“At every single job, I have had one of the [superiors] harass me.”
“I had a boss ask me if a coworker ‘made me wet.’ I had a coworker masturbate to porn in front of me and threaten to find where I lived and then harm me.”
“I was the only female on the 12-person management team. I was talked over in meetings and had my area of expertise ‘mansplained’ to me. I made a complaint to HR and they said they would address it. A few weeks later I was let go.”
These are just a few examples from the nearly 800 responses to an online BuzzFeed News survey this summer that asked people to tell us about their harassment and discrimination experiences in the tech industry. Their stories were sobering: More than 500 respondents said they’d been targeted with harassment and discrimination — i.e., racism, sexism, ageism — while working in tech. Most said that the experiences had far-reaching implications for their careers and personal lives.
Tech is one of several fields — including entertainment, media, academia, and politics — that have been rocked by an outpouring of sexual harassment and discrimination allegations in 2017. Silicon Valley’s harassment problem is exemplified by stories of blatant prejudice, like ex-Google employee James Damore’s anti-diversity memo, and abuse, like the allegations of systemic sexism detailed in Susan Fowler’s Uber blog post and the alleged behavior of certain powerful venture capitalists whom female entrepreneurs accused of harassment and intimidation. This kind of mistreatment was reflected in the hundreds of responses to our survey and in dozens of follow-up interviews we conducted. Our respondents also detailed the insidious, death-by-a-thousand-cuts effects of harassment and discrimination that are harder to put a finger on. (Although most survey responses were about sexism, our respondents also reported other types of discrimination.)
These are not a few unusual stories; rather, they are part of a tech workplace culture that, since its inception, has often treated women like second-class citizens. And it’s that systemic, day-to-day harassment that eventually wears so many people down. As one woman who’s worked in tech for years told us: “It’s guys defending the ‘grab the pussy’ remark. It’s being told you improve a male colleague’s view from where he’s sitting. … Most of it isn’t anything you can report or if you do, you’ll just get gaslighted and told it’s not really what you think it is.”
BuzzFeed News received responses from a swath of people who identified as women, men, members of the LGBT community, and people of many different races and ethnicities. The results of our survey aren’t scientific: We did not verify individual claims, beyond reaching out to people who left us their contact information and agreed to be contacted; because of the topic, verification is difficult. But the scope and the common themes that we saw in so many of these stories paint a portrait of an industry with deeply rooted problems, and they also reveal the extent to which people who have experienced harassment and discrimination find their lives irrevocably changed.
We heard from people at companies large and small, from people who worked at companies in Silicon Valley and in small towns in the middle of the country. Women were overrepresented in our survey: 76% of our respondents identified as female. In the tech industry as a whole, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data, 64% of employees are male. People who identified as a racial or ethnic minority were 26% of our survey responses; EEOC data show that around 29% of tech workers identify as Asian American, African American, or Hispanic (Hispanic people can be of any race). Twenty percent of respondents identified as members of the LGBT community.
“The day-to-day systemic stuff is what people stop wanting to go to work for.”
One veteran of the industry said that early in her career, she was “almost raped” at a conference, but “it’s the day-to-day of how I am treated over and over again by certain men” that’s made her feel most hopeless. “The day-to-day systemic stuff is what people stop wanting to go to work for.”
At a conference a few years ago, she said was seated next to a teenage junior employee at her company whom people kept assuming was the CTO — instead of her. “That’s what women have to look forward to,” she said. “People assuming a 19-year-old man is the CTO over a woman.”
“I feel like I’m fighting all the time to be taken seriously and be included,” said one woman founder, who claims she was essentially forced out of her own company by a male cofounder she’d asked to join her business. “It’s hard to tell if someone’s really discriminating against you because you’re female. You think you’re crazy.”
Such situations can be incredibly harmful to people’s emotional well-being. “Discriminatory experiences are often associated with increased stress, anxiety levels, depression, and reduced levels of self-esteem,” Erin Eatough, assistant professor of psychology at Baruch College, told BuzzFeed News. “These behaviors that people are exposed to are extremely relevant to their psychological health.” In fact, according to Eatough, these kinds of gray-area aggressions can still wreak havoc on an employee’s mental health and job performance — even though they may be more difficult to detect than, say, an incident of assault.
Still, many survey respondents told BuzzFeed News that plenty of harassment in the tech industry is not subtle at all. “I worked for a company that was the cliché of everything wrong with startups,” wrote one woman. “I was harassed by an HR/Talent Director so horribly I had to work from home for a week. Coworkers asked my significant other what I looked like naked. I was talked down to and paid less than everyone else at the company. … After giving my notice, no one from the executive team would speak [to] or even look at me, and [they] lied to the rest of the company about why I left.”
“I had my breast touched at a work event,” wrote another woman. “I was reprimanded for saying, ‘hey, that could be construed as sexual harassment.’ I quit within the week after being interrogated by my boss, VP, and HR. I was told I was the one causing problems.”
Of survey respondents who experienced discrimination and/or harassment, nearly 61% said it had affected their personal lives.
Women reported repercussions that encompassed both the psychological and the physical. One woman said she became depressed, gained weight, and had to get a night guard from jaw pain brought on by stress. In addition, she wrote, “a two-year boyfriend broke up with me because I wasn’t fun to be around anymore.”
Another woman wrote that after experiencing repeated physical and verbal assault at a tech conference, and being accused of lying after she brought it to the organizers’ attention, she tried to kill herself: “I have PTSD from the trauma.”
Harassment and discrimination can also take a significant toll on the careers of people who experience it. “It’s caused excessive amounts of stress in my life,” wrote one woman. “It’s also affected my career progression. I am not getting promoted because I keep having to switch jobs when HR doesn’t handle situations.”
“It’s hard to tell if someone’s really discriminating against you because you’re female. You think you’re crazy.”
That’s not surprising, according to Jay Finkelman, a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. People who experience harassment and discrimination in the workplace can become more isolated on the job, and possibly at home as well, said Finkelman. In addition, “individuals under these circumstances are likely to leave more frequently, so the average tenure is reduced,” he said.
One woman whose boss went to her company’s CEO after she reported him for harassment, tried to transfer to another department within her company. “But he blocked every attempt to transfer. So I left, and then couldn’t get unemployment because ‘I willingly quit my job.’ I got a freelance job with a company that did some work with my old boss, and my old boss found out about it and pulled some strings to get my freelance contract canceled.”
“I’m actively looking for new opportunities because my current employer didn’t fire my manager after he kicked down a door and screamed in my face,” wrote another woman.
Another woman, who has worked mostly at small startups outside of Silicon Valley, left a job after a manager wrapped his arms around her from behind and joked about “slapping” employees who make mistakes. She told BuzzFeed News that when she complained about the atmosphere, she received low marks for “team spirit” on her next performance review, despite having a stellar work record.
At her next job, she said, a manager grabbed her by the hair at a bar and told her she looked “sexy.”
“All I could think was, ‘what did I do to make this happen again? And, ‘nobody’s going to believe me after what happened at my last job.’”
While the stereotypical picture of harassment in the workplace is of a superior harassing a subordinate, survey respondents who had been harassed or discriminated against at work reported that it came from superiors, equals, and subordinates alike. Certainly, the largest percentage of people — 85% — said they’d been harassed by a superior, but 75% said they had been harassed by an equal, and 30% said they were targeted by a subordinate. (Respondents could choose more than one option.)
Perhaps that’s owing, in part, to the ways that tech’s culture can enable harassment. From tech giants to small startups, the industry prides itself on being unconventional, moving fast and breaking things, and competing to offer the most in-office perks to a relatively young workforce. For these fast-growing companies, establishing rigorous HR protocols and training their employees about proper etiquette and how to prevent harassment and discrimination is often an afterthought.
“I was told I was the one causing problems.”
Amid reports in early 2017 that its workplace encouraged partying on the job and cutthroat competition among employees, Uber became a poster child for the kind of prized startup whose hard-charging, “unconventional” culture is enabled by an ineffectual HR department. And at these kinds of companies, drinking is often inextricably woven into that experience. As one survey respondent at a different company said in a follow-up interview, “At the company I was working at, they had a keg in the kitchen that was open at a certain time every day. That got very out of hand, to the point where they had to stop having a keg in the office. But all of the work events are alcohol-based, and a lot of people had issues at work because they were drunk at work.” Having beer in the fridge at all times can seem normal in the tech startup world, but it also creates a work environment that can normalize drinking on the job and the behavior that can come with it.
Many people who responded to our survey said they didn’t report the abuse they experienced because they assumed their HR departments would not do anything about their complaints. Other women were contract employees, freelancers, or entrepreneurs who didn’t have a real HR option to reach out to. Those who did report harassment often found HR departments that were out of their depth or nonresponsive, or that outright dismissed their complaints.
One woman wrote that she was harassed by a peer employee at company events. After she reported him to HR, “his manager reprimanded me for going to HR and warned me that I shouldn’t go to HR for issues regarding his staff.”
Ultimately, many women said they had to weigh the cost of speaking out about their harassment. Several who had reported harassment to their company’s HR departments said that they’d been subsequently “let go” despite stellar performance reviews. Others said they had been blacklisted in their field within tech for speaking out. And for those who pursued legal action against their companies, revisiting their harassment in court was also traumatic. “I was devastated, on top of giving my testimony in court,” one woman said, “I’m still trying to decide if I will even go back to work in the industry.”
After speaking out publicly about her harassment at a well-known tech company, “I got blacklisted at pretty much every tech company in the Bay Area,” another woman wrote in her survey. “I heard from friends that no company wanted a whistleblower like me, so I was unemployed for eight months. Even with years having gone by, it’s still hard.”
Out of the almost 800 responses to our survey and the dozens of follow-up interviews BuzzFeed News conducted, only a few respondents shared stories in which their companies’ HR departments appeared to have handled an assault or harassment claim satisfactorily.
“I got blacklisted at pretty much every tech company in the Bay Area.”
One, a woman in her twenties, told BuzzFeed News that when she reported that two coworkers had sexually assaulted her after a company party, her company’s HR department was “amazing with how they treated me. … They were so sensitive to how I felt as a person.”
She was able to get one of the men who assaulted her to discuss on Google Chat what had happened — evidence that she brought to her HR department, along with other texts that man had sent her the night the assault occurred. A few days after she first reported it, HR called her on the phone and the company’s attorney told her the results of their investigation. Both men took full responsibility for what they’d done, and they resigned.
The woman never reported the assault to the police, and said she was aware that HR’s actions were ultimately protecting the company. Nonetheless, she said, “I feel so grateful that they were so supportive and didn’t question me once. They believed me right away. I feel so grateful to work at a tech company that actually did the right thing because I don’t think that that’s often the case.”
In a world where, until now, abusers and harassers rarely saw real consequences for their actions, this woman’s experience has been all too rare — but there are signs that the high-profile resignations and suspensions that have been in the news could inspire more rank-and-file employees to speak out. The idea that employees and managers can get away with bad behavior is being challenged, and nondisclosure agreements, which have been a tool to silence victims, are coming under increasing scrutiny. But the real sign of a sea change in attitudes, actions, and accountability when it comes to sexual harassment in tech will be when the industry no longer makes excuses for or dismisses complaints about the persistent, insidious kind of discrimination that so many of our survey respondents experienced. When this kind of behavior is deemed just as unacceptable as more obvious harassment and abuse, perhaps, finally, the tech industry will be held accountable — and change.
Ellen Cushing contributed reporting to this story.
Doree Shafrir is a senior tech writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Doree Shafrir at email@example.com.
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