We've long known the Internet was a place where women face discrimination in employment, in promotion, and in the way they are represented. But it also seems to be a place where women must walk on eggshells, or risk their lives.

There's gender inequality. There's earning less pay for the same work. There's getting passed over for promotion, as Ellen Pao claims happened in her lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. These issues are well documented, and not only in the tech industry. But threats of rape, injury, or murder take misogyny to a whole other level. Unfortunately, they're a fact of life for prominent women in the online world--a world that seems to treat threats of violence as though they were no bigger deal than the traffic on Silicon Valley freeways.

Brianna Wu has padlocks on her basement and attic doors because of the barrage of death threats directed at her for daring to defend another female game designer accused of trading sex for a good review. It would be nice to think this sort of thing only happens in the known-to-be-kinky world of gamers and game designers. Unfortunately it wouldn't be true.

A couple of years ago, a tech exec named Adria Richards was at a conference where she overheard a man behind her joke to his buddy about "big dongles." She snapped his picture and put it on Twitter, adding that the joke was "not cool." The comment went viral, and the developer who made the joke lost his job, which sucked for him since he had three kids. After he posted in an online forum that he had been fired, Richards, like Wu, began receiving death threats. Someone posted her home address and a photo of decapitated woman's head. Like Wu, she moved out of her home and spent the next several months in fear for her life.

Do you see the difference? The man offended people and lost his job. End of story. The woman offended people and also lost her job because her employer was held to ransom with a denial-of-service attack that would only end when it fired her. But then she was also threatened with horrific violence and had to go into hiding.

You may think that Richards and Wu helped bring this upon themselves. Wu lashed out at the trolls of the gamer world and the threats to her life could be construed as an over-the-top but predictable response. Likewise, Richards could be said to have invited calamity by outing someone's private conversation and getting someone fired. The Internet wouldn't attack a woman who was just minding her own business, would it?

It would. Rape threats poured in--as many as 50 in an hour--to British feminist Caroline Criado-Perez. Her big sin was asking the government to put a picture of Jane Austen on the 10 note. And then there's Gabby Schilling, the recent subject of a collection of tweets about sexual violence involving blood and inanimate objects. The reason was that her father, a former pitcher and current ESPN personality tweeted that he was proud she'd be pitching for her college team.

I could go on. I'm tempted to go on, there are so many awful examples. But the question is what can we do about it? It's a tough problem, but here are the best solutions I can see:

1. Create consequences for threats.

While it may be comforting (and mostly true) to think these threats are all bark and no bite, they're eerily reminiscent of the kinds of jokes real killers make in the lead-up to their crimes. If the culture doesn't change, Wu predicts, someone is going to wind up getting killed. If that happens, the danger will seem obvious in hindsight.

So I'm heartened by the slowly growing trend to hold trolls to account for their online threats. Two of the people who threatened sexual violence against Schilling have been fired after her father tracked them down, and in the UK two people were arrested for their threats to Criado-Perez. The technology exists to find most or all of these folks, and law enforcement should be doing just that. (Threats do not have freedom-of-speech protections.)

2. Bring more women into the tech world.

It's a tough suggestion to make at a time when many women are leaving the tech world precisely because of its aggressively all-male atmosphere. Having more women in tech may require changing a system that from its funding, to its hiring and promotion, to its never-ending workdays, is designed to send women running the other way. But that's just what needs to happen. And there are good reasons why anyone--male or female--might consider a career in the tech industry.

3. Address unconscious bias.

Gender bias in hiring and compensating women in the tech industry is so ingrained most business leaders have no idea they're doing it. "I myself was shocked by reality when, as a senior manager at a high tech company my VP reviewed the pay difference between men and women at the same level in his organization," recalls Elaine Feeney, president of the social media analysis firm Wayin. "He pointed out to me that in my own team I had significant compensations discrepancies that I had not noticed on my own." That VP took action to fix all the discrepancies, she adds. "Unfortunately, that was not a common practice. It should be."

4. Change the Internet culture.

That's the hardest step of all because it would mean destroying the geeky clubhouse or frat house atmosphere so many young men in tech enjoy. It's unlikely tech companies will evolve from the inside, unless and until much more significant numbers of women occupy more positions of power than they do today.

But perhaps these companies can be pushed to evolve from the outside. Pao's suit is just the last bit of evidence that the venture capital industry can be unwelcoming to women both as executives and as funding candidates. But VCs are all about metrics, and the metrics tell us the women-led start-ups that do get funding perform better on average than their male-led counterparts. More to the point, companies such as Zillow that let misogyny get out of hand have a nasty habit of being sued, which is inarguably bad for the bottom line.

If the VC community were to take this risk seriously, and consider the quality and inclusiveness of a company's culture when making funding decisions, the tech-start-up-as-frat-house would go extinct in a hurry. In time, all of Silicon Valley might gain some maturity as well.

Published on: Mar 13, 2015
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