For women in tech, speaking out against sexual harassment is a numbers game

A historic shift is underway as women step forward to share stories of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men in Hollywood, politics and the media.

From the New York Times’ investigation of Harvey Weinstein to the #MeToo movement that allowed women to share their stories on social media to Time Magazine’s naming the “silence breakers” as “Person of the Year,” women are finally feeling safe enough to expose what seems to be a systemic problem across American society.

But the technology industry, one of the most male-dominated fields, has not seen the same pattern of women coming forward and men who take advantage of positions of power being held accountable for their actions. So when does the spotlight shift to tech?

It’s not because the field doesn’t have these problems. A 2015 Stanford University survey of 210 women working in tech in Silicon Valley found that 60 percent had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, with more than 65 percent of those advances being from a male superior.

And this problem translates to Boston’s tech scene as well. Last week, the Massachusetts Conference for Women took place in downtown Boston. Although the conference did not have any sessions specifically about the recent sexual harassment news in many industries, the topic naturally came up in many of the presentations throughout the week, with many women sharing stories about their own experiences with sexual harassment.

A recent Boston Business Journal article highlighted the rise of sexual harassment cases in Boston’s biotech industry, but mentioned that a large-scale public exposure of such cases is difficult because most of the settlements include confidentiality agreements. But lawyers were not shy in mentioning an obvious uptick in recent months, since the Weinstein allegations broke.

Last year, Boston was ranked as the top startup hub in the U.S. This high concentration of startups, as well as other tech companies in the area, leads to many workplaces where women are in the minority. Only 28 percent of proprietary software jobs are held by women, and that number drops to 25 percent when looking at IT jobs.

Shruti Vishwakarma is a product marketing manager at Tarmin, a data management company based in Boston. She argues that the reason there has not been a shift in how the tech sector addresses sexual harassment is due to the sheer disparity between women and men. It’s a numbers game, and other fields simply have more women who can support each other and encourage each other to share their experiences.

“So the common ground between all of [the recent sexual harassment cases] is the tipping point is that women have actually been a good peer support group for themselves,” Vishwakarma said. “But for women in tech, if [a woman] goes out and speaks about it in this culture, what happens is she will be the only voice. I don’t think the tech industry has reached that point where women can easily come forward and have a backing of other females in the industry. And in my experience, the females in the industry are supportive but they are still a minority. The ratio is far worse.”

Lorena Pantano Rubino researches bioinformatics at the Harvard School for Public Health. She said her field is particularly male-dominated, even when compared to other tech sectors. Rubino said that she’s regularly had projects where she was the only woman amongst more than 20 men. She agrees with Vishwakarma, saying that the there simply aren’t enough women to support each other in the industry.

“So if the numbers are too low, I can imagine that it’s more difficult to see the shift towards action,” she said. “I think that you need more women, because you need to have a certain number of women to actually fight for fairness.”

Without more women to act as a support system for each other, Rubino says the culture can’t change. She knows women in the field who have spoken up, and are met with pressure to stay silent. She says she has heard statements like You won’t be able to find a job for your future or Well, he is the CEO and it’s not that big of a deal. And the closed culture continues on.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most technology companies, even if they do employ women, do not have women in leadership positions, such as executives and board members.

According to the Silicon Valley Bank’s 2017 “Startup Outlook” report, out of 941 startups surveyed, more than 70 percent did not have a single female board member, up from 66 percent the year before.

This lack of women at the top exemplifies the notion many female employees feel that the companies will not take their complaints seriously.

“The tech industry is dominated by men, probably far more than any other industry. For men it’s much easier to get that help and support. For women, there aren’t many peers or leaders or people to look for and seek advice from in general,” Vishwakarma said.

Both women argued that the field needs more diversity if the tech sector wants to advance and be versatile in the 21st century.

“When people come from different backgrounds, and this has to do with gender or ethnicity, what happens is they have had life experiences that shape how they think. And your life experiences matter in tech because they influence how you make choices to innovate something,” Vishwakarma said. “That approach to a problem that comes from different perspectives is what makes your product and your company withstand all kinds of negatives.”