Skip to main content

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, left, listens as former adviser to then-U.S. president Barack Obama speaks at a global entrepreneurship summit in Stanford, Calif., in 2016.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

On a Sunday in February, Berkeley, Calif.-based software engineer Susan Fowler sent out a tweet alerting her 6,200 followers that she had added a new post to her personal website. "I wrote something up this weekend about my year at Uber, and why I left," she said.

To say that Ms. Fowler's post has shaken the tech world would be an understatement.

Silicon Valley has long been rife with allegations of harassment and discrimination, tales of workplaces that seemed to operate more like frat houses than corporate offices and deals hashed out over late night, alcohol-soaked networking sessions. Yet, the focus on fixing a toxic culture always seemed to fall low on the list of priorities in the race to build the next billion-dollar company. But the swift undoing of high-profile tech executives and investors over the past two weeks is proving to be a watershed moment for the technology industry.

"What we are seeing and experiencing is absolutely a cultural change," said Alaina Percival, chief executive officer of Women Who Code, a San Francisco non-profit that encourages women to work in technology. "We're redefining what is acceptable behaviour that you can get away with and defining the consequences when inappropriate behaviour occurs."

Ms. Fowler's account of Uber's chaotic workplace – which included being propositioned by her manager and then undermined by the company's human-resources department – was the tipping point that ultimately ousted Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick, along with more than a dozen of the scandal-plagued company's executives.

The downfall of Mr. Kalanick from the helm of Silicon Valley's most valuable private company has prompted female entrepreneurs to come forward publicly with tales of sexual harassment at the hands of venture capitalists whose money greases the wheels in California's startup ecosystem.

San Francisco-based Binary Capital, which was set to close on a new $75-million (U.S.) fund, collapsed after several women accused co-founder Justin Caldbeck of predatory behaviour.

Prominent investors Chris Sacca and Dave McClure both issued apologies for what they admitted were inappropriate actions against women in the industry. Mr. McClure ultimately resigned as CEO of incubator 500 Startups after an entrepreneur said that he had sexually harassed her multiple times.

That has unleashed a fresh torrent of stories of harassment spilling forth daily across Facebook, Twitter and online publishing platform Medium. Several industry watchers have marvelled at the speed with which these allegations have toppled Silicon Valley's seemingly untouchable power brokers, particularly given that this is not the first time women have complained about sexual harassment at work, unwanted advances by male investors, or even Uber's male-dominated workplace culture.

Many in the industry had predicted that former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao's gender-discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, the powerful venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, would be the catalyst that led to widespread improvements in the industry, hopes that were dashed after Ms. Pao lost her case at trial in 2015.

Part of the recent shift appears to be driven by the change in tone around sexual assault and harassment in general, including outrage over a recording of U.S. President Donald Trump making crude, sexually-charged comments unearthed during last year's election, the sexual-assault mistrial of Bill Cosby, the ouster of Fox News executive Roger Ailes and host Bill O'Reilly and lingering anger among many women in Silicon Valley over the light sentence handed down last year for sexual assault to Stanford University student Brock Turner.

"We don't know for sure, but anecdotally, some women have talked about how these larger public events and conversations have made it easier for them to talk with each other about a whole host of overt actions, like sexual harassment, as well as more subtle biases they experience every day at work," said Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. "Before, they sort of shrugged them off as just the way things are and certainly didn't talk about them with each other."

Several of the women who later came forward to share stories about Binary Capital's Mr. Caldbeck and 500 Startups' Mr. McClure pointed to the power of Ms. Fowler's blog post to prompt change at Uber for encouraging them to go public.

"I think there a reached the tipping point where Susan Fowler's blog post about Uber's issues was so widespread and well-received that it was encouraging for other women to come forth with their own personal stories," said Angie Chang, an entrepreneur and founder of Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, a networking event for women in tech in the San Francisco Bay Area. "What we've seen happen with the other women was they didn't have such a welcome reception for their stories. They went into hiding, or they were trolled or doxed [had their personal information shared widely on the Internet] for what they did."

It was particularly important that many of the women kept detailed evidence to back up their stories, including e-mails and text messages from their harassers, Ms. Ashcraft said. She added many of the women were comparatively affluent, giving them the resources to be able to withstand a potential backlash from employers and investors.

After a string of apologies and calls for tech firms to end sexual harassment, the industry has already begun to fiercely debate potential solutions.

The New England Venture Capital Association asked its members to sign an anti-discrimination and sexual-harassment statement. Drew Koven, managing director of Los Angeles-based investment firm LDR Ventures, urged the venture-capital industry to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on unethical behaviour, saying the allegations against Mr. Caldbeck "just might be the straw that broke the VC industry's back."

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman urged venture capitalists to sign onto a "decency pledge," a move that was equally praised and criticized by several high-profile tech investors for being a largely symbolic gesture.

"This is a culture that has been allowed to fester and to rot by enablers who refused to intervene when they witnessed inexcusable behaviour or went to great length to avoid seeing it," wrote Mitch and Freada Kapor, whose investments include both Uber and 500 Startups. They called on the industry to adopt confidential complaint mechanisms to report harassment, "otherwise, we'll continue to see blogs, tweets and leaks to journalists serve as the de facto channels."

Former Wall Street executive Sallie Krawcheck is among those urging venture-capital firms' limited partners – typically institutions and other deep-pocketed investors– to start demanding more accountability from the firms and startups that they fund. "Perhaps venture firms' LPs will sit up and take notice," she wrote on LinkedIn. "After all, it's their money that has funded the industry – and thus has funded the industry's behaviour."

Aileen Lee, founder Palo Alto, Calif.-based Cowboy Ventures, which invests in early-stage companies, said she planned to steer more entrepreneurs toward investors who ran diverse and inclusive firms. "It's like, why should we make money for assholes?" she told a conference of female entrepreneurs hosted by influential startup accelerator Y Combinator.

In follow-up post, Ms. Fowler said the most important thing tech companies could do is end the widespread use in tech-industry employment contracts of non-disparagement agreements and mandatory mediation clauses, which prohibit employees from suing a company.

Others are more cautious about declaring the recent round of apologies and resignations the start of a sea change for Silicon Valley culture. To Ms. Ashcraft, the current discussion, while positive, sounds discouragingly familiar. "Many women who actively worked to address sexual harassment 20 years ago and initially made some progress are saddened and disheartened to see that in so many ways things remain unchanged," she said. "So, it's too early to tell if this is a turning point that will have lasting effects."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe