Technology companies, especially start-ups, have long been a beacon for the quirky yet talented to produce great products that make early investors and creators rich. Somewhere around 90% of startups will ultimately fail and with the speed in which tech startups can begin and either succeed or end, there is often little time spent focusing on anything other than the product. That can mean reliance on employees who are talented but possess troubled pasts with little safeguards for other employees. This especially hurts companies as they begin to expand, yet do not define best practices at an early stage. A perfect example of this has been the revelation by Susan Fowler, a former Uber employee, that was sexual harassed by a superior who told her he was looking for women to have sex with. After reporting this to HR, the company merely gave the superior a verbal warning since it was his first offense and he was a high performer. Fowler was then told that she could either transfer teams in order to not have interactions with the superior or accept that she would likely get poor performance reviews. Since this, Uber has taken positive steps to rectify this by hiring former-Attorney General Eric Holder and his firm Covington & Burling in order to conduct an independent review of not only the problems raised by Ms. Fowler, but diversity and inclusion as a whole at the company.
These types of discrimination problems are not limited to Uber alone, but have been a continued problem with start-ups and tech companies. In one survey of women with ten years of experience at tech companies, 60% reported some type of unwanted sexual advances.
While it may be impossible to completely eliminate sexual harassment, companies must take the steps, especially in the early stages, to combat these horrifying numbers.
A huge way for tech companies to do this is early investment in Human Resources and creating best practices for the most common instances of sexual harassment. This is an area that startup lawyers should inform and help their clients to address, especially in a startup’s early stages. While setting up HR guidelines may not be on the top of the to-do list for an early-stage company that may not exist in a month, as companies grow, they cannot afford to avoid to make the mistake of never addressing these issues.
More parity between men and women in startups could have a positive impact on tech culture as a whole. Beyond company recruitment practices, there continues to be a responsibility on our educational system of encouraging more diversity in STEM majors. At UC-San Diego and NC State, the two universities with the highest proportion of women in a STEM major in the nation, less than 35% of women are STEM majors. This demonstrates that it is important that universities conduct reviews and studies to determine and eliminate any causes that the universities themselves have created to divert women from STEM to non-STEM majors. Further, the combination of employment rates, starting salary, and the shortage of engineers as a whole has produced the need for the education to reevaluate the way they promote their STEM programs as a whole, including their outreach to traditionally lower represented in STEM, such as women. The reasons for a lack of equality is largely perception, not aptitude, which creates both a mandate and an opportunity to eliminate this perception.