Reckoning: It's Been a 'Watershed Year' for Women in Tech
Silicon Valley technology firms faced a reckoning this year as women spoke up about sexual harassment in the workplace, leading to the resignations of prominent venture capitalists and chief executives.
The upheaval in tech has mirrored the disruption in Hollywood, the news media and on Capitol Hill as people have shared their accounts of being sexually harassed.
"It's been a watershed year for reasons we're not all proud of," said Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of theBoardlist, which aims to bring more women onto company boards. "When people spoke up, there were repercussions and there was the loss of power and the loss of reputation."
Entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, advocates and other leaders gathered Tuesday at The Atlantic's Inclusion in Tech conference to discuss the lack of diversity that has long plagued the tech industry.
From digging deeper into data to hiring more women leaders, tech firms including Google, eBay and PayPal are exploring different ways to make their workplaces more inclusive.
But one thing was clear: Diversifying Silicon Valley's workforce is a complex issue.
"This isn't a killer app," said Damien Hooper-Campbell, eBay's chief diversity officer during a panel. "There is no one quick solution that's going to solve this overnight. It's going to be a journey."
Meanwhile, diversity data released by the companies don't always paint a complete picture. And in the tech industry, there's still a perception that the best workers will simply rise to the top.
"There's some skepticism around the numbers because it feels like companies are really using them as a PR move," said Tracy Chou, co-founder for Project Include and a software engineer who has worked for Pinterest and Quora.
Tech firms, for example, don't release data about the retention of minority workers.
Being a minority engineer or entrepreneur is not a walk in the park in an industry dominated by white and Asian men.
Some female founders have resorted to unusual tactics to combat sexism.
When Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer co-founded an online marketplace for artists called Witchsy, they invented a fictional male business partner named Keith Mann after dealing with "rude" and "aggressive" developers.
"The minute (Keith) came into play, suddenly the responses were so much more receptive," Dwyer said.
And some diversity advocates said that some leaders have to relinquish some of their power.
Mimi Fox Melton, director of Code2040 -- a San Francisco nonprofit that aims to diversify the tech workforce -- said that the group is trying to raise millions of dollars in funding.
But they've encountered wealthy white men, who say they don't care about black people or refuse to open up their wallets.
"You know why?" she said. "Because what we're telling them is that we want to change the systems that made them rich, and they don't want that."
Some female venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and diversity advocates said they still remain optimistic about the future.
It's become easier to build applications and write code, opening the door for more female and minority founders, said Aileen Lee, founder and partner at Cowboy Ventures.
And women like Ellen Pao, who alleged she faced sexual harassment at her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Susan Fowler, who alleged she faced harassment at Uber, are speaking up. Now, more people who have dealt with sexual harassment, racism or sexism feel more comfortable sharing their own stories.
"The reality is that fear is motivating change," Singh Cassidy said.
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