Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Tech

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Discussion about the tech industry’s diversity—or lack of it—has largely been numbers-based and corporate-centric. Even as tech companies release breakdowns of their workforce demographics and sign formal pledges to treat diversity “as a top management priority and business imperative,” there’s been less talk about the impact an almost uniform culture can have on minority employees—whether they’re women, African-American, Hispanic or LGBT.

For the purposes of this article, we’re not focusing about discrimination, where a candidate isn’t hired or an employee is denied an opportunity because of their race or gender. We’re talking about harassment, where a worker is actively bothered or threatened either emotionally or physically.

There’s a reason why the study The Elephant in the Valley has caused such a stir. Released in January 2016, it revealed that more than 60 percent of Silicon Valley’s female tech pros had been the victim of unwanted sexual advances at work, half of them more the once. A third said the incidents made them fear for their personal safety. The study was published by a group of women in technology.

“Tech companies must take the issue of sexual harassment prevention seriously—much more seriously than they do now,” said Marta Moakley, legal editor of New Providence, N.J.-based XpertHR, an online resource that helps Human Resources departments comply with employment law. Among other things, she noted, enforcement agencies are making the issue a priority and strengthening employee protections.

Cynthia Augello, partner in the employment litigation practice of New York law firm Cullen & Dykman, agrees. During 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) “began zeroing in on gender diversity in the tech workplace,” she said. She believes IT organizations will pay more attention to sexual harassment as the industry’s diversity efforts begin to take hold.

“I do think there’s a negative climate [in technology], but I don’t think the industry can ignore that and is beginning to take it more seriously,” added Jessica Cundiff, assistant professor of psychology at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo. Many organizations, she said, are working hard to develop more inclusive environments. While that may not directly address harassment, it’s an important part of discouraging it in the first place, and taking appropriate action when incidents do occur.

Where Knowledge is Power

If you find yourself the victim of harassment, it’s important that you know your rights and how you can protect yourself and put a stop to it. “Your company should have a policy that spells out exactly what to do,” Augello said.

If it doesn’t, report the problem to your supervisor “if you feel you can.” Unfortunately, there’s a good chance you won’t: according to The Elephant in the Valley, 65 percent of the women who reported unwanted sexual advances said their superior was the perpetrator. If that’s the case, Augello said, report the incident to Human Resources or another manager.

“Unfortunately, a lot depends on the company’s culture,” said Moakley. “If managers have been trained properly, or the company maintains a hotline so [you] can go around the manager, the victim will hopefully feel empowered to do something.” Although more employees are “going outside the company” to file complaints, Moakley warned, they may be required to exhaust the organization’s processes before involving a government agency or filing a lawsuit.

The EEOC is beginning to encourage an “if you see something, say something” approach in the hopes that colleagues who witness harassment will report it to management and relieve at least some of the pressure on victims. That’s especially important when you consider that Elephant in the Valley found a significant number of victims did nothing after the incident, either because they feared for their jobs or wanted to forget it ever happened.

Unfortunately, whatever path you follow, you’re in for a grueling time. Be sure that you’ve got the social support you need and connect with people who can validate your experiences, Cundiff said.

Victims should also think about what they’ll do if they’re confronted with some sort of retaliation for reporting their harassment. According to Moakley, that involves understanding your rights under both company policy and the law, consulting an attorney, and “being as open as possible about what will make you comfortable.”

Be aware that you “may not be in on the resolution,” she pointed out. “The employee’s not in the driver’s seat. It’s up to HR and management to keep both the accused and the accuser in the loop.” Still, she said, such claims tend to be easier to prove because retaliation often comes in an obvious form, such as a sudden demotion.

Understand What You’re Dealing With

Finally, make sure you’re clear on what sexual harassment is—and isn’t.

The EEOC defines it as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Although most people think of sexual harassment in terms of men making advances on women, it can also involve men harassing men, women harassing women, and women harassing men.

Also, sexual harassment isn’t the same thing as discrimination or creating a hostile work environment. For example, specialists talk of “unconscious bias,” or stereotyping in a way that leads an individual to believe that, say, women aren’t as effective in software development as men. That’s discrimination. Harassment, said Cundiff, “is more overt.”

A hostile work environment is where a constant stream of offensive behavior can affect a number of people, rather than an individual incident or series of incidents that are directed against one. According to the EEOC, that includes making off-color jokes, name-calling, displaying offensive pictures and simply interfering with getting your job done.

Just because your boss is a jerk doesn’t mean you’re in a hostile work environment, points out Augello. “If you’re a jerk to everyone, you’re fine,” she said sardonically. “Non-discriminatory hostility isn’t the same thing as focused hostility.”