LIFESTYLE

Why The 'Apologies' Of Start-Up's Golden Boys Accused Of Harassment Ring Hollow

If you listen closely, they're saying... nothing at all.

06/07/2017 3:56 PM IST | Updated 06/07/2017 5:17 PM IST
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A few days ago, New York Times published a stirring piece on the culture of harassment in Silicon Valley, particularly in tech. Several fingers were pointed, many among them at big, important, high-profile names like Chris Sacca and DaveMcClure. Female entrepreneur after female entrepreneur — 24 within that one piece alone — recounted cringe-worthy instances of targeted harassment, objectification and dismissiveness. The ball was set rolling by tech news site, The Information, when it published a report about half a dozen women speaking up about facing unwanted advances from another well-connected Silicon Valley dude-bro, Justin Caldbeck. And, of course, who can forget former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's calamitous fall from grace a few weeks ago, in part due to a scorching blogpost by former engineer Susan Fowler, detailing the company's rotting work culture.

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Founder and chairman of Lowercase Capital Chris Sacca speaks onstage during 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals.

It had much the same stink as the Bill Cosby saga. How had such brazen harassment gone unchecked for so long that it had come to be accepted as the industry's worst-kept secret? Where do these fellows find the courage to be so unabashedly creepy? Are they really so confident that the women they target will not speak up? What gives?

The sad truth is, yep, they really are that confident.

Because there's one thing they all have in common: deep, deep pockets that can make or break careers. The power they wield affords them immunity from baseline decency and professional behaviour at work.

But what has that got to do with us here, at home?

A venture capitalist (VC) or Founder/CEO tag of a well-funded start-up will almost guarantee you insulation from all kinds of accountability.

Anyone who has had even the faintest of interactions with start-ups and their notoriously 'laidback' work cultures, in India or otherwise, can vouch for the fact that the situation in our own backyard is not all that different. You can get away with a lot, as long as you have sufficient piles of cash. A venture capitalist (VC) or Founder/CEO tag of a well-funded start-up will almost guarantee you insulation from all kinds of accountability.

Some time ago, a friend who worked at a digital wallet company told me about the sexually coloured jokes and comments that the CEO routinely makes under the guise of bonhomie and "good fun". Another one, who works at a digital advertising agency, tells me about how, at any given point, the CEO is obsessed with at least one of his female employees. Yet another tells me about being incessantly hounded by a famous VC from Mumbai with daily invitations to dinner and drinks, on the pretext of 'mentoring' her, and getting lewd text messages from him.

Notice how verbal harassment is so easily brushed under the cozy, ever-expanding carpet of 'lighten up, it was a joke, yaar'?

These experiences are not new. They're not sudden, and they're certainly not isolated. And they start innocuously enough, with an off-colour joke here and a suggestion there. Most of us are inclined to brush off these relatively minor transgressions as 'misunderstandings' to avoid unpleasantness. Except, they're not. And they lay the groundwork for bigger, far more serious breaches of trust.

Which brings me to a very important cog in the wheel of sexual harassment in the workplace: language. Notice how verbal harassment is so easily brushed under the cozy, ever-expanding carpet of 'lighten up, it was a joke, yaar'? All is forgiven, because all is said in jest. Never mind how it makes the intended recipient feel, she (it's almost always a 'she') is just a prude or the unnecessary trouble-causing, men-hating 'feminazi types'.

How do you say you're being harassed when sexual undercurrents aren't aberrations, but accepted norms within the eco-system?

This is troublesome for so many reasons. Because when the language for harassment is the same as the language of we're-all-one-big-happy-family-on-steroids work culture, we're creating an environment of gas-lighting. How do you say you're being harassed when sexual undercurrents aren't aberrations, but accepted norms within the eco-system? Sometimes, it is difficult to find the line of differentiation yourself, let alone explaining it to an unhelpful HR head.

Arunabh Kumar/ Facebook

Recently, the start-up community in India took great umbrage to the vengeful way TVF first responded to allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder, Arunabh Kumar. To make matters worse for himself and the company, Kumar went on to say in an interview, "I am a heterosexual, single man and when I find a woman sexy, I tell her she's sexy. I compliment women. Is that wrong?" Regardless of whether Kumar is found guilty, his choice of words is illuminating.

I can understand why Kumar and so many like him find this unfair. I can see why their first instinct is to call their victims attention-seekers and liars, because they're not doing anything out of the ordinary, it's the women refusing to treat it like locker-room talk anymore who are. When you're the product of a culture that allows its golden boys to mouth off with impunity, suddenly having to take responsibility for your words can be a big ask. No wonder they sit around sulking, fully convinced that they're the victims, not the women they put in uncomfortable positions in.

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Dave McClure, chief executive officer and founder of 500 Startups.

Over the last few days, I've watched with interest, as Silicon Valley's 'invincible dudes' are suddenly forced to dive for cover, now that they're finally cottoning onto the fact that even if they think there's nothing wrong with propositioning women in work settings, the entitlement is not going to cut it anymore. While women entrepreneurs and employees might still think twice (or a few thousand times) before coming forward with accusations, once they do, people start poking around and asking difficult questions. Questions that make their investors and boards of directors nervous.

There's a lot to be learned from their careful use of language. All of them, with varying degrees of vehemence, recognise that things need to change, promise to introspect on the part they played, apologise to the women whose harassment they may or may not have enabled and end with heartfelt exhortations to people to not lose faith in the companies they helped found and build.

Even so, they're so earnest, you almost want to gobble up their apologies. But if you look closely, they're saying... nothing.

Arunabh Kumar, while giving up his post as the CEO of TVF, steered clear of commenting on the accusations against him, but apologised profusely for TVF's initial dismissive attitude towards the complaints in a Facebook post. The famous Chris Sacca's blog is emphatically titled, 'I Have More Work To Do.' David McClure's rumination took a rather dramatic turn, with 'I'm A Creep. I'm Sorry.', before stepping down as the CEO of his company. Justin Calbeck, while announcing a leave of absence, too issued a statement apologising to the women he made "uncomfortable", calling the power dynamic in venture capital "despicably unfair". It's amazing how such clarity of thought strikes them like lightning only after they've been accused.

Even so, they're so earnest, you almost want to gobble up their apologies and give them a reassuring hug. But if you look closely, they're saying ... nothing. Nothing of substance, at least.

They promise to support women, but will not commit a number. They promise to use their voices to help the cause, but will not tell us how.

When you plough through their verbose gyaan, you realise that what they're offering up as solutions are not really plans at all, they're missives for damage control wrapped in the garb of wonderfully ambiguous promises. The more cynical among us will almost be able to hear the tap-tap-tap of their PR handlers as they type out sanitised, conflict-free statements.

They promise to support women, but will not commit a number. They promise to use their voices to help the cause and make things right, but will not tell us how. They want to listen, learn and evolve, but if Chris Sacca's blog is anything to go by, following a couple of female technologists on Twitter is listening enough.

There is, of course, no talk of quantifiable change—the kind of stuff they can be pinned down for and asked about, later.

There is, of course, no talk of quantifiable change—the kind of stuff they can be pinned down for and asked about, later. It's so much easier to 'evolve' than put your money where your mouth is and commit to an 'x' percentage of funds to women-led startups, or setting up independent committees they can't install their friends in to investigate cases of sexual harassment.

In the absence of any concrete plans one can only wonder, what is the point of the whole charade anyway? Do they want a cookie as a prize for finally managing to wrap their heads around the concept of not treating their female colleagues like lesser people?

Now that they're finally being asked some tough questions, it would be a shame to let them get away with empty platitudes in place of real commitment to change.

The big boys of the start-up scene, both in India and abroad, have had a free reign for such a long time, it's sickening. For too long, women in start-ups have had to grit their teeth and listen as male CEOs "jokingly" rate female employees' hotness. We've overheard crass jokes belittling women coders and studiously ignored them. For too long, these men have had to take no responsibility for their conduct. Now that they're finally being asked some tough questions, it would be a shame to let them get away with empty platitudes again.

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