Sexism and sexual harassment in Silicon Valley are way, way worse than you think.

When I was reporting my story on why the next Steve Jobs will be a woman, this is the line I heard on Silicon Valley and sexism: That flat-out sexism and discrimination in tech is rare and getting more so, that the big problem now is unconscious bias, or the fact that both men and women tend to underestimate women's professional abilities.

I wanted to believe it. We'd all like to believe it, right? If it's all about unconscious bias, then it's not individual bad actors who are to blame--we're past that. Fault lies with the dominant culture, with the way we were raised. We're not responsible, but we can change.

Then you read that 60 percent of women in Silicon Valley tech say they've been the subject of unwanted sexual advances, and that half of those advances came from their boss. Suddenly, the problem starts to seem a lot less unconscious.

That stat comes from a new survey of 200 women in tech, mostly in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. The study's co-authors include Trae Vassallo, a former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner who was subpoenaed in the Ellen Pao trail, and Michele Madansky, a market research consultant. After the Ellen Pao-Kleiner Perkins trial, Vassallo in particular was approached by many other women concerned about sexism in tech and the startup world.

The resulting study concentrates on women with at least 10 years' work experience. A quarter of the women in the survey are in the highest executive ranks, 11 percent are founders, and 11 percent are in venture.

From the stories of these women, it's clear that, really, we're not talking about unconscious bias or even innocent misunderstandings. These women tell about being excluded from networking events, being groped by the boss, being asked to put up with sexist and demeaning behavior.

One client told a woman she could sit on his lap if she wanted him to buy her products. Another woman spoke about attending a conference for portfolio companies of a certain VC firm, when everyone was told to strip down to their underwear and jump in a lake. The guys were all game. For the women, the incident was "devastating."

And while Silicon Valley's not known for irony, this incident could change that: One survey participant described how a VC was going on about how committed he was to his trade organization's diversity task force, and then effortlessly segued right into a conversation about which strip club he was going to visit with another VC. 

The stats are damning, too. According to the report:

  • Sixty percent of women in tech reported unwanted sexual advances. A full third of women in tech say they have felt afraid for their personal safety because of work-related circumstances, which is beyond harrowing. No matter your thoughts on the importance of women in STEM fields, how do you feel about teaching your daughter or niece to code, and encouraging her to go into tech, if you know that there's a 33 percent chance that at some point, that career will cause her to worry for her physical safety? That's pretty horrible.
  • Eighty-four percent of women in tech said they've been told they're too aggressive. Yet again, traits that are desirable in men are often seen as damaging to women.
  • Sixty-six percent have felt excluded from social or networking opportunities because of gender; 90 percent have witnessed sexist behavior at the office or at industry events.
  • Eighty-seven percent have had male colleagues make demeaning remarks toward them.

This isn't unconscious bias felling well-meaning people of both sexes. It's a sexist culture, and it's not something women can fix on their own.

Published on: Jan 13, 2016