Over the past few months Silicon Valley’s treatment of women has made several headlines. Thanks to the incredible women who have found the courage to speak up, we are beginning to have the serious conversation around misogyny in the technology industry and end its complacency in the face of injustice. But the problem of harassment is much bigger than the culture within particular companies or the tech sector.
Between 2013 and 2015 I was the general manager for Uber in Italy. In that country and at that time, for me and the women who worked with me, our harassment came from outside the company — from people who were unable to respect the idea that female business leaders could be innovators or disruptors.
Every day we fought harassment from taxi driver organizations opposed to Uber’s expansion. This type of harassment was organized and very public. Surprisingly very few people spoke up to condemn it.
Not only were our personal twitter feeds filled with vulgar insults and allegations of having used sexual favors to get to positions of authority, not only were there comments on our bodies and physical appearances, but I personally endured the streets of my hometown being plastered with posters of my face scrawled over with death threats and gratuitous insults.
It remains difficult to understand why this happened. The attacks I experienced were so personal, so vicious, and so clearly obsessed with the fact that I was a woman. Part of this is explained by Italy’s conservative culture centered on machismo, but it is also explained by the fact that the world has yet to really accept women as agents of change and disruption.
One morning I woke up with a huge sheet suspended above the street outside my doorstep. The message called me a whore and threateningly listed my home address for all those that wanted to visit. Those who were targeting me were flaunting that they knew where I lived. The threats suddenly felt more real and urgent, and yet that day no one from the police force or the city administration spoke up to condemn the incident, not even the few women in public office.
The problem was so clearly cultural, so pervasive, and so few stakeholders were willing to speak up about the problem. Sometimes harassment is subtler, just a passing comment or an unwelcome touch, but harassment of any type points to the same failure in the wider culture.
Women business leaders are now sitting at the same table as men, and have made great strides in tech. But the industry has failed women on two fronts. Not only, are there failures in internal culture that can make the office environment toxic, but the industry has also failed to properly support the role of women in the wider culture, giving authority and respect to women in leadership positions. Most troublingly, failures in internal culture make the external harassment worse. Stories of senior executives seeking sexual favors give credence to accusations like those I was subjected to.
For many female team members, we are among the first in our families who have had the opportunity to follow a career, to lead a team, or to start a company and we inherit a responsibility to drive the change in a positive way.
I was lucky to get through the Uber experience with my resolve intact. I have since founded my own company, Oval Money, based in Italy. From the beginning I have been mindful about creating the right company culture, and I am grateful to have the support of my three co-founders, all men.
Women in the tech industry are finding great courage to expose the issue of harassment and discrimination. People are starting to listen. But most women still don’t feel ready to speak up for fear of retaliation.
To break the taboo, it must be made clear that companies aren’t merely interested in cleaning-up internal messes, but are genuinely committed to addressing harassment in the wider culture. If there is anything worth disrupting, it is the continual undermining of female business leaders. Women need their organizations to back them up.