Over 40% of Women in Tech Say They've Been Harassed by a Boss Or Investor, According to New Report

Jenny Teo | Twenty20

More than three years after the #MeToo hashtag sparked conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace, more than 40% of women who are tech employees or founders say they've recently experienced harassment from a boss or an investor, according to a report from Women Who Tech.

The organization, which includes a network of women-led startups, investors and allies working to increase diversity and funding in the tech space, found that many women in the tech industry are still faced with toxic work cultures that impact their experiences as employees and founders.

In its survey of more than 1,000 tech founders, employees and investors, Women Who Tech found that 48% of women who are tech employees today have experienced harassment at work, with 42% saying the harassment was perpetuated by a supervisor. Of those harassed, 43% said the harassment was sexual, with some even saying they were propositioned for sex in exchange for a promotion.

Allyson Kapin, Women Who Tech founder, tells CNBC Make It that she's not surprised by these statistics as the tech industry has historically done a bad job at holding company leaders and investors accountable for not just ongoing acts of sexual harassment, but also acts of sexual discrimination.

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Harassment of female employees

As a result of the #MeToo movement, Kapin says we've seen more cases of sexual harassment come to the forefront, forcing companies to take accountability for the issues they have long swept under the rug.

She points to Google as a prime example. The company gave Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, a $90 million exit package when he left the company in 2014 following accusations of sexual misconduct (Rubin has denied any wrongdoing). In 2019, shareholders filed a lawsuit against Google's parent company, Alphabet, for allegedly covering up and mishandling sexual misconduct cases including the allegations against Rubin. Earlier this year, Alphabet settled that lawsuit by agreeing that executives will no longer receive severance or be able to amend their stock sale plans while under investigation for sexual misconduct.

Shareholders' response to Rubin's situation, Kapin says, was a direct result of the #MeToo movement's impact. "But," she explains, "on a mass scale, harassment has not gone down. If anything, there are pockets of harassment that have actually gone up."

In fact, Kapin says that while the movement has given some women in tech the courage to speak out and take action against their harassers, the lack of accountability in the industry has also led other women to remain silent. Roughly 45% of female tech employees who have experienced harassment say they reported the incident to senior leadership, a decrease from the 55% who reported these incidents in Women Who Tech's 2017 survey. This ongoing silence, Kapin says, is due to women not having faith in their employer's response method, with 67% of women saying they do not have a lot of trust in how their company will handle harassment allegations.

"That is so significant, and I think the problem is that people who work for companies don't feel that they have HR departments that are truly looking out for them," she says. "HR has traditionally been set up to protect the company from liability. It hasn't been set up to protect employees."

To change this dynamic, Kapin says human resource departments need to go beyond anti-harassment workshops because that alone won't solve the problem. "The problem," she says, "is creating a culture and a set of values where you do not tolerate a toxic culture of harassment and that people who are employees in the company have a place they can go to safely report harassment incidents, where they will not fear a culture of retaliation and that actual people who are committing harassment will be held accountable."

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Harassment of female founders

In addition to HR departments holding company leaders accountable, Kapin says the tech industry also needs to do a better job at holding investors accountable for sexual discrimination and sexual misconduct against female founders. Roughly 44% of women founders today say they've been harassed in the tech industry, according to Women Who Tech's survey. Of those who said they have been harassed, 43% say the harassment occurred within the last 12 months, and 40% said the harassment came specifically from an investor, with many women founders saying they were explicitly propositioned for sex in exchange for investment funding and introductions.

Aside from ongoing harassment, nearly 50% of women founders say they were told they would raise more money if they were a man, and 55% say they feel like they received "differential treatment while raising funding, specifically because of their gender."

DeShuna Spencer, CEO and founder of the streaming service kweliTV, says that while she hasn't experienced sexual harassment from an investor, she has received many sexist remarks that have impacted her journey to raising money.

"One investor told me that I looked so young and that I was at the right age because it's hard to invest in women after they turn 28," she says, while explaining that the investor said after a certain age "all women are going to want to do is have children and they're not going to be thinking that much about the business." Spencer says those sentiments were echoed by another investor who told her that as a woman she should never tell her age in the business because if she's over 30 she would have a hard time getting investments. To this day, Spencer says she refuses to share her age publicly.

Since the 2017 launch of kweliTV, a platform that focuses on sharing Black stories globally through curated independent films, documentaries, web series and events, Spencer says she's raised just $100,000 in investment funding. "You know that's not even close to what other companies have raised," she says, while referring to the streaming service Quibi. Quibi launched earlier this year, raised nearly $2 billion in funding and, after a lack of subscribers, shut down just a little over six months after being in business.

Spencer says she knows the challenges she's faced with raising capital are no different than the challenges other women, specifically women of color, have faced in the industry. In 2019, just 2.7% of venture capital funding went to female-only founded companies. Between 2018 and 2019, just 0.64% of venture capital investments went to Black and Latinx women-founded companies.

Kapin says she believes part of the problem is that the investor space is still filled with mostly White men, leading to bias in investor-making decisions and very little accountability for sexist comments or inappropriate behavior. Earlier this year, All Raise, a nonprofit that focuses on accelerating the success of female founders and funders, revealed that while more women became VC partners than ever before in 2019, 65% of VC firms still do not have one female partner.

To help fix the industry's diversity problem, Kapin, along with tech leader Kate Brodock, launched the W Fund in 2019. "We are putting our money where our mouth is and directly funding underrepresented startup founders," Kapin says. "And that is what we need. We need a grand swell of investors coming into the VC world to honestly shake things up and do things differently."

Right now, she says, the industry has operated under an old school mentality of "pattern recognition" where venture capitalists, who are mostly White men, are funding companies that are founded by people who look like them and who went to elite schools. And while she's happy about the investment fund that she and Brodock have launched, she says the tech industry, and other industries, have to break the habit of relying on women and people of color to come in and fix things.

"I do not think that we should have that emotional labor on us to come in and be like, 'You all screwed up with your pattern recognition. Now, we're in this complete mess of only funding White men who went to Stanford and now we have to come in and fix it,'" she says. "And that seems to always happen to women and to people of color."

Instead, she says, "we should have a startup ecosystem and a VC world where everything is equitable and where we're funding game-changing startups no matter who is running them."

Disclosure: CNBC's parent company, NBCUniversal, is an investor in Quibi.

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