Will Silicon Valley's Deluge Of Sexual Harassment News Topple The Culture?

Sarah Kunst, founder of fitness startup Proday, is one of dozens of women to speak out recently.

Sarah Kunst, founder of fitness startup Proday, is one of dozens of women to speak out recently.

The "Silicon Valley bro" stereotype is a joke, until it isn't.

Silicon Valley has always existed as something of a hyperbole in the collective consciousness; we tend to think of it as a place occupied by a bunch of brainy yet bumbling dudes in unwashed hoodies. Cue the collective eye-rolling of every woman who’s worked in tech.

Recent months have brought shocking allegations of sexual misconduct into the news cycle on a near-daily basis, revealing to the wider world what women who have worked in tech have always known: Sexism is rampant, and it largely goes unpunished.

Until now. Sort of. Hopefully.

On Monday, David McClure, founder of start-up incubator 500 Startups, resigned in the wake of an article from the New York Times last week in which more than two dozen women spoke up about being sexually harassed. Ten of the women disclosed names, providing proof via messages and emails. McClure’s name was among them.

He apologized over the weekend in a blog post titled “I’m a creep. I’m sorry.” And that wasn’t the only big piece of news over the weekend for 500 Startups: Another parter, Elizabeth Yin, also resigned, citing the firm’s cover up of a separate sexual harassment allegation tied to McClure.

Sarah Kunst, founder of the fitness startup Proday, says McClure discussed a position for her at 500 Startups back in 2014, and sent her a Facebook message that read “I was getting confused figuring out whether to hire you or hit on you.” When Kunst turned him down and later brought this up to one of his colleagues at 500 Startups, they ended their recruitment talks with her, according to the Times article.

This comes in the wake of a string of allegations from six women last month about the misconduct of Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of prestigious Binary Capital, and his subsequent resignation. 

And though it’s becoming clearer by the day that sexism in Silicon Valley is rampant and deep-rooted—clearly much moreso than the caricature of the Silicon Valley bro that’s been peddled to us via pop culture—the recent spate of allegations can be traced back to February of this year, when Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber, wrote a blog post on her personal website about how she was propositioned by a manager. And how when she reported it to HR, she was ignored. Fowler’s blog post set in motion a series of revelations from a number of other women at Uber who spoke to additional instances of harassment or abuse. 

Add to those allegations, this 100-percent bonkers internal memo issued by then-CEO Travis Kalanick ahead of a company retreat to Miami, and it gives you a pretty good idea as to why an internal investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder led to 20 people getting fired.

There’s nothing remotely resembling silver lining here. We’ve seen some of the mighty fall, but how much does that really signal a sea change when a board member makes a sexist joke during the unveiling of results from an internal investigation about sexist culture within a company, as was the case with David Bonderman at Uber?

“Women are more empowered than ever to not tolerate these things,” Kunst told the Times. And while victims deserve the right to decide for themselves whether to speak out or not, as we’ve seen with the women who have come forward in Silicon Valley, there can be strength in numbers. It’s a place to start. 

We can await apologies and resignations from self-described “creeps.” We can laugh, openly, at a man who refers to himself as “Travis 2.0.” But until we address what’s at the root of the problem—systemic sexism that’s pervasive across most industries in American culture, and not only tech start-ups—we’re only splashing disinfectant on gangrene.

Words: Deena Drewis
Photos: Courtesy