Employment discrimination lawyers have noticed an uptick in complaints about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. A recent article in the Mercury News explores the recent explosion of sexual harassment allegations in the Bay Area. The article is based in part on an interview with Sonya Smallets of Minnis & Smallets, who discussed the changing landscape of sexual harassment allegations.
Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a widespread problem. Recently, there has been increased attention to sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. As the Mercury News reports, some speculate that the Valley’s “testosterone-dominated tech and venture capital industries” are conducive to sexist attitudes and inappropriate workplace behavior. That might explain why a 2015 survey found that 60% “of women in tech reported unwanted sexual advances.”
There are, of course, a good many high-tech employers and venture capital firms that offer equal opportunities and a respectful work environment to employees of both genders. Still, there seems to be a risk that managers of male-dominated businesses with a culture of rule-breaking will focus on the bottom line without paying adequate attention to laws that prohibit sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Of the recent headline-grabbing sexual harassment allegations in Silicon Valley, the brightest spotlight has illuminated the work environment at Uber. The rideshare company came under intense criticism after a New York Times story highlighted an “aggressive, unrestrained workplace culture” that overlooked acts of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior committed by the company’s top performers.
A viral blog post by one of Uber’s former employees described the company’s indifference to her complaints of sexual harassment, as well as Uber’s failure to treat female engineers as favorably as it treated male engineers. Adverse publicity and resulting pressure from investors likely contributed to the resignation of Uber’s CEO and the company’s pledge to reform its practices.
At about the same time, the co-founder of venture capital firm Binary Capital resigned after six women accused him of making unwelcome advances and engaging in inappropriate touching. The accusations primarily involved women who were seeking investments for their businesses rather than employees of Binary Capital.
The most recent resignation involves the CEO of another venture capital firm, 500 Startups. The departure followed a New York Times article that discussed “inappropriate advances” that the CEO made to a candidate he was recruiting to join the firm.
It is probably true, as the Mercury News suggests, that the recent news stories can be explained, at least in part, by “a broader cultural shift as women feel increasingly empowered to report harassment.” That’s a positive development in the effort to equalize opportunities for women in the workforce. Moreover, employees who are subjected to sexually harassment have strong legal protection in California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Female founders of startups may be particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment from male investors. The balance of power in the investor/entrepreneur relationship favors the investor when the entrepreneur depends upon investors to get a startup up and running. One of the complaints made against the CEO of 500 Startups, like the complaint made against the principal who resigned from Binary Capital, came from female business owners who were seeking an investment of venture capital.
As San Francisco employment discrimination lawyer Sonya Smallets told the Mercury News, it is more difficult to police contact between entrepreneurs and investors because employment discrimination laws that prohibit sexual harassment govern employment relationships, not investment relationships. An employee who feels harassed can report the problem to a Human Resources department, but the founder of a startup has nowhere to turn. However, there are laws that protect female entrepreneurs, including laws prohibiting sexual assault and, potentially, laws prohibiting sexual harassment in circumstances where there is a business, service, or professional relationship between the harasser and the person who has been subjected to harassment.
Of course, as news reports make clear, sexual harassment in the workplace remains a problem in Silicon Valley. Fortunately, employees who been sexually harassed may have legal remedies. And, while traditional employment discrimination laws do not typically provide a remedy for sexual harassment that occurs outside of an employment relationship, there are laws that protect female entrepreneurs. The employment discrimination attorneys at San Francisco’s Minnis & Smallets are available to assist employees who have been subject to sexual harassment. To discuss your situation with a sexual harassment lawyer in San Francisco, call Minnis & Smallets at 415-551-0885 or submit our online contact form.
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