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How to fix tech’s sexual harassment problem

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In the tech world, men outnumber women, and that imbalance has consequences beyond product development. Recently, a number of women have come forward to talk about the sexual harassment that pervades the industry. Their personal experiences range from suggestive text messages to physical advances from company leaders and investors.

Sarah Kunst, founder and CEO of sports media company Proday, is one of those women. She told The New York Times that while interviewing for a job at startup incubator 500 Startups, founder Dave McClure sent her a Facebook message that read in part, “I was getting confused figuring out whether to hire you or hit on you.” Kunst said she declined the advance. According to Kunst, she brought it up with one of McClure’s colleagues, and then 500 Startups cut off its conversation with her. Now, after an internal company investigation, McClure is no longer CEO.

Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson spoke with Kunst about her decision to come forward, and what the tech industry needs to ensure a safer work culture for women. Below is an edited excerpt from the interview. 

Ben Johnson: How did you decide to come forward about your own experience? Was there a specific moment or thing that happened?

Sarah Kunst: We knew there was a problem with sexism in tech. In the past couple of months what’s really started to come out — maybe in the past couple of years, starting with Ellen Pao’s trial when she sued venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins — is that it’s starting to come out that there’s also a lot of sexual harassment in tech. With Uber and Susan Fowler and then Binary Capital’s Justin Caldbeck, there’s this resurgence where all of a sudden, women were ready to talk about their experiences of sexual harassment and most importantly, the media and the industry was ready to listen. When that started to happen, I felt like it was time to talk about it. It was time to tell the truth. And I’m glad I did.

Johnson: There have been pledges to prevent sexual harassment. What’s going to ensure these actually work?

Kunst: You have to hire more women. You have to hire more diversity. When you have a more diverse team you can be better at hiring people who aren’t going to do this stuff. And when it does happen it can be handled more swiftly because there’s a culture where women feel empowered to look at their male colleague who might do something like this and say, “You know what, this is completely unacceptable and you’re done.”

Johnson: People have proposed a variety of solutions, but they’re sometimes at odds with each other. For example, Brittany Laughlin of Lattice Ventures argues that offenders shouldn’t necessarily be ousted after first offense and that instead they need to create an environment where people can fix their mistakes and improve their behavior. But others like Susan Fowler of Uber argue that we need to have a zero tolerance policy. How do you feel?

Kunst: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Whenever you are talking about this stuff you have to quote Spider-Man. We’ll leave the moral side out of it and say certainly you have very poor judgment if you think it’s a good idea to be harassing someone. I don’t know how you can then go on to make great investment decisions because investment decisions are purely judgment calls. No matter how people handle it, once these firms know what’s happening and it comes to light, they have to really take a hard look and say: Is this the kind of judgement that deserves a six-figure salary, generous vacation time, an assistant and an expense account and all of these other perks? Or should we find somebody who’s just better suited and qualified for the job?

To listen to more of their conversation, click on the audio player above. 

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