Sexual harassment is finally starting to topple Silicon Valley’s powerful male elite

Travis Kalanick’s fall started with a blog post.
Travis Kalanick’s fall started with a blog post.
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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Dave McClure. Justin Caldbeck. Matt Mazzeo. Jonathan Teo. Amit Singhal. Ed Baker. Emil Michael. Travis Kalanick.

This is a short list of men who have lost or left their jobs in technology after alleged sexual misconduct surfaced at their companies. McClure, founder and general partner at seed investment group 500 Startups, resigned July 3, a few days after a female founder spoke up about the sexual advances he made to her.

Caldbeck, Mazzeo, and Teo are all casualties of Binary Capital, a venture-capital fund whose investors have threatened to pull their funding commitments after six women in late June accused Caldbeck of unwanted advances and inappropriate behavior. A spokesman for Mazzeo said he resigned after the Caldbeck allegations became public because “the nature of the ongoing allegations surrounding the company and the facts that had come to light made it clear that he could no longer be associated with the firm.”

Singhal, Baker, Michael, and Kalanick, meanwhile, are among the executives pushed out of Uber this year amid ongoing scandal. Singhal was dismissed in February for covering up that he left his previous job at Google over alleged sexual harassment. Baker left in March as rumors circulated that he once “made out” (consensually) with another Uber employee at a company retreat in Miami. Michael, who was implicated in an escort-karaoke scandal in Seoul, departed in June on the specific recommendation of an investigation into Uber’s culture conducted by former US attorney general Eric Holder. Kalanick stepped down as chief executive on June 20 after five major Uber shareholders demanded his resignation.

Something is changing in Silicon Valley, where sexism has long been a known problem, but has rarely been dealt with. Startups that were once able to ignore sexual misconduct are embroiled in negative revelations over alleged harassment. Venture capitalists who were regarded as untouchable—who wielded their investing power as a tool to silence the women they harassed, and whose firms stood behind them when complaints arose—are losing their institutional support. In 2017, as women’s rights once again become a major national issue, the poor treatment of women in tech has suddenly shifted from an unfortunate industry reality to a problem that carries consequences.

Less than two years ago the landmark discussion of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley went for the boys. That was the case of Ellen Pao, who sued her former employer, VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for allegedly discriminating against her based on gender and retaliating against her after she complained. Pao lost the case on all four claims in March 2015. Six months later, Pao said she would drop her appeal and pay Kleiner Perkins close to $276,000 in legal fees.

“I think I brought these important issues to the forefront of the conversation, but the online aggression has had a toll on me and my family,” Pao said in an interview at the time. “That so many people heard what I had to say, against all that was brought to bear against me, is a testament to the depth of the problem related to women and tech.”

Sexism runs deep in Silicon Valley, where “brilliant jerks” have long been tolerated and even prized, and the poor treatment of women, as reporter Jeff Bercovici once said, “is a feature, not a bug.” Evan Spiegel’s fratboy emails didn’t stop him from taking Snapchat public with non-voting shares that consolidated his power. Twitter had no women on its board until December 2013, the month after its IPO. Whitney Wolfe, a co-founder at dating app Tinder and later founder of Bumble, famously sued Tinder CEO Sean Rad and co-founder Justin Mateen, who allegedly said that having a young female co-founder at Tinder made the company “seem like a joke” (pdf). Mateen lost his role as chief marketing officer, Rad remains as chairman.

This year, change was sparked by a blog post published in February by Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber. Fowler wrote about being propositioned by her manager and then dismissed by human resources when she reported the incident. More stories emerged from women who felt harassed or abused during their time at Uber. The company hired Holder and a second law firm, Perkins Coie, to investigate allegations of misconduct, then fired more than 20 employees. After an Uber investor and board member made a sexist remark at the unveiling of Holder’s findings in mid-June, it forced him out, too.

Fowler’s blog post remains unusual for how quickly her story was accepted by—and converted into outrage among—the tech community. Why? As Stripe executive Cristina Cordova noted at the time, Fowler documented everything, wrote a dispassionate blog post, alleged nothing that occurred at a social event with alcohol, and came out against a company that a lot of people were already angry with. Many other women have spoken up about discrimination in tech only to be silenced or forgotten.

Fowler’s success has now emboldened others. Last week, more than two dozen women in technology spoke to the New York Times about being sexually harassed. They named names, including McClure, and Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital. “Female entrepreneurs are a critical part of the fabric of Silicon Valley,” Katrina Lake, founder and CEO of online clothing startup Stitch Fix, told the Times. Lake was among the women allegedly harassed by Justin Caldbeck. “It’s important to expose the type of behavior that’s been reported in the last few weeks, so the community can recognize and address these problems,” she said.

Sexism has been ignored for in tech for a very long time. 2017 appears to be the year when Silicon Valley can no longer remain willfully ignorant.

This story has been updated to clarify how the executives departed their companies and to include the statement from Matt Mazzeo’s spokesman.