Sexual Harassment in the Tech Industry: Why Now? What Now?

The past few months have seen increased public attention to sexual harassment in the tech industry; this attention has also resulted in some more significant consequences for the perpetrators than in past instances. At NCWIT, we’ve received a number of inquiries about these trends; below we respond to some of the most frequently asked questions and offer our insights about what kinds of steps should be taken going forward.

1. Sexual harassment has long been present in the tech industry, so why is the issue getting such traction right now?

Indeed, sexual harassment is not a new concern, and it is also important to point out that it is not an isolated problem. Sexual harassment is connected to a larger system of other overt and subtle biases women experience everyday at work and in society at large. While it’s always difficult to say for certain what leads to this kind of increased attention, it can be helpful to consider a few likely factors. 

First, it helps that in general the conversation has been increasing in Silicon Valley around broader inequities and biases when it comes to women and other underrepresented groups. These discussions have set the stage for these more specific conversations about sexual harassment. 

Second, it also helps that, in many of the most recent instances, there has been some documented evidence, which is often understandably difficult to come by. And, in some of these cases, this evidence has involved a range of unethical behaviors in other arenas including but also beyond sexual harassment. While evidence of sexual harassment should be able to stand on its own, this multifaceted trail of evidence likely lends credence to accusations that are otherwise so often met with public skepticism.

Third, and relatedly, because of this ever-present skepticism (and a host of other, well-researched reasons), individuals who experience sexual harassment often remain silent. But, once a few instances are called to attention and the issue resurfaces in public discussion, it may feel somewhat safer to come forward.

Fourth, many of the women making the most recent accusations benefit from relative affluence or class (and sometimes other) privilege; research suggests that these factors increase the likeliness that they will be treated with less skepticism (although this is still in no way a given). It also makes it more likely that they will have more resources to utilize in the case of retaliation or backlash. Certainly, it is still not easy to come forward. But for women with fewer resources, the dangers associated with reporting sexual harassment are greater.

Finally, in our work with the tech industry, some women have talked about how recent events such as increased attention to harassment by political candidates or legal settlements against media personalities have made it easier to talk about a whole host of overt actions as well as the more subtle biases they experience every day at work (e.g., being interrupted in meetings, not given credit for their work). Corroborating these experiences with others can help people come forward, as well as increase the sense of urgency that it is important for them to do so.

2. Is this a turning point in how sexual harassment is handled in the industry?

At first glance, anyway, it does seem that this issue is gaining increased traction, but before we assume too much, it is important to remember that this has happened before and often goes in cycles. Many women who actively worked to address sexual harassment 20 years ago and initially made some progress are saddened and disheartened to see that in so many ways things remain unchanged. So, it’s too early to tell if this is a turning point that will have lasting effects, and people are right to be wary. But, these particular instances have at least increased public attention to the matter and have resulted in some more significant consequences for the reported perpetrators, at least in the short term.

3. Are there lessons that the tech industry can learn from other industries?

Historically, the professions of medicine and law have been as male dominated as tech but both medicine and law have seen large increases in women’s participation in recent years. For example, women now represent half of all medical school students and slightly more than half of all law students. But even with this kind of parity, women in these professions still report a high incidence of sexual harassment and bias. For example, a recent article in the medical profession’s flagship journal, JAMA, reported that among the responding doctors, 30 percent of women (but only four percent of men) had experienced harassment. Gender bias—both overt and unconscious—still exist in these professions.

What does this tell us? Simply having more women in a profession does not necessarily lead to the end of gender bias and harassment. “Equity in culture” rather than simply “equity in numbers” is required. A do-able way to tackle this is at the organizational level. Research suggests that change can happen when organizational leaders strongly signal (through language and behavior) against harassment and bias, and for fairness and civility, and hold their managers accountable for upholding these values. C-suite leaders in organizations committed to building a productive, inclusive corporate culture know this: leaders shape the culture, they set the values around which everything happens, and they set important examples for behavior and priorities. That means that they also have the power to make their organizations places where sexual harassment is not tolerated.

4. What needs to happen to ensure sustained change in the tech industry?

Not to be cliché, but it is certainly true that this is an arena where actions speak louder than words. It should go without saying that just because a company says it doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment doesn’t make it so. Apologies and pledges are nice, but people are also right to be skeptical of both. NOT to be skeptical would be naïve. Anyone who understands the gravity of the situation will understand this skepticism and not attempt to delegitimize it.

It’s also important to point out that the onus to “fix” the problem should not be on the women who experience harassment (e.g., by telling more of their stories). While telling their stories helps raise visibility and is tremendously important if they are able to do so, there are very real reasons many women are unable to do so. The real responsibility for change must be on leaders, managers, and all employees.

To move toward this kind of real, sustained change, leaders first need to make it clear that illegal or unethical behavior is not tolerated. Often reported actions and behaviors are clearly illegal, and yet some leaders express handwringing or confusion about this point. These behaviors are clearly defined; accountability should be enforced, and consequences should follow. Period.


At the same time, companies also need to move beyond approaches or trainings that often take a compliance-based approach that aims to meet only minimum legal standards. Instead, companies need to rise above compliance and make it about a true commitment and a strategic plan for change. While unethical and illegal behavior should not be tolerated, the complexities around more subtle behaviors (e.g., when and in what ways it’s appropriate to ask a co-worker for a date), should be discussed. These conversations also need to acknowledge that harassment is connected to a larger system of more subtle biases and microinequities that occur in the workplace. And of course, we then need to move beyond conversations and also implement strategic solutions aimed at fixing the broader company environment that allows this range of subtle and not-so-subtle biases to continue. 

The concept of civility is also quite promising. Chris Porath from Georgetown University has done some great work on this issue. (That’s why we invited her to speak at the 2017 NCWIT Summit.) She and her colleagues have demonstrated repeatedly that incivility—of which harassment is an extreme formreduces employee job satisfaction, increases turnover, and decreases productivity. And rather than focus on prohibition of behaviors, which can result in backlash, a focus on civility centers a broader discussion of how we want to work together effectively. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a report released last summer, recommends civility training as a promising strategy for combatting harassment.

At NCWIT, we have an industry change model that lays out in great detail the kinds of strategic solutions that need to be implemented (see chapters five and six of this report). These include but are not limited to helping managers lead productive team meetings where everyone can contribute; and examining subtle biases in task assignment, performance evaluation processes, and criteria for identifying “high potential” talent. In short, companies need to treat this the way they would any other business issue: enlisting top leadership direction and accountability, setting goals, implementing strategic practices, and measuring progress.

In sum, women cite unsupportive work environments as one of their primary reasons for leaving their jobs. With technical women reportedly leaving at twice the quit rate for men, sexual harassment is clearly detrimental to women’s work experiences and to the company’s bottom line. It bears repeating: companies need to treat these issues the way they would any other business issue. Overt, illegal behaviors should be dealt with immediately and according to widely agreed upon legal standards. But, companies truly committed to inclusion should move beyond this and embrace long-term efforts to build inclusive cultures that address more subtle biases. All too often, these broader change efforts are under-resourced and left to one or two people who are only able to implement piecemeal solutions. This is not how companies treat issues they find important. And, if it wasn’t clear that this is a business issue before, that may be one thing these recent events and subsequent resignations may have helped to make even more clear. 



This blog is a full extension of NCWIT commentary that was originally published in a Globe Unlimited article, “A Valley Far Is the Toxic Culture of the Tech World Beyond Repair,” as reported by Tamsin McMahon in July 2017.