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To Combat Sexual Harassment, Think Like a Product Designer

July 19, 2017, 6:30 PM UTC

The ticking clock seemed to spell trouble for her career.

Last month, tech CEO Niniane Wang, along with two other women, publicly accused then-Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck of sexual harassment. After the story posted, Wang says the silence from the feeds – and the growing threats from Binary’s PR team – cemented her worst fears.

“For eight hours, nothing really happened. There was no buzz, no social media,” she told the rapt crowd at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. on Wednesday. One of the other women worried that she used her real name and it failed. “I felt like I’d jumped off a cliff and took two people with me.”

But a concerted effort by allies like former venture capitalist Ellen Pao, tech journalists like Sarah Lacy, and a growing number of supporters including white male venture capitalists, began tweeting and retweeting their support and outrage. Then a week later, The New York Times published the accounts of 24 more women who had experienced sexual harassment, often by the same men, working in multiple tech and venture firms.

The attention turned the tide. Caldbeck resigned, and his fund was ultimately canceled.

Wang came prepared with advice for potential allies in the crowd: Get serious about rooting out predators, and put systems in place that prevent them from finding safe harbor in other jobs. “Real change occurs when the laws change,” she says. “But EEOC laws do not cover this case.”

Wang says that any sizable company can expect to have harassment issues, and any company that proactively works to combat them will fare better. “If 93% of venture capitalists are men,” they need to speak out, she says.

But smart systems and policies can empower women to speak out before their stories hit the press. “Every person in here knows how to design a product where they are not the target user,” she said to the crowd. “Imagine how you’d respond if someone said to you, ‘this previous product had three systemic failures in the last month, we’re not going to do any post mortems, we’re not going to talk to the people involved, or interview any users’.” Ask women about their experiences and find out how the system has failed them. “It may be awkward and that initial conversation may be uncomfortable, but that’s how you get a product that will work.”

All the effort Wang invested in getting Justin Caldbeck out of power and away from potential victims has paid off in other, surprising ways. Instead of shunning her, investors and potential partners have been reaching out, affirming support and offering new business.

But the online support in those tender hours still means the most. “Halfway off the cliff, the community caught me.”