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Harassment in IT: Are things any better 40 years later?

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By: rcubed

March 7, 2017

sexual-harassmentSeveral high-profile sexual harassment cases in recent years serve as a reminder how far the tech industry has yet to advance with regard to the fair treatment of women in the workplace. Truth be told, it’s a pervasive problem in our culture that extends well beyond the IT field, however, the problem is particularly acute in IT due to the prominent lack of gender diversity in the field. It would be troubling enough if the problem were limited to discrimination in terms of unequal pay, lack of advancement opportunities, or disparaging remarks, but the fact that it includes harassment of the vilest kind, at times clearly crossing over into the criminal realm, raises the problem to crisis levels.The challenges facing women in the IT field break out into three categories:
  • Sexual harassment and bullying
  • Discrimination based on gender-denying women promotions, equal pay, and respect
  • Lack of women entering STEM fields
It’s clear that there’s a wide range of issues that need to be confronted and that would require a series of posts to even begin to address. For the sake of brevity and focus, I’ll only attempt to address the first bullet as sexual harassment remains an entrenched and stubborn problem in the IT field. It makes for a hostile work environment and presents a steep barrier to attracting talented women into the IT field. That it remains entrenched in the culture is unacceptable and we only need to examine some recent cases to understand how bad things still are:
  • Susan Fowler, an engineer at Uber, was harassed by her supervisor and then denied a transfer to another group after she made repeated reports to HR and senior management. She subsequently left the company and published a viral blog post detailing her ordeal.
  • Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, a tech venture capital firm, alleging gender discrimination.
  • A female engineer at Tesla filed a lawsuit against the company alleging a culture of “pervasive harassment.” The lawsuit is pending and she continues to work at Tesla. The company has vehemently denied her allegations.
None of these cases were resolved to the point where it could be said that the victim received justice. Uber’s CEO has at least acknowledged he needs to do better, especially after his most recent tirade again one of his own drivers, and we can only hope that he’s sincere and his statements will lead to real change at the company. In the meantime, what can be done to reverse this disturbing practice? I won’t pretend to have the answer, but I won’t let this prevent me from offering some observations from my own career in IT.When I began working in the industry in 1980 it was pretty much a jungle in the workplace. Employees were permitted to smoke in the office and I’m pretty sure that my life expectancy has been reduced by several years as a result of second-hand smoke inhalation. Alcohol flowed freely after work and in-office Christmas parties were like strolling down Bourbon Street on a Friday night. Not quite "Mad Men" level, but within spitting distance.And prior to the dawn of the internet, many people sought romance in the office. There weren’t any online dating sites or apps and certainly no social media channels to meet people virtually. This made for a highly-charged work environment with quite a bit of drama and tension. Looking back, it’s a wonder that any useful work was accomplished. But in looking back, it’s disappointing to fast forward almost forty years to see some things have remained essentially unchanged.If anything, it seems the Silicon Valley culture and the emergence of the “Brogrammer” type has made things worse. I had the privilege of working with some talented women during my career, both in engineering roles and many more in supervisory and upper management roles. The organizations where harassment – at least on the surface – didn’t exist were ones with a mature and businesslike culture. Not to say that looser, startup cultures can’t be welcoming environments, but places like Uber with aggressive business postures tend to allow it to flourish. Think “Wolf of Wall Street” meets “Nerds.”Drawing from my recent work experience, one of the organizations I work for recently conducted mandatory anti-harassment and sensitivity training for all its staff. Not many employees, including me, were looking forward to the training. We saw it as an interruption of productive work and just wanted to get it over with.An outside firm was contracted to conduct the training. Employees were separated into mixed-gender groups and then given a series of assignments to work through based around harassment and sensitivity issues. By the end of the two hour session all of us felt like we had learned some valuable lessons - even those of us who thought we didn’t need such training and had it all figured out.Such training doesn’t come cheaply, but consider the cost of harassment not only in terms of legal action, but also to an organization’s reputation and most importantly to the cruel toll it exacts from its victims. Preventing a hostile work environment begins with an organization’s leadership and is enforced by its HR department. At least that’s the way non-dysfunctional organizations should work. Uber's HR department clearly let Susan Fowler down - big time.But at some point, this behavior rises to a crime. Perhaps locking up perpetrators may be what’s required to send a clear message that physically and emotionally assaulting a colleague will not be tolerated. It's disappointing that it may have to come to this in order to make real progress, but this kind of behavior cannot be allowed to continue. Not if we want to make real progress on technological innovations of the future which will require even more talented professionals of both genders.
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