Late last week, a New York Times article shared detailed accounts from multiple women in tech startups on the sexual harassment and unwelcome advances they’ve received in the industry — particularly when seeking financing.
The piece notes that more than two dozen women spoke to the Times in recent days about the sexual harassment they’ve encountered, with many sharing similar stories regarding the same high profile men.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly surprised by these stories. I’ve heard similar things before from female entrepreneurs here in Australia. One can only imagine how many stories also go untold, and are quietly put aside as things women would rather forget.
Indeed, Australian VC Susan Wu was also included in the NYT piece, noting that she had been propositioned when fund-raising in 2010, and touched in a way that made her feel uncomfortable in 2009.
Susan has since published a piece on Medium stating that what she experienced did not happen in a vacuum. “It happened in an industry that has historically enabled and supported those who have power misusing that power, such that it has become the norm. I am one of many.”
And sadly, women leading early-stage startups are particularly vulnerable to this sort of behaviour. As Susan notes, being a female founder who’s fundraising can feel particularly “precarious”. You’re put in a position where the power imbalance is so significant, that speaking out or defending yourself can be catastrophic.
One telling aspect regarding the “power imbalance” within this sector is the fact the (now former) CEO of 500 Startups Dave McClure, was in Melbourne last month to promote 500 Startups, as a guest of the Victorian Government.
This is despite the fact, it has since been revealed, Dave was stood down from the day-to-day operations of the business a couple of months ago, due to a number of sexual harassment claims against him.
In March, Victorian minister for small business Philip Dalidakis, along with LaunchVic CEO Kate Cornick, announced that part of the $4.9 million it was putting towards startup projects would be used to help establish 500 Melbourne. McClure later visited Melbourne to launch the program.
— Philip Dalidakis MP (@philipdalidakis) June 19, 2017
Dalidakis has since issued a series a tweets following the NYT piece, and has been active on social media all weekend highlighting the fact sexual harassment is unacceptable. It’s fair to say he appears shocked and embarrassed about the situation.
“In fact, let’s call it out for what it is, predatory behaviour,” he tweeted.
He said the Victorian Government’s deal with 500 is not with one man, and that McClure has betrayed all that he stood for — and now shares more in common with Donald Trump than anyone would want.
He added that the women speaking up are the “heroes of the story” and need more support. He said his campaign for diversity and inclusion is more important than ever before.
“This proves it. And it’s why I have an unrelenting focus as a male champion of change that our tech sector needs more than ever. Be vigilant and call out this behaviour wherever we see it.”
The Australian head of 500 Startups Rachael Neumann has since stated she was shocked and disappointed about what was revealed in the NYT story, and that she plans to do everything in her power to be part of the solution.
The NYT story specifically reported an account from Sarah Kunst, who received a Facebook message from McClure when she was considering a job at 500. In it, he wrote: “I was getting confused figuring out whether to hire you or hit on you.”
McClure has since published a piece on Medium saying he’s a “creep” and that he is sorry.
“I made advances towards multiple women in work-related situations, where it was clearly inappropriate. I put people in compromising and inappropriate situations, and I selfishly took advantage of those situations where I should have known better. My behavior was inexcusable and wrong.
“I would like to apologize for being a clueless, selfish, unapologetic and defensive ass.
McClure added that he was, at first, defensive about the allegations, and then after several conversations realised that he was actually the problem.
“I needed to take a closer look at the stranger in the mirror staring back at me. Somewhere, I had lost the plot,” he wrote.
It seems the entire tech startup sector needs to take a good hard look in the mirror.
In the meantime, well done to all the women who are speaking up and sharing their stories.
Soon we will see women speak out on what’s happening in Australia. It’s got to stop. It’s never ok!
— Sally-Ann Williams (@sallyannw) July 1, 2017
Could be a good time for Melbourne women in tech to call out sexual harassment and assault (was common in early days of the community).
— Kate Kendall (@KateKendall) July 1, 2017