Diversity in race and gender in Silicon Valley is abysmal, and the industry has tried to justify their numbers in all sorts of ways that don’t quite mesh with the lived experience of the minorities in tech. Since former Uber employee Susan Fowler’s essay on the harassment she received at that company went viral, more people are willing to say out loud what the issue really is.
Following their story on Tesla engineer AJ Vandermeyden, the Guardian spoke with tech workers about what they think leads to workplace harassment and a lack of diversity at a much starker level than in other job sectors. Most successful start-ups experience a huge influx of cash in conjunction with rapid growth that doesn’t leave space to develop an HR department. Long hours and intimate conditions confuse the distinctions between friend and co-worker.
That isn’t to say that a man who harasses a woman is misunderstanding the boundaries of human decency. Rather, it’s an issue of the person in charge having ties to the accused harasser. A woman named Haana told the Guardian that a male co-worker reached his hand up her shirt and groped her. When she told the CEO, he refused to fire him:
“When you’re involved in a startup, you kind of need to be involved in each other’s lives,” Haana explained. “You live, you eat, you work together.”
That made it all the more painful, she said, that no one seemed to take her concerns seriously.
“What can I say to make people believe it wasn’t my fault?” she said, noting that the incident had a long-term impact on her. “It’s something that’s a part of me, and I have to figure out how to deal with it. I don’t know how to get rid of that anxiety.”
In phone interviews, the CEO said he didn’t think automatically terminating the CTO was an appropriate response, and the CTO denied that he groped Haana but said it’s possible she “misinterpreted” a “hug”.
This may seem like a big “duh,” but clearly stating that the problem with Silicon Valley is successful white men in tech promoting their friends with no outside regulation and a lot of money at their disposal is important. Blaming education or a lack of minorities interested in tech minimizes the stories of people who have been driven out of their fields by this toxic environment.
A predecessor to Fowler’s essay (which may have hit harder in conjunction with Uber’s recent spate of bad press) was the testimony of Amélie Lamont, who wrote in 2016 about her negative experience at Squarespace. Lamont described both sexism and racism at the company, including this horrible anecdote of an interaction with a white female executive:
We continued taking turns going around the table, giving updates. When we got to me, Kelly asked, “Amélie, where’s Amélie?”
Confused, I looked at her–I was sitting right across from her. I looked at her and said, “I’m right here.”
She stared at me for a few seconds and remarked, “Oh. I didn’t see you. You blended in. You’re so black, you blend into the chair.” I didn’t believe what I was hearing and I didn’t know what to do. I looked at my arm, compared it to the chair in front of her.
“Nope, my arm is brown and the chair is black,” I quipped awkwardly.
She replied, “No. They’re the same color.”
The room was silent.
Lamont now works as a product designer at the New York Times, and she told the Guardian that since her essay, many black women in tech have reached out to her to say they’ve had many similar experiences. She says, “That was validating.”