Online platforms hope to tackle sexual harassment in the tech industry

PALO ALTO — The tech industry has long been troubled by a lack of gender diversity and pervasive harassment problems. But a growing number of startups and nonprofits hope to make tech part of the solution.

The tech industry has long been troubled by a lack of gender diversity and pervasive harassment problems. But a growing number of startups and nonprofits hope to make tech part of the solution.

Tech founders will soon gain a clear way to identify sexual harassment perpetrators thanks to the expansion of Callisto, an online reporting platform that started on college campuses.

While many potential and predicted effects of the #MeToo movement in tech remain unclear, a growing number of startups and non-profit organizations have surfaced since the movement to educate sexual harassment victims on their rights.

By the end of the summer, Callisto will expand its services from 13 college campuses to 3,000 tech founders. In the campus version of Callisto, victims of sexual assault can create time stamped entries and receive a notification if someone else reports the same perpetrator on Callisto.

This first expansion into the tech industry will employ that same matching tool for tech founders specifically, as founders may be sexually harassed by venture capitalists or other investors. If two people name the same perpetrator, both will be notified that a match was found. A counselor who is either a lawyer or under supervision of a lawyer will reach out to the victims.

“It’s really just counseling the victims through their options,” said Sara Dam, Director of Campus Partner Success for Callisto.

In tech, sexual harassment often occurs in two environments. Startup founders looking for venture capitalists to invest in their company may be sexually harassed, or tech workers may be sexually harassed in office settings. Reporting sexual harassment is not just a problem when VCs are the perpetrators, but also within established companies.

In fact, the reporting problem spreads far beyond the tech industry. One in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career and 71 percent don’t speak up or report it, according to a 2015 Cosmopolitan survey. There are many reasons women do not report: not knowing what sexual harassment is or looks like, confusion on how to report it or, often, distrust towards their human relations  department.

Better Brave was co-founded by Tammy Cho and Grace Choi one year ago in an effort to help address some of these barriers, which prevent women from reporting.

Like Callisto, Better Brave uses technology to aid sexual harassment victims. It provides guides for victims to know their rights, including whether what they experienced was sexual harassment, how to report to HR, and what to do next if HR fails to act. The inspiration for Better Brave came from interviews Cho and Choi did with hundreds of people: victims and witnesses of harassment, employment lawyers and human resources experts.

“Basically [we] found that there was a huge gap in the resources that are available to employees compared to their employers, whether it was about your rights or your options in the workplace,” said Cho, who works in the tech industry.

In her research the past year, Cho found that while plenty of companies try to do the right thing when it comes to harassment, there are also many that don’t.

“I think that is part of the reason why people are exploring these different options to report outside of HR, because at the end of the day a lot of the incentive for the company is to try to protect the company, even if it’s not executed properly,” said Cho.

Research has shown that many women do not report sexual harassment to HR. Chloe Grace Hart, a PhD sociology student at Stanford conducted 27 interviews with women in tech last year and of those women, two-thirds had experienced some kind of unwanted sexual attention in the workplace. Only about 5 out of 6 took their issue to HR, and only one woman had a “good story” about how the situation was addressed, according to Hart.

“There’s this sort of system that’s set up that purports to be there to address sexual harassment, but both from experience seeing people interact with that system and general vibes about it, no one is actually seeing it as a realistic place to take sexual harassment claims,” said Hart.

This distrust towards HR was echoed by one Stanford freshman who was sexually harassed while working as a software engineer at a small to medium sized aerospace company last summer.

The Stanford freshman requested anonymity for this story because of concerns that being open about her experience could ruin her name or future career prospects. She never went to HR about the sexual harassment she had experienced because of advice she received from other women in tech.

“Basically every woman had told me don’t go directly to HR because HR is not there for you, they are there to protect the company’s reputation first,” said the Stanford freshman.

While startups like Callisto, Better Brave and others mark a change in increasing unconventional routes for reporting sexual harassment, the fear of retaliation for reporting remains. According to Jessica Stender, a lawyer and leader of the Women at Work Initiative at Equal Rights Advocates, retaliation was one of the biggest fears cited for why women don’t report in a 2015 study done by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Retaliation is illegal. However, according to Stender, “The problem with retaliation claims is, yes, there’s a law prohibiting it and you may have a strong claim or you may win, but meanwhile you’re out of a job or you’re dealing with that adverse employment action that was taken against you.”

The anonymous Stanford freshman also expressed a fear of retaliation if she spoke out. She wanted to write about her experience. But other women warned that she was so early in her career and would be blacklisted if she did.

“That sucks. I want to warn other women not to work at this company, or tell them my experience, or give advice to other people who I’m sure are going through this experience but are not lucky enough as me who had other women to talk about this with,” she said.

While frustrated, she wants to continue working in tech to make it a better place for other people.

“I don’t want it to be some kind of evil rite of passage that people have to go through,’ she said. “But that’s what it feels like.”

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