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Armoring Up: Surviving Sexism As A Female Founder
August 8, 2014 3:42 AM   Subscribe

Editor’s note: We don’t publish many anonymous pieces on Forbes.com, but this compelling first-person account of sexism in the startup world merits an exception. I met the author several months ago and was floored by the stories she had to tell about her dealings with mostly male investors. Like many men (as she writes), I knew women in tech faced a certain degree of chauvinism and harassment, but I’d had no idea it was so barefaced and routine, in an industry that thinks of itself as egalitarian and forward-looking. After much persuading, she agreed to write about her experiences but asked that I omit her name, for several reasons. First (again, as she writes), the startup community is a small one, and founders rely heavily on social capital and goodwill to navigate it. Speaking up carries big risks. But fear of retribution wasn’t her only concern. While putting an individual human face on an issue, it can also be a way for critics to short circuit the discussion by engaging in ad hominem attacks. ”I don’t want it to be about me, but about the issue at hand,” the author says. “When we get into a witch hunt around particular personalities, we lose sight of the problem we should be tackling.
Read on to learn more about that problem.
posted by Blasdelb (71 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's telling that she can simply not use her name and probably maintain her anonymity despite being pretty specific with details of the harassments: The Masseuse and The Bachelor will either not see what they did as uncommon or simply not be able to narrow down which of the female startup staffers they've done those things to she is.
posted by Etrigan at 4:12 AM on August 8 [21 favorites]


The opportunity cost that women bear in addition to all else is also a factor. You miss meetings and projects just to avoid the creep/meeting location/drunken advances that men don't have to navigate.
posted by infini at 4:40 AM on August 8 [7 favorites]


Horrible, unsurprising, and I can't get past the misuse of "Masseuse".
posted by Slothrup at 5:20 AM on August 8 [8 favorites]


As I’ve told those who comment on my appearance: I don’t run my company with anything you can see – I run my company using what’s inside my skull. The faster we all internalize this truth, the better off we will all be.

This is a brave, brave woman. And it is a truth we all need to internalize.
posted by winna at 5:25 AM on August 8 [19 favorites]


Startup culture is just so toxic. The hipness, the cool factor, the claims of meritoracy; all of these are smoke screens. Ultimately, startup culture is designed to do two things:

First, it's designed to trick people into working absolutely insane hours, with basically zero work/life balance, for nowhere near the compensation that is merited. It does this by appealing to ego; sure, your workload is unbelievable, but you can handle it, because you're OMG so awesome! (But please, don't ever think critically about how we're basically using up the best years of your life, after which you will no longer be a viable employee (read: "you're too old, and too likely to recognize the scam")).

Second, it's designed to skirt as much oversight (legal and ethical) as possible. And that's how shit like what this founder is experiencing comes up. "We're not like those big boring corporations, we like to meet in social settings (which conveniently minimize minorities and women), and really get to know one another (*cough* boys club *cough*). We're not about seniority, we're about merit (by which we mean, the merit of being white, male, and connected). Etc, etc.

I'll take a big, boring corporation with an actual HR department any day of the week.
posted by tocts at 5:34 AM on August 8 [125 favorites]


I sympathize with this founder at the same time that I irritated by this article, which seems overly focused on her clothing choices and appearance.

The trope of the cute female founder who has to fight for fair treatment and recognition is well-trod ground. It is equally hard if you are some other type of de-favored or invisible: black, poor, foreign, unattractive, too geeky, over 30...I think one of the Forbes commenters said as much.

I, for one, will be delighted when the model for "starting up" and its underlying tenets shift away from SV.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 5:41 AM on August 8 [6 favorites]


I'll take a big, boring corporation with an actual HR department any day of the week.

Amen! We had a guest speaker from a "startup" in class the other night. I'm suspicious of any proclaimed "startup" for all the reasons you mention above, and I could barely contain my eyeroll when a question about training for new employees was met with the ole "we're a startup, everybody just rolls up their sleeves and learns on the job!" attitude. If you have 600+ employees in one office alone, how can you not have a little something? Hundreds of employees from all different backgrounds and experience levels can all magically figure it out on their own? Color me skeptical.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:42 AM on August 8 [7 favorites]


First, it's designed to trick people into working absolutely insane hours, with basically zero work/life balance, for nowhere near the compensation that is merited.

Except its a trick people play on themselves. I think its misleading to say that no one gets compensated. Its simply not true. There are a handful of successful founders who literally do become millionaires for a few years insanity. I have met 1-2 they do actually exist.

but it is a lottery. ... and how many people are willing to play the lottery?
posted by mary8nne at 5:43 AM on August 8 [5 favorites]


I sympathize with this founder at the same time that I irritated by this article, which seems overly focused on her clothing choices and appearance.

It's not the article that's overly focused on her clothing choices and appearance. As she says:
Unlike my male peers, who could wear anything from jeans and a hoodie to a well-tailored suit, I had to choose my attire carefully. Feminine but not sexy, structured but not form fitting, classy but not too expensive, lest I imply that I was bad at bootstrapping and not "scrappy enough," professional but not so stuffy that people would assume our product lacked creativity. [emphasis added]
She knows that her clothing choices and appearance are going to be issues solely because she is a woman. Oh, also, she'll never be able to walk the tightrope between attractive-enough-to-be-listened-to and unattractive-enough-not-to-be-"distracting," because that tightrope is in vastly different places for each man she has to work with. And these are all things that she has to spend time and energy on that men simply don't.
posted by Etrigan at 5:55 AM on August 8 [86 favorites]


Occam's Aftershave, I see your point but I disagree. I'm a woman and I'm not attractive so I'm generally treated more as invisible than a target which is its own kind of problem, and I wish this were addressed more frequently in the conversation about women in professional spaces, but saying, effectively, "she's attractive and that story's been told" is still really dismissive. This stuff is happening to her and it's not okay, and the fact that she has to think about hair and makeup and clothing choices doesn't invalidate that point. The fact that she's attractive and addresses the challenges of that in this context is not a reason to dismiss what she says.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:02 AM on August 8 [44 favorites]


As I’ve told those who comment on my appearance: I don’t run my company with anything you can see – I run my company using what’s inside my skull.

I really like this phrasing. I've never been able to articulate my issue with "looking professional" as well.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:02 AM on August 8 [24 favorites]


I sympathize with this founder at the same time that I irritated by this article, which seems overly focused on her clothing choices and appearance.

Maybe because she also had to be overly focused on her clothing choices and appearance, but for a very different reason ("wait, what's the millimeter-width my neckline must be at to save me from anyone thinking I was 'asking for it'?").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:04 AM on August 8 [5 favorites]


The article focuses on appearance because that is initially what women are judged by. The author, being an intelligent, experienced person, is aware of this problem and is describing it. Note the part where she instructed her marketing writers to not mention her by gendered terms as much as possible. This is about forestalling people judging her on irrelevant characteristics before she even gets in the door. All the stuff about clothing is so she can keep their attention long enough for them to get past the part where she's not a man.
posted by R343L at 6:09 AM on August 8 [9 favorites]


The trope of the cute female founder who has to fight for fair treatment and recognition is well-trod ground.

How do you know she's cute?
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:12 AM on August 8 [26 favorites]


The trope of the cute female founder who has to fight for fair treatment and recognition is well-trod ground. It is equally hard if you are some other type of de-favored or invisible: black, poor, foreign, unattractive, too geeky, over 30...I think one of the Forbes commenters said as much.

The article says she spent ten years in the international development world, so I'm guessing she's over thirty. Not that it's germane to the point at hand. I don't think her argument is that it's uniquely hard to be her, or that cute female founders face unique challenges unlike any others. I think her argument is that sexism and harassment is a HUGE issue and one that should be dealt with. And she is totally right. It is a huge issue. It should be dealt with.

I'm female, and I have certainly dealt with this kind of crap -- not when raising money, but when marketing to clients, certainly. Hell, last week we had an internal marketing call discussion when a senior dude mentioned that fall is golf season and you need to choose your golfing events wisely. What? No. I am female. I am not golfing with clients (not that I even know how, but still). I am not going drinking by myself with clients. I know what can happen in those situations and I'm not putting myself in them. (Hell, I've had a dude act skeevy and make insinuations about a hotel at a freaking pizza night with 80 people. NOT ALL DUDES... many dudes are nice people and wouldn't do that... but yeah, the dudes who do are definitely out there, and until you're alone with them, you don't know which dudes those are.)

And also also, the range of acceptable clothing for women is like threading a needle in some of these situations. It is damn hard to get these things right. You wouldn't think she was being vain if she spent time choosing the right computer specs for a new laptop, right? Or if she spent time reviewing a design for their company's website? Her clothing and accessory and hair choices have a HUGE impact on how she's perceived, so yes, she has to spend time on that. It's important to her in a way it isn't for a dude.

The nice thing about my life is that marketing isn't mission-critical for me in the ways it is for her.
posted by pie ninja at 6:12 AM on August 8 [25 favorites]


Except its a trick people play on themselves. I think its misleading to say that no one gets compensated ... There are a handful of successful founders who literally do become millionaires for a few years insanity.

I don't want to derail this a ton, but to be clear, my statement wasn't just about the founders. I'm talking about how startup culture is presented and sold to (and by) everyone involved -- VCs, founders, and employees. And while it's true that everyone is, to a degree, selling themselves on the startup model, the balance between self-delusion ("I'm going to win the lottery!") and external deception ("It's not a lottery, you just need to be awesome!") shifts significantly the more you go down the power structure.

The less certain and less sizeable your payout, the more likely you're being told how awesome you are, and how awesome your payout is going to be if only you'll just sacrifice everything for the company.
posted by tocts at 6:17 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


It is equally hard if you are some other type of de-favored or invisible: black, poor, foreign, unattractive, too geeky, over 30...I think one of the Forbes commenters said as much.

She could be any or several of those things as well as a woman? In which case it would not be "equally hard," it would actually be harder?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:18 AM on August 8 [16 favorites]


What is the background for most of these guys? Their behavior is reprehensible to say the least in a social setting, far, far less in a professional setting. Do they ever step out of their bubble? Are these sexual harassment suits 10 to 15 years down the line when their companies have matured (if they mature) into corporations where such behavior is subject to far more oversight?

It's just disgusting. Ugh.
posted by Atreides at 6:24 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


No. I am female. I am not golfing with clients (not that I even know how, but still). I am not going drinking by myself with clients.

I have seen an awful lot of business deals be made in those situations. I don't go golfing because Old and Boring, but a person I know uses it as a key business development tool (it's apparently magic with Midwest ag company guys for some reason); I've personally seen the cliche of "Let's finish this important meeting down at the strip club with the company credit card" more than once.

These things happen at big, formal companies as well, but a "no HR" culture is just a green light for things that informally screen out and sideline people who aren't a very particular type of younger men (and more of course the "cool girl" who is ok with taking the meeting to the club), and that's not good
posted by Dip Flash at 6:47 AM on August 8 [6 favorites]


I guess the question, too, is what can actually be done about this? The men she's talking about (and certainly some women too, as she mentions) are hugely, hugely entitled to the point where it seems like they might not recognize themselves in these descriptions or, even if they do, they don't understand why it's problematic. As she says, there's not anything like HR regulating the interactions between founders and investors. Could something like that be implemented? I don't really see how, and I would assume that, if it were voluntary, the investors (and certainly the entitled ones) wouldn't join.

Women speaking out is big and important and awareness of these issues is super helpful especially for people like the editor of this piece who know there are issues but don't realize how big or deep they are, but it's extra frustrating because other than "people should really not be entitled assholes" I'm not sure what the solution is.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:49 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


Women speaking out is big and important and awareness of these issues is super helpful especially for people like the editor of this piece who know there are issues but don't realize how big or deep they are, but it's extra frustrating because other than "people should really not be entitled assholes" I'm not sure what the solution is.

Startups deciding not to deal with entitled assholes?

Seriously, there are plenty of guys with gobs of money who don't act like this. So if it's a matter of courting an investor, make it a policy to only go for an investor who doesn't pull this kind of shit. This is where the "not all men" trope actually works to your advantage - because not all men are like this, and some of them are also bound to have money that they're willing to invest in a startup.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:53 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


Mrs. Pterodactyl (and others): Thank you for your comment; your point is well-taken. I didn't mean to minimize what she is experiencing.

Harassment - sexual and moral - is a serious issue in tech and especially in SV. For women, it occurs no matter how you are dressed. I wish there were more widespread recognition of how harassment affects everyone, and how bad it is for business in general, at a time when we need more risk-takers and forward-thinking businesspeople.

When you do not fit the very narrow mold that specifies what success looks and sounds like, it is easy to be a target and hard to be treated as someone who can bring something to the table.

This happened to me. (I'm a woman and tick another three of these boxes. It was very hard.) I lost my job, home, partner, and life savings as a result of the experience. I'm not unaware of the risks.

/threadsit
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 6:54 AM on August 8 [10 favorites]


what can actually be done about this?

Google Glass? Too bad "Twitch TV" is taken as a streaming medium, seems an appropriate non-bad-word moniker.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 6:58 AM on August 8


Startups deciding not to deal with entitled assholes?

Seriously, there are plenty of guys with gobs of money who don't act like this. So if it's a matter of courting an investor, make it a policy to only go for an investor who doesn't pull this kind of shit. This is where the "not all men" trope actually works to your advantage - because not all men are like this, and some of them are also bound to have money that they're willing to invest in a startup.


I mean, okay, cool, there might well be plenty of rich guys who aren't assholes who want to invest, but how do you know who they are? Also, if you get a reputation as being "difficult" it could hurt you with investors who aren't assholes. If you become "that woman who keeps calling out people in this small, tight-knit community" other investors might not want to work with you, even if you're right. It's not like there's so much money out there floating around that you can be really picky about from whom you'll accept it.

Also, this puts the burden on women to cope with asshole behavior by limiting their own choices AND provides an additional bonus for the men (or women) who can now have access to all this asshole money that's going unused. I don't think it's as simple as saying "don't put up with that". There's a reason she's putting up with it now and only talking about it anonymously and it's because that's what she feels she needs to do in order to do her job.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:58 AM on August 8 [19 favorites]


Startups deciding not to deal with entitled assholes?

That's not a "solution" if most (or even many) of the people putting up cash are entitled assholes. You may as well say "women not starting up companies?" or "women not relying on outside investment?" or "women doing twice as much work to stay even with men?"
posted by leopard at 7:00 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


These things happen at big, formal companies as well, but a "no HR" culture is just a green light for things that informally screen out and sideline people who aren't a very particular type of younger men (and more of course the "cool girl" who is ok with taking the meeting to the club), and that's not good

As someone who spent 4 years at an established, but small company with a very strong "No HR Policy" that resulted in the CEO calling me a fag at least once a week ("You know I'm just joking, right?"), I have learned to embrace the concept of having well-established rules that ostensibly protect the corporation but also make my life much, much easier.
posted by xingcat at 7:00 AM on August 8 [41 favorites]


Seriously, there are plenty of guys with gobs of money who don't act like this.

One more thing: I don't know because I'm not part of this world but also I think the Venn diagram of "people with lots of money who are investing in startups" and "entitled assholes" probably has a pretty big middle section.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:03 AM on August 8 [10 favorites]


This is eye-opening, for sure. It reminds me of the show Deadwood, for some reason. Once you set up shop in a place that doesn't have built-in social constraints, things naturally move towards lawlessness, when it can. It's as if that's our default mode, and we need to protect what we've attained carefully.

For all its self-regard as the most forward-thinking place on earth, it seemed Silicon Valley wasn’t all that different than an African village when it came to gender politics.

While I get the point here, it might have been better to go with the 50's or MadMen than an African village.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:06 AM on August 8 [10 favorites]


Also, this puts the burden on women to cope with asshole behavior by limiting their own choices AND provides an additional bonus for the men (or women) who can now have access to all this asshole money that's going unused. I don't think it's as simple as saying "don't put up with that".

Ah, I wasn't clear, then - I was thinking more like, the company as a whole makes it a policy that "wait, Mandy got hit on by this guy? Okay, the whole company is gonna sever contact with him then."

I was thinking more of a re-active approach, where if you have a couple of partners in a startup and each is dealing with different potential investors ("Okay, Bob, you go have a meeting with Marvin Moneybags while Lucy goes to deal with Sid Stockholder"), that if it comes to light that one of the potential investors is a sleazeball that it is therefore company policy to immediately shut them out ("Whoa, Sid Stockholder's a dick, okay, we'll drop him and focus on Marvin Moneybags alone, then") rather than just dealing with it ("Ew, that was icky for you, Lucy, sorry - but Sid Stockholder's got way too much money, so we need to just deal with it").

As to "how to find guys with money who don't act like this" - well, how did you find investors period? Same way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:07 AM on August 8


Ah, I wasn't clear, then - I was thinking more like, the company as a whole makes it a policy that "wait, Mandy got hit on by this guy? Okay, the whole company is gonna sever contact with him then."

But these are startups -- I think she basically IS her entire company, she's at least the CEO, and she's responsible for herself and the company. I don't think this is necessarily an option she has if she wants this company to be viable. You have to fight to get investors anyway, cutting them off hurts you more than it hurts them.

As to "how to find guys with money who don't act like this" - well, how did you find investors period? Same way.

But the pool of "people willing to give me money to help my company" is far from infinite and the assholes don't wear a scarlet "A" giving you a helpful tip.

I'm probably going to stop participating in this thread now because I feel like I've commented a lot, but I don't think the solution is as simple as "don't put up with it/"just find someone else".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:15 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


There's an fpp from at least a couple of years ago that I think of frequently (but I can never find) about women founders in SV and how appallingly they're treated by some venture capitalist assholes. It gets so tiresome to read these stories again and again, year after year, and hear the same kinds of responses from TPTB, including and especially "I had no idea!"
posted by rtha at 7:16 AM on August 8 [13 favorites]


What is the background for most of these guys?

Yeah, I found myself asking the same question. I get that they know they are at the advantage, and are more-or-less free to act as they please around people who want their money, but that in and of itself does not explain this behaviour.

Are they rich because they've always been rich and it's come from some rich white boys club-type of culture of unchecked privilege? Or are they Nouveau riche, and their behaviour is coming from something hidden that comes out in "certain types of men" once they come into money?

Then I realised that I have my reasoning back-to-front. This is an area that enables bullshit behaviour from entitled assholes, and therefore is a haven for entitled assholes that want to behave in ways that would see them fired or shunned in a more progressive workplace. So my guess is that VC is probably one of many things that these guys turn their hand at, and once they realise how good the power dynamic is, they stay with it.

The really disgusting thing is that not only does their behaviour go unchecked, the writer and other female VCs are making them money. Which effectively means they are being paid to harass women.
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:20 AM on August 8 [5 favorites]


Mrs. Pterodactyl, I'll admit I have incomplete knowledge of the startup world. My apologies.

I was getting the sense from this FPP that this was more of a Tindr situation, though - at least in the "makeup of the company" situation, in that there were two or three people at the helm and one happened to be a woman. (I am aware that the other wrinkle in the "Tindr situation" is that the bullshit was coming from inside the house in that instance, and I was referring only to the demographics of the people in charge.)

I also have worked with venture capitalists (I was a secretary in finance for 10 years), and while there is no love lost for me with a lot of these guys, I was at least comforted that sexism wasn't a universal trait they all had across the board (I had plenty of other problems with the political worldview in evidence, don't get me wrong....) so I do have a bit of faith that there are guys out there that aren't shitheels.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:21 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


If there is an "answer" it would probably be "more financial equality for everyone" so that, for example, there were more women investors/investors of color/etc., or such that more small-time folks had the ability to invest in your project, instead of all the capital being held by a few assholes. That is a much longer-term project. But people who have acquired a lot of capital and who are willing to be cosseted and flattered into investing it are going to be a group that tends to self-select towards abusive behavior; power corrupts, and so on.

The freedom these guys feel to act inappropriately is powered by the inequality between the writer and her investors. She needs them and they don't need her. No doubt they have armies of lawyers were she to bring any sort of action (and aside from the fact she wouldn't be able to continue in her field).

I am reminded of the scenes with Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. She felt free to demand groveling and make inappropriate observations on other people because she was the rich relative/benefactor that everyone hoped to be helped by. Don't do what she wants, she cuts you off.

None of that is to deny that what the writer experienced is awful and unacceptable. It would be great if some of these guys realized that, if nothing else, they come off as creepy rapey types to the women around them when they act this way, and that's disgusting. I don't know if any of them are likely to believe that about themselves, though. Maybe they don't care that everyone knows they use their money to coerce women who would otherwise not put up with them. Maybe they really do believe that every woman they coerce is secretly into them.
posted by emjaybee at 7:22 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


if it comes to light that one of the potential investors is a sleazeball that it is therefore company policy to immediately shut them out

This is a little bit like saying, "Oh there are restaurants that aren't serving X people? New rule: X people shouldn't go there! That will show them!"
posted by leopard at 7:25 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


Leopard: you may wanna read my followup.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:27 AM on August 8


SpacemanStix:
For all its self-regard as the most forward-thinking place on earth, it seemed Silicon Valley wasn’t all that different than an African village when it came to gender politics.
While I get the point here, it might have been better to go with the 50's or MadMen than an African village.
I think the point here was that the author actually has first-hand experience with gender politics of African villages.
posted by brokkr at 7:33 AM on August 8 [4 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: the writer describes herself as a CEO and founder. She's the big cheese at her startup.

There's also stuff like:
Once while presenting to a group, the only female on the panel began an onslaught of questions, including “Did your daddy give you money?” “Are you old enough to drive?” and “How are you going to run up the corporate ladder in those shoes?” (emphasis mine)
Looking for the "good guys" is a fool's errand if the general culture is shitty.

Plenty of work relationships are asymmetric. A boss and his employee both have some degree of power -- the boss almost always has more. Same goes for venture capital firm and cash-hungry start-up.

Presumably this woman has *survived*. She's still in the startup world, still running a company, still getting money from somewhere. That's not a "solution" to this problem though.
posted by leopard at 7:37 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


Even though I know I shouldn't, I have to confess that I sometimes play "Oppression Olympics," where I try to see which out-group (including my own) gets more shit from the heteronormative world.

Reading this, I see that women dealing with this kind of bullshit own the frickin' medal count, with a whole bunch of Olympic and World records broken.

I can't imagine clients or vendors or investors ever asking me if I got to where I am thanks to Affirmative Action, or asking me if I can score them some weed (or inviting me to hold a meeting at their house so we can spark up), or even talking to me like I'm Eddie Murphy in that one scene from Trading Places ("...which you might also find in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich")

I realize nobody's perfect, but still, what in the hell is wrong with some people?
posted by lord_wolf at 7:38 AM on August 8


After some small talk, he sat next to me on the couch and commented that I looked stressed. He put down his glass of wine and reached to massage my shoulders. As he slid his hands further, I made a nervous joke, quickly trying to shift my weight away from him. I leaned into the corner of the couch and crossed my legs, attempting to put an obstacle in his way. Undeterred, he continued to reach for me.

I got up and walked across the room. Trying to keep it light, I comment on how often men made inappropriate advances towards me during business meetings, hoping he'd get the message.
Holy shit, this made my skin crawl -- I can viscerally feel that same spike of nervous energy, that panic at having your personal space invaded twinned with a desperate desire to keep things light and cheerful, all the while praying that he's going to realize how inappropriately he's behaving so you're not forced to run another lap around the good old "please stop, you're making me uncomfortable"/"come on, you're just being uptight" track.
"Yeah, that's tough. You can't really say anything because it's one tight knit community," he said, probably thinking he sounded sympathetic.
In this context, his statement sounds downright threatening, like he knows very well what he's doing and is intimating that she can't really say anything without putting her business and reputation at risk. Women are so consistently socialized to be pleasant and approachable above all else, so actively encouraged to sacrifice our personal comfort and space in order to give men -- yes, all men -- the absolute benefit of the doubt. Many men, especially men in positions of power, take advantage of this to see how far they can push and test our boundaries before we're forced to take action to restore the sanctity of our borders.

A woman's appearance and demeanor are the first things to go under the microscope of public opinion whenever something sketchy like this happens, which is why she felt the need to change into baggy clothes and pull her hair back before she met with him. It's entirely incumbent upon her to spurn his advances and not remotely incumbent upon him to stop himself from treating her like a cipher for sex itself. He gets to behave with impunity, as though her mere presence was a provocation, a silent appeal for him to put his hands on her. If she tells him to back off unequivocally, she'll get called out on the carpet for being a bitch and hurting his fee-fees, and if she says something oblique, she'll get blamed for not being direct or forceful enough... I mean, jeez, how else could he have possibly known that his behavior was unacceptable? What's this about basic human courtesy, respect, and decency? Don't be so uptight!
Shortly after this encounter, I began wearing a simple gold band to meetings. It might be awkward to explain, should a potential investor ask about my spouse, but the awkwardness it might deter was far greater.
I'd just love to know if there's even one unmarried male startup founder on the entire planet who has ever felt the need to start wearing a fake wedding ring in hopes that it would decrease the number of times he gets groped and/or hit on while he's just trying to run his goddamned business. I'm unattractive by any measure, but I have to wear a fake wedding ring, too, because I do almost everything alone, and unless we're already visibly claimed by another man, unaccompanied women tend to be treated like our presence is an inherent invitation to all comers, our existence inextricably linked to an irrevocable state of consent.
posted by divined by radio at 8:04 AM on August 8 [60 favorites]


Re the "African village" thing (which is the only part I cringed at the author over rather than the asshats she has to deal with), if the author has worked in development in Africa, it seems reasonable to specify which African country and ideally sub-region / culture. Africa is not a country and is not culturally uniform. Not specifying makes it read like the typical use of Africa as a stand-in for "backward place".
posted by R343L at 8:10 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


Every time I read threads like these, I grow more certain that if I were to wake up a woman tomorrow, I would be in prison for stabbing someone within a week.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:10 AM on August 8 [18 favorites]


Has anyone ever seen an article about minority males having to deal with this? I'm not being sarcastic, I'm asking - it strikes me that if you are a young hispanic or black male in Silicon Valley, you must have to play a similar game of dress up. You can't appear either too urban or too earnest, I would think?
posted by maryr at 8:27 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


meme to spread: Silicon Valley is a trailing-edge, backwards, obsolete place run according to a trailing-edge, backwards, obsolete model.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:29 AM on August 8 [4 favorites]


Small tiny maybe off-topic-ish? note about trying to dress appropriately: Women are generally shorter than men. Do you know how hard it is to find a stylish shirt that doesn't show cleavage from above? Or when you bend over? Grrr...
posted by maryr at 8:30 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


While I get the point here, it might have been better to go with the 50's or MadMen than an African village.

In the comments it is clear that the Forbes editor changed this sentence in some way. I suspect that the writer had put something in comparing to a specific location and prior experience she had. Most likely, in an attempt to preserve her privacy, the editor converted this specific to "an African village". I agree it is a bit jarring, but really to attack this point is to substantiate all the other reasons she needed to state this case anonymously. People don't need to be perfect to deserve basic respect.
posted by meinvt at 8:36 AM on August 8 [7 favorites]


Maryr: polotek@ on twitter talks about race & tech a lot. I don't know if there is much specifically about black or Hispanic startup founders, but certainly the issue of how a black man must dress and act in order to be taken seriously is discussed a lot since it's not just tech where this bullshit happens.
posted by R343L at 8:37 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


meme to spread: Silicon Valley is a trailing-edge, backwards, obsolete place run according to a trailing-edge, backwards, obsolete model.

As someone who lives I SV, with a lot of friends in tech, I think that's more facts than a meme. I can't help but believe that the exclusive, sexist, racist mirrortocracy in the startup culture is going to result in SV looking like Detroit in 30 years. There's just too much talent that's being dismissed because they aren't straight white ex-frat boys.

Of course sexism and racism in the rest of the tech and investment sector is bad as well, but SV is heavily riding toward a fall.
posted by happyroach at 8:41 AM on August 8 [6 favorites]


Re the "African village" thing

I read the article after it was edited: turns out the Forbes editor added the African village line, it was not written by the original writer, and has since been deleted.

A friend of my niece is a hotshot young programmer. After a summer in San Francisco working on app development, she went back to college, and took a job at graduation with an entirely female-staffed startup in New York City. I'm sure she could have made a lot more in Silicon Valley, but she hated it so much there was no way. That's how badly women are treated in startup land.

An industry that fosters this kind of treatment of employees, executives, funders, and customers is shooting itself in the foot, and losing out on far more than it realizes.
posted by suelac at 8:41 AM on August 8 [12 favorites]


Yeah, as of when I read the article, the "African village" line had been changed and the editor copped to it being an editorial word choice rather than an authorial one. I'm glad it was edited out, what a clunker of a line.
posted by KathrynT at 8:43 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


God, what an infuriating article. It enrages me that in the year 2014 (and I'm old enough to remember when 1984 seemed like a far-future science-fictional year) this shit not only happens all the time but is unremarkable (except, of course, to its victims, who don't dare speak out except anonymously). We've finally managed to get MetaFilter away from unexamined sexism (not completely, obviously, but pretty much), but it took years even with a woman helping run the place; how long will it take for society at large? Centuries? Bah. My apologies to all women for the patriarchy you have to live in, no matter where you live.

> While I get the point here, it might have been better to go with the 50's or MadMen than an African village.

Fortunately, the wording has been changed:
*Editor’s note: This sentence has been changed to more closely reflect the author’s original phrasing. The original version read: “For all its self-regard as the most forward-thinking place on earth, it seemed Silicon Valley wasn’t all that different than an African village when it came to gender politics.” That wasn’t the author’s original wording. I added it in editing to make her point more pithily, but some commenters, here and on Twitter, have objected on the grounds that it makes “African village” a stand-in for any place where women are subjected to unwanted male advances. It’s a fair criticism, and deserves an edit. I regret implying something that was certainly far from the author’s intent.
You certainly should regret that, and if I were the author I'd be blind with fury that the editor made me look like a racist while I was complaining about sexism.
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on August 8 [61 favorites]


A couple of notes here!

I've worked exclusively for startups in this century and I'm working at one now - I'm a 52-year-old Caucasian male. To survive, you really have to impose a life-work balance on the company yourself. It doesn't hurt that I really do like to write computer programs... also, it doesn't hurt that I'm very skeptical these days and would only work for a startup that I perceived had a very good chance of being successful (the last one I was in was...)

The sexism and general white boy frat thing is very real. The place I currently work bends over backwards not to do this - though the place is very white and fairly male at least they try - but that is an exception, not a rule.

I would like to note that the minority of places that are scrupulously gender/color/etc blind seem to do much better - for example, Google was this way for the five years I worked and I strongly, strongly suspect it's still that way.

Overall, there's a huge strain of this ultra-stupid, complacent techno-libertarian political cant all over the technology startup world and it's appalling. You can summarize the attitude by saying that these people believe that they are not sexist (racist, etc) but also defend to the death the right to be sexist (or racist, etc) and believe that they are successful because they are intrinsically meritorious and only intrinsic merit has any virtue, so if you complain about prejudice, it's because you are meritless...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:14 AM on August 8 [13 favorites]


I am so glad the African village thing wasn't the author's! Amazingly awful editorial choice.

So back on track, I'm actually skeptical that even Google, etc are really color/gender blind in practice. It takes work, conscious work, to not implicitly treat people differently based on such irrelevancies. It's not sufficient to just call out "boys club culture". You have to actively monitor and train people to detect their own biases. A common one in tech is to steer women into program/project management because women are perceived as automatically better at "people stuff". But those roles are often less well respected than others.
posted by R343L at 9:20 AM on August 8


"Why aren't there more women in tech?" "Why do so few women major in STEM fields?" Look around and take a lucky guess. They don't want to endure constant discrimination and harassment just for being women. STEM encompasses so many different majors and jobs, and technology is not just about start-ups, but start-ups tend to be the glamorous face of tech.

It's obvious by now that women have the interest and aptitude for STEM work, but it also seems obvious that the sexism and harassment that women must endure is THE barrier which keeps them out. Sexual harassment is NOT about sexual attraction, just as rape isn't about sexual desire. Sexual harassment is purely to keep women "in their place."

I believe it is this - a toxic work atmosphere of sexism - that keeps many jobs so gender-segregated. It's not about men having more aptitude for technology, or women being so innately nurturing that they flock to pink-collar "caring" professions to fulfill that need to nurture - women are kept out of certain professions because of sexism and hostile work environments. What would it take to change this? (I am sure the dudebros in start-ups would spout a whole bunch of ev-psych twaddle justifying the status quo!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:25 AM on August 8 [9 favorites]


It's quite possible these guys are actually entitled enough to behave like that in front of men, too - and the men just don't do anything. I remember sitting through an investor pitch with my boss at the time, and the investor kept making shitty little sexist comments. When mentioning a shoe brand he'd invested in, asking me "Do you wear those?" Me: "Sometimes." Him: "I bet you wear a lot of different brands!" Me: "Some. Now, back to the data..."

After the meeting, my boss, who'd previously worked at large companies, was really surprised at the behavior. Said the investor must have a crush on me or something.

No, dude, this happens in tech and finance all. the. fucking. time! It's just now that you're out of corporate and a lowly start-up guy some of them feel free to do it in front of you, too.

I was then told to handle communications with the investor, who clearly liked me.

And hey, whatever, I can laugh about it, it's a small incident. But, way to handle disrespect toward your theoretically valued and equity-sharing colleague, right?
posted by jetsetlag at 9:30 AM on August 8 [13 favorites]


You certainly should regret that, and if I were the author I'd be blind with fury that the editor made me look like a racist while I was complaining about sexism.

I bet they did that on purpose to undercut her argument; I'm cynical that way.
posted by Renoroc at 12:07 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


"Why aren't there more women in tech?" "Why do so few women major in STEM fields?" Look around and take a lucky guess. They don't want to endure constant discrimination and harassment just for being women. STEM encompasses so many different majors and jobs, and technology is not just about start-ups, but start-ups tend to be the glamorous face of tech.

It's obvious by now that women have the interest and aptitude for STEM work, but it also seems obvious that the sexism and harassment that women must endure is THE barrier which keeps them out. Sexual harassment is NOT about sexual attraction, just as rape isn't about sexual desire. Sexual harassment is purely to keep women "in their place."


I'm not disputing that the spectrum of working conditions for women in tech goes from unnaceptable to "things-could-be-worse" and that things have to change.

But I still think there's an "interest-imbalance" that's keeping women out of STEM education. I'm pretty sure that imbalance is caused by societal expectations and the way we differently raise young girls and boys and not by the fact they're women. Just go look at the difference between girl/boy sections in a toy store.... (but I'm a CS grad not a Psych/Socio/Anthropology grad so take that with a few moles of NaCl)

Are young girls really going "I'd like programming/engineering by the work environment is too bad I'll do something else"? There's surely dropping out and career switching going on once women finish their degrees and get fed up with the conditions, but it seems that there would need to be more women graduating for the work conditions to be responsible for the lack of women. I mean, are things really that bad and widely known to be that bad that women won't choose that field?

When I started my CS degree (19 years ago), there was no women in my particular CS program and VERY few in the other ones. Maybe things have changed and that's why I think there's so few women in those programs and the problem lies elsewhere.
posted by coust at 12:11 PM on August 8


Are young girls really going "I'd like programming/engineering by the work environment is too bad I'll do something else"?

No, sometimes it's the school environment.
posted by Etrigan at 12:28 PM on August 8 [10 favorites]


I've told this story before, but in one of my undergraduate classes the professor on the first day of class had a powerpoint presentation. One of the slides said 'To fully understand a woman, it is necessary to dissect one.'

I dropped the class. I loved and still love science, but that incident and others discouraged me from wanting to do it as a career.

So yeah, it's a hostile environment all the way down.
posted by winna at 1:51 PM on August 8 [7 favorites]


Unlike my male peers, who could wear anything from jeans and a hoodie to a well-tailored suit, I had to choose my attire carefully.

Why assume that men don't make those choices carefully? ("In-your-face-genius-nerd or in-your-face-Master-of-the-Universe? Which of these?") Which is not to say that it's just as hard for women - clothing in general seems harder for women - only that any male would be start up guy is going to be pretty clueless to ignore that question.

As I’ve told those who comment on my appearance: I don’t run my company with anything you can see – I run my company using what’s inside my skull.

To the extent that you're seen in public (or your business partners, or even just by your co-workers), you're projecting an image for the company and the company will live with the consequences for good or for ill. Or for neutral, for that matter. Not saying that's right or good, only that if you're running a business, appearance does matter.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:56 PM on August 8


Why assume that men don't make those choices carefully? ("In-your-face-genius-nerd or in-your-face-Master-of-the-Universe? Which of these?") Which is not to say that it's just as hard for women - clothing in general seems harder for women - only that any male would be start up guy is going to be pretty clueless to ignore that question.

Basic real-world experience suggests that women have to spend vastly more time thinking about what to wear than men do. It's not even close. Are you seriously doubting this?

I mean, yes, men have to dress the part, whether it's wearing a suit if you're a VC or a hoodie if you're a founder... wow, that was a pretty exhausting sentence to read, wasn't it? Whew. Let me take a break now.
posted by leopard at 2:09 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]


Why assume that men don't make those choices carefully?

Maybe they do; but it's unlikely that an investor is going to think a male start-up founder is available for harassment if he arrives at the meeting with an extra button undone on his polo shirt.
posted by rtha at 2:10 PM on August 8 [12 favorites]


To the extent that you're seen in public (or your business partners, or even just by your co-workers), you're projecting an image for the company and the company will live with the consequences for good or for ill. Or for neutral, for that matter. Not saying that's right or good, only that if you're running a business, appearance does matter.

Mark Zuckerberg famously wore a fucking hooded sweatshirt for like seven entire years, and neither his image nor his company were materially affected. Appearance does matter, for women.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:16 PM on August 8 [19 favorites]


You know, I have worked all over Silicon Valley from big tech to startups of all stages, and what she is describing is a very real phenomenon. I have never personally experienced it, but I have heard many stories from other women that range from annoying micro-aggressions to grotesque harassment. It's exhausting and it makes me sick to think of the innovative minds that we've lost when women make the (very rational) decision not to deal with it anymore.

That said, there are also some really wonderful and enlightened people here. I think when people hear Silicon Valley they think of evil techno-libertarians and sexist assholes and while there is certainly a presence of both, there is a counterbalancing force of good that doesn't seem to get equal representation in the press. After all, I've never worked for a company, even a very small one, that did not offer a) paid parental leave, b) in equal amounts to men and women, and c) usually of very generous terms, such as 3-4 months. We have Sheryl Sandburg to thank for that.

I want to come forward and say that as a typically-presenting, cute-if-chubby, not-that-young, often-pregnant, not-married-not-ring-wearing female, I have encountered mostly nothing but respect and fair treatment, even from powerful, white, extraordinarily rich men. I did work at one company that dished out some gendered shittiness, and I was fortunate enough to have the luxury of leaving and finding a better place to work.

That said, I interact a lot more with the engineering side of things than the financial side of things and very well could explain my good fortune (so far).
posted by annekate at 2:43 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


(I guess my point in the rambling comment above is that it's not a totally lost cause, and it sometimes makes me sad that young women are seeing mostly stuff like this and less of the things that are good about working in technology. We have a lot of work to do but there's hope.)
posted by annekate at 2:47 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


True story; at a startup, I was in the management team of a company preparing for IPO. There were actually a fair number of women in spots of responsibility, all of whom were compensated equal to their male peers. (I knew how much everyone made.) I tell you that, because I'd gotten so used to being treated as an equal, that this particular incident still stands out in my mind, almost 15 years later.

We needed backend software that did X, while we were rolling our own that did xyz, but in the meantime, we really needed something that would let us manage X. There were 3 or 4 companies that offered a product similar to X. I'd scheduled meetings with these vendors...not their sales people, but their tech people, so I could discuss the possibility of us breaking into their code and rolling it to fill our needs better, and how much in license fees it was going to cost, etc.

So, in our office was a coffee barrista, because...of course there was. It was a 90s startup. You walked past her on the way to the meeting rooms. My assistant (male) brought the vendors past the coffee counter, and asked if anyone wanted anything on the way to the room where I was setting up the deck.

I swear before all that is holy, the VP of IT of Well Known Software Company, walked into the room, looked at my assistant and said "Hey, you know, I changed my mind. Could you tell your girl to go get me a mocha cap, no whip?" By "your girl", he meant me. Everyone in the room stopped and stared at him, and god love him, the CEO of my company, who was in the room for meet and greet, said; "Yeah. We're done here," got up and walked out.

There are assholes out there, who don't even know they're assholes. But there are CEOs and management teams that refuse to work with them. The trick is finding those CEOs and that management team.
posted by dejah420 at 5:06 PM on August 8 [46 favorites]


dejah420, that is a heartwarming story. I also have a boss that's that awesome (not in tech, but in finance, which has its own sexist issue) and they are gems among men.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:26 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


Are young girls really going "I'd like programming/engineering by the work environment is too bad I'll do something else"? There's surely dropping out and career switching going on once women finish their degrees and get fed up with the conditions, but it seems that there would need to be more women graduating for the work conditions to be responsible for the lack of women. I mean, are things really that bad and widely known to be that bad that women won't choose that field?

Yes, they are really like "I'd like programming/engineering but the work environment is too bad." They decide that in high school (where certain clubs, extracurriculars, teachers and faculty-sponsors are much more female-friendly than others). They decide that in college (where certain internships, recruitment drives, and departments are more female-friendly than others). They decide that when they're looking for their first jobs, and doing career-switches, and beyond. I know, because I was 100% one of those women. Loved natural science (esp. biology and chemistry) growing up, loved science in college (took science classes as "electives" and went to exhibits, etc, for fun), and love science now. And I have at least somewhat of an aptitude for it. In high school, I took higher level science classes with the thought that I might become a doctor. That gradually got eroded to wanting to be a psychologist, to wanting to be a writer, to thinking that the entertainment industry is too sexist as a whole and not wanting to spend my life mird in that stew, and eventually going into the super-female-dominated fields of social justice and policy.

Knowing what I know now, would I ever be able to study natural science as more than a hobby, let alone work in a related field? Probably not. I don't want to be the only woman in the room, and nobody else wants me to be the only woman there, either. Because in my experience when you're the only woman in the room or one of only a few women, you're treated like a pet/trophy/mascot, a prostitute, or like you're not welcome. I can't deal with the constant hostility, loneliness and disrespect. And natural science fields aren't woman-free, they just aren't female friendly or even have many women in them in the way that many other fields and jobs are and do (ie, the way that "helping professions," and lower paid work are and do). I haven't pursued anything to do with STEM because of social hostility and not because of a lack of interest or aptitude. There are some women who have SO MUCH love or talent for STEM fields that they persevere anyway, but not everybody is part of the talented tenth, and if you're female and NOT somehow incredibly special and lucky and driven, you're probably not going to be going into STEM -- hence, there aren't a ton of women in STEM fields, because a ton of women by definition aren't going to be incredibly special and lucky and driven. It's actually shocking to me that so many of women *are,* considering how hard that row is to hoe.
posted by rue72 at 6:06 AM on August 9 [8 favorites]


In 6th grade, I was really involved in the First Lego League! There were two 12th grade girls who mentored our team, and they were awesome and super cool and I thought maybe when I grew up I'd build robots! In 7th grade, they weren't there, and I was the only girl on my team. And the boys were mean, and the boys didn't really listen to me, and the teacher in charge didn't really notice anything going on, and I defaulted to the "recorder" role, and the "spirit" role, and then I decided that I probably wasn't really interested in building robots after all.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:17 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]


Knowing what I know now, would I ever be able to study natural science as more than a hobby, let alone work in a related field? Probably not. I don't want to be the only woman in the room, and nobody else wants me to be the only woman there, either. Because in my experience when you're the only woman in the room or one of only a few women, you're treated like a pet/trophy/mascot, a prostitute, or like you're not welcome. I can't deal with the constant hostility, loneliness and disrespect. And natural science fields aren't woman-free, they just aren't female friendly or even have many women in them

I work in a natural resources field, and in a particularly male corner of it. But some of the agencies I work with are full of women in technical roles -- they have obviously gravitated to the more welcoming niches. That's good in one way, but also bad in that it leaves a lot of other parts of the field (that are sometimes more fun and often better paid) to the men. The kinds of robust workplace protections and clear rules about bad behavior that the agencies offer clearly let them attract some amazing talent, but it would be better if being welcoming was the default.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:18 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


OnePlus to Women: Send Us Hot Selfies, We'll Let You Buy Our Phone

"As we close in on the 200K mark for the number of registered forum users, OnePlus wants to give a shout out to the few but beautiful female fans in our community with our Ladies First contest."

I wonder why they are so few. The contest has been discontinued, btw, because people noticed and said what the everliving fuck.
posted by rtha at 1:35 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


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