Sexual predators and the “bro culture” in technology

 

15 October 2017 (Frankfurt, Germany) – What we learned this week was that while others might go to prison for rape and sexual deviance, powerful people go to rehab. Or become President of the United States.

After decades of both alleged and admitted patterns of abusive and coercive sexual behavior, Harvey Weinstein appears to be seeking a “do-over”. He is now ensconced in an Arizona “sexual addiction rehabilitation” clinic … costing $37,000-per-month. The same place Tiger Woods went after his sexcapades. It includes equine therapy, expressive arts therapy, meditation, yoga and counseling.  With a two star Michelin chef thrown in.

Weinstein posed his “conflict” as a sort of infection that could be eradicated:

“My journey now will be to learn about myself and conquer my demons.” 

In doing so, he managed to downplay his own agency in harboring or cultivating these demons. He appears to have been watching old Saturday Night Live clips on Youtube. I was reminded of the 1980s Phil Hartman recurring character sketches, the unfrozen caveman lawyer:

“I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”

Weinstein’s implication? That standards of decency and professionalism had shifted beneath his feet, and he is a naïve old dinosaur who can’t help how much he loves sex. The answer, apparently, is a jaunt to rehab for “sex addiction.” Then back to you with more ideas real soon!

Harvey Weinstein is Hollywood’s oldest horror story. In today’s New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd quotes from Shirley Temple’s autobiography Child Star wherein she described going with her mother to see her new bosses at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after leaving Fox:

Louis B. Mayer spirited away her mother, Gertrude Temple. The curly-haired superstar – hailed by F.D.R. for helping America get through the Depression – was taken to the office of Arthur Freed, an associate producer on “The Wizard of Oz.”

After telling her that she would have to get rid of her baby fat, Freed abruptly stood up and pulled out his penis. The 11-year-old had never even seen one before and laughed, which offended the producer.

“Get out!” he shouted.

When she rejoined her mother, an affronted Gertrude told Shirley that she had had to back out of Mayer’s office when he lunged at her.

As Temple wrote:

“Not for nothing was the M.G.M. lot known as the ‘factory,’ a studio perfumed with sultry, busty creatures with long legs and tight haunches, and more than its quota of lecherous older men.”

Nearly 80 years later, that aroma of perversion and maladroit du seigneurclings to Hollywood. Now we are inundated with grotesque tales of Harvey Weinstein pulling out his penis to show to appalled and frightened young women, enlisting the pimping help of agents and assistants to have actresses delivered to his hotel rooms, where he pestered the women to watch him shower or give him a massage or engage in intimate acts.

I won’t recap all the stories you have probably read this past week.  I will end this part of the post with a short clip (from a longer interview) from the actor Emma Thompson who pretty much says it all – Weinstein is a bully, a predator and that’s Hollywood:

Sexual predators and the “bro culture” of Silicon Valley has been getting long-overdue scrutiny thanks to recent reports of inappropriate sexual behavior by disgraced female venture capitalists, and female programmers throughout the Valley. Frankly, it’s been amazing to see the swift demise of tech titans such as Dave McClure, Jason Caldeck, Chris Sacca and Travis Kalanick.

Well, maybe not Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber. As Brad Stone tells it in his account The Upstarts, Uber and Lyft Kalanick is the latest entrant into the burgeoning pantheon of tech sociopaths. Yes, his departure will deprive the press of a major quotient of noxious statements and bad behavior, as Kalanick indulged in more tech-bro phraseology than most people ever breathe:

His infamous claim that his riches granted him women on demand – “we call that Boob-er” – was one of many hints that he might be inclined to foster a sexist company culture. 

Stone goes on to detail the toxic culture of male entitlement at Uber, and other Silicon Valley companies.

The personal loathsomeness of Kalanick obscures the broader trends that made his company possible. The cult of the CEO has constrained the imagination of the press. “Is Uber’s culture too damaged to change? Will it lose out to Lyft?”

Stories like these place too much emphasis on how a single individual shapes an organization. Sexual harassment and discrimination pervade Silicon Valley like fog. Even well-established Google was revealed in a recent study to suffer from “extreme gender pay disparity.” A 2016 survey of Silicon Valley workers titled “Elephant in the Valley” revealed that 60 percent of women in Silicon Valley had suffered harassment, and one in three felt afraid for their personal safety. One would have to go back to the office world of the 1970s to find such an asphyxiating atmosphere of fear and gaslighting. Or just hop over to Fox News.

What makes Silicon Valley novel – or perhaps a throwback to Standard Oil and the railroads – is the homology between the the companies’ internal culture of predation, sexual and otherwise, and the swashbuckling illegality of their public maneuvers. For all the hoopla over their parental leave and benefits, Valley companies extract punishing hours from their workers, whose salaries they keep artificially low by ensuring they can’t shift jobs. In the world at large, they gain monopoly power by busting regulations, flouting antitrust laws, and buying politicians.

Uber and Lyft claimed their success was due to better software, better algorithms, and better responsiveness.

Bullshit. Their overwhelming advantage came from breaking the law. They flooded streets with unlicensed cars acting as taxis, first in San Francisco and then in cities everywhere, because they thought nobody would stop them. Unlicensed Uber drivers would be pulled over and fined by police. But the company could use its store of venture capital to pay the fines, and in no time, the unlicensed drivers would be back on the streets. Then they paid millions of dollars to lawyers and lobbyists to get the taxi laws changed in jurisdiction after jurisdiction … relying on a web-funded venture capital kitty that no taxi association could match.

This internal culture of predation, sexual and otherwise, and swashbuckling illegality is all over the Valley. I am a shareholder in a venture capital fund called EAM Capital Partners. Most of our investments are in legal technology, either directly or through a master partnership wherein we participate via a bigger player.

The following story was told to me last week by the female VP of a start-up that our master partnership was considering:

I am awaiting the VCs (all guys) in the hotel lobby (your partnership among them).  We grabbed a table in the main bar and I started my pitch. You know, the usual: market size, product screenshots, revenue estimates – I was pitching my heart out, sharing my vision with the guys who could help us turn it into reality.  
 
One of them was leaning back in his chair, scanning the room and barely listening. A cocktail waitress interrupted my pitch for a few seconds as she placed drinks in front of us. Then she turned to walk away.  “Check out her ass!” the guy said. Everybody laughed in agreement.
 
I was mid-sentence. Stunned, I kept right on with my pitch.  What am I supposed to do? Agree that our waitress is nicely proportioned, just to find common ground with him?  Roll my eyes and laugh it off, as if to say, “bros will be bros”? Call him a jerk didn’t seem like a good idea, either. I had a real responsibility to my employees and feared that we’d never get funding if VCs saw me as a troublemaker.  
 
 

Good question. What do women do in male-dominated industries, facing this every day? This behavior is unacceptable and yet it’s tolerated. Why? Because VCs hold all the cards.   Without capital, most ideas die on the vine. So when you’re a new entrepreneur, you desperately need someone to believe in you, to fund you, to help you bring your idea to life.  I’ve been told countless times that female start-up founders and female start-up staff put up with a little harassment here and a few unwanted advances there, so that they can afford to pay their employees and push their vision one step further. It’s not a fair trade-off but, with VCs in control of the purse strings, sometimes it seems like the only option.

Jenny Conner, the founder of a start-up, put it this way on her blog:

The real problem is that this behavior doesn’t stop with the VCs.  Their attitudes and actions cascade through their portfolio companies and into their portfolio companies’ cultures. If these guys (and yes, most investors are guys) don’t act like mature and respectful adults, should we be surprised that some male founders (and yes, most tech founders are guys) and some of their male employees (and yes, most tech employees are guys) act like sexist jerks too?  When things get out of hand, as they certainly seem to be right now (ask anyone at Uber), VCs should be the first and most prominent ones to push for change and demand discipline, behavioral as well as financial.  Until these big money players step up, this cycle of dysfunction will continue.  

And Hollywood and Silicon Valley are not the only businesses where this happens, where we have casualties to this kind of behavior. It happens in every industry. The response I hear is “Well, if she’s sexually harassed she can just quit!”  Really. She just gives up a livelihood that depends upon the income, medical coverage, etc. Why should she give up earned benefits and the hassle a new job search just so a harasser can move on to his next victim?

“Well, she can sue!”  Oh, yes. She could definitely sue. But it takes gobs of money or a lawyer willing to do it pro-bono, and then she gives up all her time to litigation, and she will probably be seen as unemployable.

Last weekend I read Ellen Ullman’s new book Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology. It chronicles her experiences in the tech world from 1994 to the present. For those of my readers in the tech world she needs no introduction. But for the rest of you …

She is a former software engineer and a writer who started programming in the late 1970s and was a first-hand witness to the rise of the internet and the various tech booms and busts of the last forty years. She wrote a memoir in 1997 titled Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents. The book is often described as a “cult classic.” The words “close to the machine” refer to the programmer’s relationship to the innards of the computer. It is considered the best book ever written on the art of programming.

In her latest book she includes a lot of material on the “bro culture” in Silicon Valley, moving episodes in her life as a programmer where she was basically trapped in a very childish, teenage-boy culture that seems completely cut-off from the richer aspects of human life. These are the people who are writing the code that more and more dominates our lives. Some of her key bits:

Does the puerile culture come from the nature of coding itself? No. There is nothing in coding that is inherently female or male. It takes a particular kind of person to stay with the profession, a high tolerance for failure. Failure inducing a sense of intrigue. A rush of pleasure when something works. This special sort of drive can overcome anyone.

Many of my co-workers were functionally illiterate outside of engineering disciplines. Many were horribly challenged interpersonally. I once worked with a guy with whom I was supposed to create a new human interface. He refused to talk to me. We communicated only by email and a shared white board. If he could not look me in the eye (I sat ten feet away from him), how could he possibly invent a rich interface that envisioned the complexity of the human beings on the other side of the screen?

Software engineers are not “in charge” of the new directions computing technology will take. But the culture they work in is created by the ones who are in charge. Venture capitalists (rich white men, now trending to be younger) choose which startups to fund. The founders they choose are, again, overwhelming men, white and Asian-and young. The application for support from Y Combinator, the premier source of seed money, asks for the applicant’s age. Investors are charmed by boys who wrote complicated software when they were 11.

The young-male culture seeps down from there. One founder, who was looking for a vice president, told the HR person that he wanted someone under 26 years old. The HR person told him it was illegal. They hired a man under 26 years old. Then the officers look for managers who are young guys, and they in turn look for young-guy programmers. And down we go into the coding rooms. From top to bottom: a closed society of young men, where sexism can be practiced with impunity.

It’s a great book. She makes it clear she does not  expect everyone to become a professional programmer – and is against the idea that “everybody must be taught to code!” Teach them how to identify and understand needs, as well as how to visually express logic. Teach them how technology works, so they can understand the realm of possibility … and then maybe they can envision real game-changing innovations, not just how to update an app. Create an environment where they don’t even have to think about writing code.

 

 

Her central point is to demystify code, let the general public learn that code is written by human beings, who have their preconceptions and biases, and can be changed by human beings. It’s no news to say that we’re bound up in “the chains of  algorithms” (she uses that medieval metaphor intentionally). The algorithms are rife with bias – or might not be. We can’t tell because they are not open to public view. She says there must be a new army of programmers who can question the intentions in the code. When our social and political adversaries are armed with algorithms, we, too, must take up the study of algorithms.

But the difficulty, alas, is how to get into the closed technology culture. And she admits that even a small army of new programmers cannot rid society of the traps, dangers, and damnations computing technology has visited upon us.

 

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