By Peggy Drexler
“Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.”
Could it be that the tide is turning when it comes to men and women in the American workplace?
Hot on the heels of Uber chief Travis Kalanick’s resignation in the wake of various sexual assault scandals at his company, Binary Capital has announced that co-founder Justin Caldbeck is on indefinite leave after multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual advances — allegations that have been reportedly accumulating for years.
Caldbeck’s leave comes just before the Silicon Valley firm was set to embark on a new round of fundraising, stunning news to the venture capital community. Just as stunning: How quickly Caldbeck went from denying the allegations (and calling them “attacks on my character”) to acknowledging them by apologizing directly to his accusers, and even calling out his community as a whole on the issue of sexual harassment and a culture of toxic masculinity in Silicon Valley founder circles. Over the weekend, Caldbeck issued a statement expressing “regret over causing anyone to feel uncomfortable. … There’s no denying this is an issue in the venture community, and I hate that my behavior has contributed to it.”
The message in all this? When it comes to unwanted sexual advances of any kind, or in any context, women are becoming less likely to suffer in silence.
Uber — and an essay by former Uber employee Susan Fowler — is a major and very visible reason for this unwillingness to stay quiet. Kalanick’s resignation was a major step forward in the fight against workplace harassment, particularly in the tech community, where it has been rampant for years. A 2016 survey reported that 60% of women in Silicon Valley have been sexually harassed. Kalanick’s downfall began in earnest when Fowler posted her experiences to her personal blog in February. That essay, in which she described a manager who was looking for women to have sex with, and an HR department that didn’t respond to repeated complaints, launched an internal investigation at Uber and ultimately paved the way to Kalanick’s ouster.
Fowler, of course, was not the first woman to call out the tech industry for its mistreatment of women. Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao spoke about sexism in a piece in Lena Dunham’s Lenny after losing a gender discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Fowler wasn’t even the first to write about mistreatment at Uber. But just as many women called out such workplace assaults, many still saw it as an unfortunate byproduct of working in a male-dominated, financially male-controlled industry.
In the case of Caldbeck, his position as venture capitalist meant he had the power to fund, or not fund, companies, creating an already-imbalanced dynamic for the female founders who came to him seeking support — an imbalance, it seems, he eagerly sought to take advantage of and which female founders felt powerless to resist.
But, perhaps, not anymore. The ripple effect after Kalanick’s resignation has been significant and impactful, an acknowledgment that the treatment of women does matter and proving that one woman’s story can make a difference. There will be more Caldbecks in the months to come, and that’s because more women will feel empowered and emboldened to speak up. That’s not to say the problem is solved: As Fowler has pointed out, bad behavior will still be enabled by confidentiality agreements and forced arbitration — this, in tech and elsewhere — and there will be men who think themselves powerful enough to be immune to charges of impropriety.
But there will also be fewer women who are unclear that such moves are an abuse and fewer women who will decide to let it go. Will would-be harassers take note? It’s too soon to tell. Though his publicists now insist this won’t be happening, it wasn’t especially encouraging last week to hear Bill Cosby’s spokesman talking about the possibility of Cosby going around speaking to men on how to avoid being accused of sexual assault and harassment. (Here’s a tip: Don’t sexually harass.) But it’s clear that many are listening. Women certainly are.