tech to finance, where they say there’s a stronger separation between the personal and professional, or who want to stay in venture and fix the problem but are tired of being labeled the “problematic one” when they speak up.

At the same time, a number of readers have told me that I shouldn’t lump Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins into the current set of complaints because she lost, and there was no “smoking gun.” But that’s the difference between harassment and discrimination. One requires an explosive accusation of a potentially illegal act, and one is tiny and quietly humiliating and happens every day. They exist on the same spectrum, and both contribute to the tech industry’s problem with women – a problem that is not going to just disappear on its own if everyone can just act “cool.”