Silicon Valley Sexual Harassment

Silicon Valley sexual harassment is getting a lot of attention lately.   Although it has been an issue for a long time, many women in the industry have recently shared their sexual harassment stories.  As a result, a growing number of executives accused of sexual harassment are stepping down from their positions. One cannot help but wonder, what prevented women in Silicon Valley from reporting sexual harassment at their companies before and what has influenced them to speak up now?

Silicon Valley sexual harassment has been quietly endured for decades.  It has been supresed because the sexual laws are ineffective.  The laws and risks associated with sexual harassment issues have deterred women in the tech companies from speaking up. In Burlington Industries, Inc. v Ellerth, the US Supreme Court created a two-part affirmative defense for supervisor sexual harassment. Essentially, as long as there is a sexual harassment policy in the company, an employee must first report a sexual harassment claim to the company or the company’s human resources department. If the company does not address the issue after it is reported, the employee may have a viable sexual harassment claim. If the alleged victim does not report it to the company first before reporting it to anyone else, the employer can use the Ellerth defense and the employee will most likely not have a claim.

A Fear of Retaliation for Reporting Sexual Harassment

In practice, the Ellereth defense puts women in an uncomfortable position in the workplace. Many women do not feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment because of the risks associated with it. It is widely common for women to face retaliation from the employer once they complain about supervisor sexual harassment. Although federal law sets restrictions on employer retaliation, employers find creative ways to retaliate. For example, if an employee reports that she has been sexually harassed by a supervisor or someone with an executive role, and no corrective action is taken, an employer could retaliate by creating a hostile environment for the employee, denying any promotions, or finding a trivial reason to fire her.  Additionally, her career in general will be negatively impacted. If other employers hear of her sexual harassment complaints, they may avoid employing her.   Not everyone is ready to risk their career to report sexual harassment that will probably be ignored. Therefore, many women stay silent, whether they are a victim or a witness, to maintain their position at work.

Silicon Valley sexual harassment victims have undergone the same dilemma that many harassment victims go through in the workplace. In this male-dominated industry, many Silicon Valley sexual harassment complaints get overlooked and then, in several cases, women who have issued complaints noticed there has been a negative shift in how they are treated in the workplace afterwards.  Before, they were afraid of reporting the harassment they experienced; however, many women in the tech industry are sharing their stories, despite the backlash they may face. They hope that the growing number of people sharing the experiences with the public will bring more attention to this toxic culture and eventually force a change in how sexual harassment is handled in the technology industry.

Although there is more attention being brought to Silicon Valley sexual harassment, it will have very little effect on how harassment is handled in the industry. Recently, those that have been exposed for sexually harassing employees have stepped down from their positions, but the actual companies have not faced major repercussions from it. They are merely losing a couple of executives. Possibly, if they notice a massive monetary loss associated with Silicon Valley sexual harassment, the employers may be compelled to make a noticeable difference in how sexual harassment issues are handled to please their customers. Until then, they will continue to band aid the issue by firing those accused of sexual harassment by the victims who have shared their experiences with the public rather than altering how sexual harassment claims are handled.

This article was researched and written with Devona Adjei-Baafuor who is working with The Ottinger Firm as an intern.

Author Photo

Robert Ottinger, Esq.

Robert Ottinger is an employment attorney who focuses on representing executives and employees in employment disputes. Before starting his firm, Robert slugged it out in courtrooms trying cases for the government. Robert served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and then as Assistant Attorney General for the New York Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan.

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