The big story du jour in tech is the sexual harassment allegations made against several venture capitalists. You’ve all no doubt seen the New York Times piece (Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment – complete with photo that might easily be as appropriate on a ‘Babes of Silicon Valley’ calendar. Seriously?). The fact that Silicon Valley’s bro culture is pervasive and ingrained is not news. The fact that inappropriate sexual behavior goes on and has been going on for some time now, unacknowledged and/or unreported, is not news, either. This time around, there are marquee names involved and women who came forward and named names. That’s news. To the point where it has upended funds – co-founder and partner Jason Caldbeck is out at Binary Capital and Dave McClure is no longer the face of 500Startups.
Masters of the Universe
While it’s important to shine a light on illegal/immoral behavior such as sexual harassment and assault, proposed ‘solutions’ such as LinkedIn founder turned VC Reid Hoffman’s suggested ‘#Decency Pledge’ (The Human Rights of Women Entrepreneurs) may be good for grabbing media attention, but it’s going to take more than a trending hashtag to change things. Hoffman also suggests an industry wide HR function. Do you think that at least one or two people in the firms where these men worked were unaware of what was going on? Do you think that these men didn’t realize that their actions were outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior? But they’re the investors. The guys who pull the (purse) strings. They’re masters of the universe, evidently with more money than common sense, and the world is their playground – one in which they feel entitled to grab whatever distraction happens to be in front of them, because it’s been an allowed code of conduct in the Valley for quite some time now, and this is just a blip on the radar. After all, the ageism issue has been addressed several times, and that’s now been resolved, right?
Did anyone else notice that the word ‘misogyny’ was never once mentioned in any of the articles reporting on this issue? We certainly know that the word is in the vocabulary of the New York Times as well as the tech press.
The Other Diversity Problem
Silicon Valley has changed and it may well be that we’re witnessing the sunset of its glory days. There was a time when Silicon Valley was about science, R&D and actual game changing – and world-changing – technology and innovation. The land that once boasted rolling vineyards proved to be a fertile ground for invention, giving the world microprocessors and modems, computers and cell phones. With the age of social, it’s devolved into algorithms designed to biased opinions or better track user/consumer behavior in order to serve you more ‘relevant’ ads, or technologies capable of tracking users, no matter where they are on the web and whether or not they were actively engaged with that company’s technology at that moment. Yahoo was the first search engine, putting the early web into some context, and it was egalitarian. Now we have Google and Facebook, hydras with tentacles that suck up all of your information, and everything in their path, creating veritable walled gardens in a space that was meant to be open and decentralized. Innovation has given way to a culture of more, more, more. Is the predatory behavior that has evolved really any wonder? It has become part of the Silicon Valley DNA.
Part of the problem is that Silicon Valley is not only a monoculture, but one of intolerance, at least on some subjects, such as when it comes to differences of opinion. Diversity is a big issue with many, and it should include tolerating diverse opinions. That is also the sort of diversity that spurs innovation. But voices that are not in lockstep with the ideology of the Valley have been silence, driven underground, excoriated or run out of town. Perhaps had some of those voices been present – people who have the courage of their convictions – the women who came forward might have found support sooner as well, and even more might have come forward.
Change the Talking Points
We’ve always pointed to the fact that Silicon Valley – and tech in general – is fond of its mantras. ‘Fake it til you make it’ (why do you have to fake it at all?), ‘fail fast’ (outside of tech, in what parallel universe is failure a badge of honor?). Might be time to rethink some of those ideas, especially in light of where one of the industry’s most sacrosanct mantras has led many a company, none of which has ever ended well, and seems most appropriate here. Next time around, might be a good idea to ask permission, not forgiveness. Onward and forward.