This year, engineer Susan Fowler brought down Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. That was followed by a host of other women speaking out against powerful men in Hollywood, the media, and politics.
“There is no doubt that it has been a watershed year.” That’s what Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of theBoardlist, told attendees at The Atlantic’s second “Inclusion in Tech” summit, held in San Francisco this week.
Cassidy and other women in tech who spoke during the one-day event stressed that the watershed came not because women finally broke the silence about sexual harassment, whatever Time’s editors may believe. The change came because the women were finally listened to and the bad actors faced repercussions.
“This year, we saw people who had been holding power lose that power,” said Erica Joy Baker, senior engineering manager of Patreon and founding advisor to Project Include. “People were finally listened to…and believed.”
“What made people start caring” about what women were saying, TechCrunch reporter Megan Rose Dickey mused: “Maybe the smallest sliver of silver lining of the Trump presidency is that people are finally aware of how messed up this country is.”
Fowler, who in February wrote a blog post detailing her experiences with rampant sexism at Uber, started this year’s snowball rolling against sexual harassment in the tech world. Her post is widely credited for taking down Uber’s Kalanick. But she certainly wasn’t the first woman in tech who spoke out.
Uber’s board of directors listened to Fowler only because it was dealing with a number of problems related to Kalanick’s leadership, said Cassidy. “It was symptomatic of bigger behavior that was affecting the business,” she said, “so the board had to respond.
“If the company had been doing gloriously well, and this issue came up, I wonder” if the same action would have been taken, Cassidy said. “But because action was taken, other people were willing to speak up, and it became a snowball.
“We would all hope that change would come when things are going well, but history will show us that disruption doesn’t happen that way.”
In the past, women who spoke up caused little change, and faced personal repercussions. Baker reminded attendees about Julia Ann Horvath, who, when she left GitHub in 2014, reported two years of unaddressed harassment. “She wasn’t believed,” Baker said. “Had that happened this year, it would have been different.”
An audience member reminded the panel to also remember and honor Ellen Pao, who took on venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers and lost.
“They buried her in litigation and smeared her name through the media,” recalled Baker.
But “We are at this watershed year because Ellen spoke up, and Julia spoke up,” Baker noted. “They weren’t believed, they experienced harassment, their lives changed negatively, [but they] made it a little easier for others to tell their stories, and should be applauded for that.”
What happens next? Are the tech leaders who have been forced out of the industry because of their behavior towards women redeemable?
“I don’t need to see Travis [Kalanick] back,” said Baker. “There are plenty of talented women. We don’t need these bad actors; they can go.”
An audience member questioned whether permanent loss of power for men who have been charged with harassment is possible.
That concern is realistic, Dickey said, pointing out that Essential’s Andy Rubin, who last month took a leave of absence, but has already returned to his job. Rubin left Essential after an investigation by Google, his previous employer, determined that he had had an “inappropriate relationship” with a woman who worked under him.
“The men in power are pushing for [the reaction] to be ‘he needed to go on rehab, take a break, he’s fine,’” said Baker, but the consequences should be permanent.
Right now, for the most part, “fear is motivating change, and a pretty healthy dose of paranoia within limited partnerships and boards,” said Cassidy.
“They should be paranoid,” said Dickey. “We will find them.”
“It would be nice if it didn’t have to come to this—if people just didn’t want to sexually harass people,” Dickey added. That would obviously be far better than people holding themselves back because they will lose their jobs if they engage in such behavior.
Next, said Cassidy, the tech world needs to figure out who the good actors are, and how you make sure they rise to the top. “Boards have to use productive paranoia to keep the pressure on,” she said.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.