For a time it seemed that Silicon Valley’s brilliant geeks, mission-driven startups and aspirations for a more open, connected world would evolve our economy beyond the Wall Street greed that tanked it in the late aughts. But the futuristic sheen obscured age-old problems lurking beneath the surface.
Three in five women in Silicon Valley reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances, according to a landmark survey titled “Elephant in the Valley.” Two-thirds said the overtures came from a superior. Sexism in tech has long manifested itself in the frat-boy antics of young founders and diversity stats that illustrate the imbalance of pay and power that enables men to marginalize women.
Gamergate in 2014 gave the broader public a glimpse of the tech world’s distinctly atavistic hostility toward women when a mob of anonymous trolls bombarded female gamers with death and rape threats. A year later, former Facebook employee Chia Hong filed a lawsuit claiming that the company repeatedly admonished her for prioritizing her career over raising children.
This year, the issue took on renewed urgency when ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a damning first-person essay about the abhorrent sexual harassment she endured at the company. Those words forced the most valuable privately held company on the planet to face a moral reckoning.
Fowler’s account helped inspire a chain reaction of lawsuits and disclosures that culminated with the #MeToo movement at the latter end of this year. The allegations are nothing new, but the consequences are. And so is the sheer number of victims going public about their abuse.
On the cusp of 2018, the tech world, it seems, is finally at a crossroads. Here, we look at some of the most notable tech figures accused this year of either committing sexual harassment or failing to use their authority to stop it.
Uber’s Travis Kalanick got knocked from his perch as CEO of the $69 billion ride-hailing company by Fowler’s scathing 3,000-word account. In it, she detailed the unchecked sexism under Kalanick’s watch that protected high performers accused of bad behavior—perpetrators that Uber board member Arianna Huffington would later refer to as “brilliant jerks.” Fowler’s essay, which ultimately resulted in the ouster of Kalanick and about 20 other employees, marked the first time a public scandal took a material toll on Uber’s business. It also showed that people in positions of power could be held to task for abuse reported under their watch, whether or not they were directly involved.
When Bloomberg reporter Emily Chang gave voice this month to several women accusing Shervin Pishevar of sexual assault, the high-profile Uber investor denied the claims but agreed to step down from Sherpa Capital, the VC firm he co-founded. One of the women claims Pishevar kissed and groped her during a dinner convened to discuss investing in her startup. Another says Pishevar tried to put his tongue down her throat after luring her to his house with the offer of sharing career advice. What’s particularly troubling about the Pishevar scandal is how he responded to the allegations by threatening to file defamation lawsuits against his accusers. It’s a chilling reminder of why so many accusers hesitate to go on the record, even amid a cultural shift toward believing victims.
When the Android co-founder left Google in 2014 to launch a startup incubator, it looked like nothing more than a friendly departure. But Information, a tech news outlet, revealed last month that Andy Rubin’s exit came after an internal investigation into an “inappropriate relationship” he had with a female subordinate. Rubin’s defense was that the relationship was consensual. After the story broke, his company, Essential, told its employees that Rubin was taking a leave of absence “for personal reasons.”
When the New York Times this summer exposed Dave McClure as a sexual harasser, the founding partner of 500 Startups copped to the charge, admitting he’s a “creep” and bowed out from his post at the Mountain View-based tech incubator. In a mea culpa published on the blog platform Medium, McClure said he was guilty of taking advantage of many more women. “I made advances towards multiple women in work-related situations, where it was clearly inappropriate,” he wrote. “I put people in compromising and inappropriate situations, and I selfishly took advantage of those situations where I should have known better. My behavior was inexcusable and wrong.” McClure’s admission undermined his stated intentions—espoused not a month before the Times report—to support female-led startups.
Just a few months after being accused by a half-dozen women of making unwanted sexual advances, Justin Caldbeck had the gall to attempt a post-scandal comeback. In November, the Binary Capital VC changed his LinkedIn title to “Head of Self-Reflection, Accountability and Change,” and announced that he would set about educating young men about the pitfalls of “bro culture.” Victim advocates questioned the sincerity of Caldbeck’s personal campaign and whether he’s qualified to teach others how to behave considering he never modeled inclusivity at his own workplace.
The allegations have dogged hacking pioneer John Draper—aka Captain Crunch or Crunchman—for years, but a BuzzFeed article published in November finally forced the aging Silicon Valley scion to respond to the troubling claims. Several victims told reporters that the revered phone phreaker routinely preyed on men and teenagers at tech conferences by inviting them to what he called “energy workouts,” where he then sexually assaulted them. Draper, oddly enough, admitted to getting aroused during the bizarre exercises but denied they were sexual in nature. The testimonials shed light for the first time on what’s been described as an open secret in the hacker community.
Longtime tech pundit Robert Scoble left his company in October after being outed for sexually harassing and assaulting multiple women. In a public Facebook post days after the allegations came to light, the former Transformation Group executive offered a half-baked apology that named no specific actions or victims and blamed his actions on alcohol—even though some claims came after he’d supposedly gotten sober. It’s unclear how long Scoble plans to withdraw from public view.