Sexism and Misogyny in Tech: How Investors Can Help Drive Change

7/21/14Follow @jpruth

The image of some technology startups has been tarnished of late by bad behavior. It might be up to investors who are board members to ensure changes get made.

Accusations of sexism and misogyny have circled Tinder, the dating-app startup owned by IAC. If the charges prove to be true, it is just one recent example of a sometimes hostile environment for women in tech circles. In recent months, allegations that include sexual assault, harassment, and misogynistic messages have been linked to CEOs of Snapchat, Urban Airship, and GitHub.

Everyone agrees offensive behavior has no place in any workplace—and the innovation community will be damaged by it the longer it persists. The question is what to do about it.

“There is a cultural problem,” says Ed Zimmerman, chair of the tech group at law firm Lowenstein Sandler in New York. “That is what we need to fix. The gender bias, the antifeminism, and the chauvinism are just pathetic and despicable.”

He is talking about a far bigger problem also seen in many parts of society—and he is far from alone in wanting positive change for the technology scene. Groups such as Girls Who Code and the NYTM Coalition for Women in Tech support the presence of women as founders and creators of new technology and businesses. Yet, fairness and respect remain elusive on some fronts.

“As is evident from recent headlines, the observations, and experiences of women throughout the community, the tech sector isn’t always a very welcoming place to people from underrepresented groups,” says Jessica Lawrence, executive director of New York Tech Meetup (NYTM), via e-mail.

Media coverage has helped expose the reality of what women have to cope with in tech, she says, though there continue to be deniers of the issue. “For many people, it can be difficult to believe that sexism could still be so pervasive, given how much progress we have made in so many other areas,” Lawrence says. “Seeing the often angry, sexist, and even threatening reactions to women when they do share their stories is further proof of the problem that exists.”

Cementing more roles for women in the innovation movement continues to be an uphill fight. “Girls from a young age are still often being steered away from technology and engineering careers or are not being exposed to them as an option,” Lawrence says.

Lack of diversity, she says, is a challenge for the technology sector—and things might not be moving in the right direction. “The number of women graduating with computer science degrees has been going down,” she says. “In New York City, the technology community as a whole is only about 29 percent women.” Lawrence also cites a 2012 report by Startup Genome that estimated female-founded startups made up about 20 percent of the New York community.

So what should be done? To make the tech scene fairer and more respectful of women, Lawrence believes technology literacy must be integrated into all public education, starting with pre-kindergarten. “When girls are exposed early to technology, we increase the likelihood that they will pursue careers in those fields,” she says.

Technology companies also need to make sure they are welcoming to people of all backgrounds, Lawrence says. Furthermore, she says, investors have an important role to play, by paying more attention to the diversity of founding teams before providing funding.

Indeed, the paucity of funding for women-led startups is an issue that boils down to fair treatment, says Jules Pieri, CEO and co-founder of The Grommet, a Boston-area Internet firm. “When funding is a more difficult obstacle than the business, you have to ask how you are going to do this if basically you’re not welcome,” she says of the startup fundraising process.

The hope, as Pieri puts it, is that more diversity should also increase respect for others in the innovation scene. But to investors, startup culture and diversity can be seen as separate from issues of bad behavior. Brad Feld, a managing director at Foundry Group in Colorado, says via e-mail that board members “have a clearly defined responsibility. It’s not around ‘the culture’—every company develops its own culture—but what to do around inappropriate behavior in the company when it arises.”

David Teten, a partner with ff Venture Capital in New York, says a primary obligation of board members is to make sure the companies they back comply with the law regarding issues in the workplace—but that is not enough. “By the time you’re worried about lawbreaking, you’re already in trouble,” he says. “It implies you haven’t set up systems and processes to lower the odds of violating the law.” Investors and CEOs, he says, should think about putting measures in place to make sure the rights of staff are upheld.

Moreover, he says board members need to … Next Page »

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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  • typ

    “If there are issues such as sexism, that is a problem for investors, he says.”

    Not a very convincing statement, given that misogynists seem to find it much, much easier to get venture capital backers than women do. I see zero data in this article about how women fare in fundraising compared to men; the lack of any hard math seems like a willful aversion to the same realities that you’re discussing. It would be nice if any of this guff about investors saving the day was true, but where’s your evidence?

    And if you want to start close to home, how about not giving a platform to things like Steve Blank’s recent piece that declares that “Barriers of race, gender and location” are no longer a problem in tech.