San Francisco — Just five years ago, I sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm in Silicon Valley where I had worked since 2005, for bias and gender discrimination. The lawsuit, which I lost, led to the venture capital world closing ranks against me. I had trouble finding work. People were afraid to support me publicly. I was called a fraud, and greedy, and was accused of being in a fake marriage.
Now, over the past year, at least a dozen women have publicly shared their stories of being discriminated against and harassed in tech by their managers, by investors or by board members. Privately, I have heard dozens more.
What I also hear, over and over again, is the question, “Has anything changed?”
The huge change is that people now acknowledge the problem. Women telling their stories are believed, for the most part, by the public and by the press. In February, with a clear and powerful blog post about her time at Uber, Susan Fowler blew open the doors on bad behavior in tech. She made deliberate choices that made her an unassailable commentator: no litigation, no P.R. firm and detailed descriptions of each incident left no room for a smear campaign or any question of impropriety. Her clear and precise retelling of the harassment and retaliation she said she suffered — and the failures of management to fix it — are now widely known.
Before her post, others who spoke up publicly and privately about their experiences of harassment were at best ignored. Some of those people — whose names are unfortunately not well known — include Adria Richards, Amélie Lamont, Gesche Haas, Julie Ann Horvath, Kathryn Minshew and Kelly Ellis. Most were disrespected and harassed online, and many found it hard, as I did, to find work after public shaming. We saw Gamergate attack female game developers and their supporters. But they all paved the way for Ms. Fowler to be heard and believed, and for subsequent stories about sexist tech culture to be accepted at face value.
What followed Ms. Fowler’s post was a first: a public overhaul of Uber; two investigations; a report from Eric Holder, the former attorney general, with recommendations for improvement; the forced departures of at least 20 employees linked to the findings, including some executives; and the board’s stating its intent to follow the report’s recommendations. Many details were leaked or dug up — board conversations, a full audio recording of a conversation the former chief executive Travis Kalanick had with Uber’s female engineers. More women stepped up to report harassment in tech by venture capital investors and board members.
Apologies have been free-flowing. Venture capitalists have made their mea culpas and the leaders of some well-known firms have resigned. One partner at Greylock even wrote a “decency pledge” for the industry — and Greylock’s C.O.O. was asked to resign shortly thereafter. Even Mr. Kalanick gave a tearful apology — around the same time his team’s listening session with female engineers fell flat.
We’re hearing about companies writing codes of conduct covering anti-harassment that they want their investors and board members to sign.
On its face, it all sounds like meaningful change, right? Or at least it sounds a lot better than the very recent public shaming of women who came forward and the sweeping of bad behavior under the rug. But let’s not be blinded by optimism or biased by what we want to see: Certain actions, and lack of action, could keep us in this unfair loop indefinitely. Public apologies and one-off actions are superficial ways to react to criticism or put on a happy face, but they often cover up company culture failures that are hard to fix, especially if no one is seriously trying.
Many continue to describe Uber and the outed venture capitalists as a few bad apples, not indicative of the entire industry — forgetting that the whole saying is actually “One bad apple spoils the bunch.” Their behavior is part of much broader and deeper culture problems that permeate all tech — which ignored, encouraged and sometimes rewarded bad behavior — at different levels. We see companies changing C.E.O.s, but the reasons are shrouded, and they install new leaders with similar backgrounds.
We see bad actors resurface unscathed. Uber’s Travis Kalanick is said tohave made a strong effort to return as C.E.O. — and more than 1,000 employees apparently supported him. The ex-Google employee who was fired after he wrote a memo that promoted harmful gender stereotypes and questioned women’s biological suitability for tech jobs has hired a lawyer who appears to be preparing to sue the company.
I have heard from several women who spoke up in this newspaper and elsewhere this year that they continue to face harassment. They have been told that discussing their experiences has limited their careers.
And most companies don’t address the great underlying problems: the exclusion of and biases against people of color, older employees, disabled people, L.G.B.T.Q. people and many other underrepresented groups.
They continue to pay only lip service to diversity and inclusion, favoring tepid diversity initiatives over real solutions. It’s all superficial until we see leaders actually changing company cultures by making hard decisions, leading uncomfortable conversations — and firing those who are unwilling to include everyone.
So how do we clear biases and power imbalances in tech so that everyone has a fair opportunity to succeed?
We need C.E.O.s to hold themselves and their teams accountable for true diversity and inclusion. That means all people from all groups, not just women. That means understanding intersectionality — that employees can face multiple biases based on identity. That means all activities across the company, not just hiring.
Practically, it means measuring progress, holding people accountable for results by setting goals and basing their compensation on hitting those goals.
C.E.O.s lead the transformation from the top, and they need individual employees to focus efforts on change as well: Speak up, help others speak up, build bridges to those who are interested in changing and learning. I know that there is a real cost to speaking up. I have also seen that every voice can make a difference. Five years from now, if enough people speak up for others, the answer to “Has anything changed?” has the potential to be an unequivocal yes.