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After Sexual Harassment Claims at Uber and Tesla, Is Silicon Valley Prone to Discrimination?

With a fresh round of sexual harassment claims in Silicon Valley, is tech more prone to discriminatory practices than other industries?
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Business team at office.Westend61 / Getty Images

The issue of sexism and sexual harassment in the tech start-up community isn’t new, but it sprung into the spotlight recently when engineer Susan J. Fowler penned a blog detailing her year at Uber.

The blog, which described repeat incidents of gender-based harassment and discrimination (all allegedly hushed and/or denied by company management at the time) went viral. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has launched an investigation into the matter.

Shortly afterwards, in what appears to be an effort to handle the issue more seriously, Uber asked new executive hire Amit Singhal to resign after discovering a sexual harassment claim had been made against him at his previous company, Google.

Now, a slew of other tech companies are under the microscope as more women step forward.

AJ Vandermeyden, a female engineer at Tesla, recently announced that she is suing the company, alleging that they've ignored her complaints of harassment, are paying her less than her male peers, promoting men rather than women (even when women candidates are more qualified) — and retaliating against her for speaking out.

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Last month, the Observer published a piece wherein 12 women in tech shared their own experiences of sexism in tech. Sun Microsystems, Zynga, and Microsoft were among those tech companies called out for discriminating against women.

Past allegations are also resurfacing. A year ago, former Squarespace employee Amélie Lamont published a blog claiming that she faced sexism, racism, and discrimination at Squarespace. In 2014, Julie Ann Horvath spoke out about her experiences of sexism and intimidation while working at GitHub.

It's a Male Dominated Industry

With all these claims, it must be asked, is tech more prone to discriminatory practices than other industries? The answer isn’t that tech is special — it's that tech is like every other male-dominated industry.

“It isn't necessarily that the tech industry is more predisposed to these sort of problems, but rather that these issues often arise when you have a disparity in who is filling leadership positions and setting the agenda for company culture," said Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at Jobvite.

"Tech is the newest industry to see male dominance in leadership roles, but we saw the same sort of problems that resulted in lawsuits decades ago in industries such as manufacturing and mining," said Bitte. "The resurgence of these issues in the tech industry is just the latest example of company cultures being shaped by a disproportionate leadership.”

Build up Your HR Army

As the saying goes, change comes from the top; and all companies, tech or not, should implement policies to protect their employees from abuse and discrimination. In part, this means having a robust HR team that investigates every claim or complaint, and letting nothing — absolutely nothing — fall through the cracks. HR should also encourage and protect anonymity, as victims may be reluctant to come forward for fear that they could worsen an already awful situation.

“When someone brings an issue to HR or a manager, there should be multiple channels in place to address the situation — such as an anonymous complaint base and multiple avenues to document the incident," said Bitte.

"You must be clear in the process and ensure total confidentiality so that there is no threat of retaliation on any side," she recommended. "Bringing in outside counsel for a fresh, unbiased perspective is another approach if you feel your internal team is too close to the issue. Going through investigations with confidentiality and a swiftness of process helps to prevent a toxic culture where lines of appropriate behavior are blurred.”

Many companies already train staff on sexual harassment, but they need to do better, HR experts believe.

"Sexual harassment training has essentially become a ‘box to be checked’," said Saundra Pelletier, CEO of Evofem Biosciences and WomanCare Global. "Each state has a protocol that can be used as a guideline, and while these guidelines are important in terms of ‘Don’t forward that joke email to your coworkers,’ they aren’t effective in actually preventing serious cases of sexual harassment," said Pelletier.

"There isn’t a program out there that is going to deter an employee from favoring one gender over the other, or asking for favors in return for a promotion. Clearly, there is a gap that exists to address this issue in the workplace," she told NBC News.

To improve, companies must underscore and enforce consequences for perpetrators of sexism and sexual harassment, said Dr. Steve Albrecht, HR trainer and security consultant.

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"The consequences for sexual harassment at work — especially repeated events by the same person — may not be severe enough," said Albrecht. "If we keep the guy who repeatedly harasses people, just because he’s our best salesperson, then the message to the employees is: ‘[sexual harassment] is okay.' If senior executives are allowed to engage in quid pro quo relationships without getting sued or fired, then that's another negative message. If true victims aren’t believed and true perpetrators aren’t sanctioned with terminations or civil suits, then the problem will continue."

"I’ve seen dedicated HR professionals at public and private sectors work very hard to create and enforce policies that actually create harassment-free work cultures. I've also seen those same companies ruined by senior leadership that either didn't care about the issue or let it flourish anyway. When it comes to this issue, we still have a long way to go to create peace at work," Albrecht told NBC News.

CEOs Need to Keep Listening

In the case of Fowler and Uber, speaking out can get results (however delayed). In many cases, sexual harassment claims can come back to haunt (and potentially damage) the company that enabled the behaviors.

"Any C-suite executives who tend to view [sexual harassment] as an HR problem, or as a cost to the organization should recognize that failing to do the lawful, right thing may result in unnecessary and significant business risks: a dip in reputation, a plunge in stock price, or a shakeup of the leadership team," said Marta Moakley, an attorney and legal editor with XpertHR.

"CEOs need to reject the temptation to dismiss media coverage of sexual harassment claims as over-reactive," she told NBC News. "As a practical matter, a CEO will have to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace at some point.”

If you’re unsure whether a situation you’ve experienced at work qualifies as sexual harassment, consider this definition from Angela J. Reddock, founding and managing partner of The Reddock Law Group.

"Under the law, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct, of a sexual nature, directed at a person because of their gender, that interferes with the person's work performance or creates a hostile or offensive work environment."