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How the Tech World Apologizes

The perpetrators of this pervasive issue are offering fixes instead of listening to their victims

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Silicon Valley is in the midst of a disturbing bout of show-and-tell. After months of reports revealed that Uber’s culture was allegedly rife with sexual harassment and gender discrimination, Travis Kalanick was finally forced to take the fall for his company’s apparent failings in late June, when he resigned as CEO. Within 24 hours, there was a new story cataloging allegations of a prominent man in Silicon Valley’s VC community making unwanted advances. Others would soon follow.

The details are what you’d expect: social gatherings leading to uncomfortably intimate touching. Business communications devolving into explicit, unwelcome flirtations. A powerful VC faced with the question of whether he should “hire you or hit on you,” in reference to the woman across the table from him. As The New York Times recently observed, the frank discussion among women in tech who are being subjected to this behavior “suggests a cultural shift in Silicon Valley, where such predatory behavior had often been murmured about but rarely exposed.”

These accusations have also turned Medium into the de facto apology platform — and, in a strange twist, a place for the accused to offer their advice on how to fix the problem. “Listening to these stories, and being reminded of my past, I now understand I personally contributed to the problem,” wrote Chris Sacca, a former Google executive and entrepreneur. His post, titled “I Have More Work to Do,” went live before The New York Times published its story, in which a female entrepreneur accused him of touching her face in a way that made her uncomfortable. “I made advances towards multiple women in work-related situations, where it was clearly inappropriate,” Dave McClure, the founder of the incubator 500 Startups, wrote in a post titled “I’m a Creep. I’m Sorry.” “I put people in compromising and inappropriate situations, and I selfishly took advantage of those situations where I should have known better.” McClure published the post after the same New York Times detailed an accusation that he sent an inappropriate Facebook message to an entrepreneur who was interested in a job at his company, and subsequently was removed from the business altogether as more accounts of his unsavory behavior went public. “In fact — all this attention and scrutiny I’ve been getting has certainly shown me how important every single [thing] I say and do — matters,” Marc Canter wrote, somewhat cluelessly, after the same article quoted flirtatious texts he sent to a startup founder he was advising.

Along with those apologies came a few unprompted suggestions as to how they might improve the startup scene’s gender dynamic. In the case of Canter, that meant doubling down on four areas of improvement when dealing with his company, Instigate.ai: “Recognition,” “Repentance,” “Respect,” and “Reparation.” “I am actively seeking to recruit female engineers and board members,” he wrote. “That’s the best thing I can do — focus on real ACTION.” Sacca’s apology also included a four-part plan in which he pledged to “directly support women and other underrepresented groups in entrepreneurship,” and “listen, learn, and invite feedback as to how I can best help improve this industry and this world for women and other underrepresented groups.”

The urge to apologize — or preemptively apologize — is understandable. But doing so while offering lofty solutions about how to fix the industry’s lopsided gender dynamic takes a certain kind of clueless confidence that helped create Silicon Valley’s toxic culture in the first place. Especially when those solutions are far more vague than the precise DAUs and OKRs that investors rely on to measure the success of their companies. The men in question are offering big-picture ideas to fix a problem they are just now beginning to see. But that’s beside the point. The current issue raised by the women who named them is not related to funding or promoting female startups. Instead, it’s about preventing the crime of sexual harassment. And save for Canter, who took his areas of improvement from danah boyd, a woman he harassed, it doesn’t seem to occur to these men who’ve admitted to crossing boundaries that instead of offering their own advice, they should look for solutions from the women in tech who experienced the harassment themselves. It is incredibly short-sighted to have done a bad thing, and then — instead of asking how to not do it again from the people you’ve wronged — offer wisdom as to how we all might fix it.

Like boyd, other women who’ve endured this harassment also happen to have some ideas. Cheryl Yeoh is an entrepreneur who detailed McClure’s multiple unwelcome advances toward her after the New York Times story broke two weeks ago. “When facts and details are not publicly disclosed, the whole matter gets lumped into one big black box of inappropriateness,” she wrote on her personal blog. “Non-consensual, sexual advances are not the same as flirtatious comments from a creepy dude.” She went on to advocate that the tech industry reform its sexual harassment policies by classifying levels of inappropriateness in the workplace, creating safe channels to report incidents, training VCs and founders on how to identify the behavior, and conducting surveys related to the problem.

Similarly, Brittany Laughlin, a partner at Lattice Ventures who has also been propositioned on the job, tackled the issue head-on in a guide for investors and entrepreneurs last month. Her advice advocated for startups to “treat stories [of harassment] as data points, not accusations,” revisit policies regularly, and give offenders swift and decisive feedback. She even argued, somewhat controversially, that first-time instances of inappropriate behavior should be given more leeway as a teaching moment if the harassment does not qualify as a crime.

“If we cut people off as soon as they make one mistake, we lose an opportunity to improve,” she wrote. “Let’s take improvement over perfection.”

In May, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler weighed in on how companies could do more to protect their female employees. As she watched the fallout from detailing her experience with sexual harassment, she continued to offer suggestions for how to improve. In a blog post, she argued that companies should eliminate forced arbitration in employee contracts, stop “buying employees’ silence” when lawsuits arise, ease up on strict workplace confidentiality agreements, institute training, and “[enforce] zero-tolerance policies toward unlawful and/or inappropriate behavior.” She even acknowledged the misdirection that many male leaders seemed to be promoting in their discussion of the problem.

“Diversity and inclusion efforts are a huge part of making sure that women and minorities are employed by tech companies and are included appropriately within companies, and I’m excited to see how current diversity and inclusion efforts pay off in the next 1–5 years in Silicon Valley,” she wrote. “However, diversity and inclusion efforts aren’t going to help or protect women and minority employees if they’re being silenced or treated unlawfully.”

Surely more of these apology posts will crop up, and when they do it’s helpful to keep in mind the experiences and advice of boyd, Yeoh, Laughlin, Fowler, and countless other victims. Recent venture capitalist mea culpas have all made vague declarations to improve, to fix what’s broken, and to collect feedback in the process. But they’ve missed the point of the discussion entirely. Women in tech have been experiencing this for years. And they’ve used their first-hand knowledge to make clear, concise recommendations to reform sexual harassment policies. Now it’s time for companies, investors, and advisers to stop apologizing, start listening, and finally act with purpose.