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From online harassment to sexual assault at work events: Australia’s tech startup ecosystem needs to fully reckon with sexism

Australia’s growing technology sector touts itself as progressive and forward-thinking, especially when it comes to embracing new ways of working and building businesses. But as Founder of startups Normal and Fuzzy Lucy Wark argues, people in the ecosystem need to grapple with real issues of sexism and harassment.

In case you missed it, there’s a shift happening at the moment when it comes to shining a light on sexual harassment in Australian startups.

It began a few weeks ago with particularly awful public comments by a founder (who had been harassing women investors, founders and operators for months, including me and many others), ending in him resigning from his company.

That snowballed into a group of women speaking with The Australian Financial Review about the fact that harassment is a widespread issue in startups - and calling on the tech community not to treat his behaviour as an “isolated incident” and go back to regular programming.

Since then, that has grown into a steady chorus of experiences being shared in public by women from across the ecosystem on places like LinkedIn, like this and this.

And behind the scenes of that public sharing, the chorus has been a flood.

Like several of the women who shared their experiences and advocated for change in the press or on LinkedIn recently, I offered on LinkedIn and Instagram to hear stories from anyone who has experienced harassment, and provide support or advice if desired. 

Since then, we have heard story after story in private about an ecosystem that is letting too many of us down.

In case you’re not familiar with the startup ‘ecosystem’, a quick primer: 

In Australia, the tech ecosystem includes early stage businesses, startups, investors, mentors, employees, and accelerator programs. It includes people from those fresh out of university landing their first full time software engineering job to investors who manage billions of dollars to invest in high growth business opportunities. It’s also an industry which remains male-dominated in its participants, in the leadership of major funds, and in the founders who receive funding from investors. 

Without violating the privacy of anyone who has spoken with us or putting them at legal risk (by publicly breaking NDAs or opening themselves to a defamation lawsuit), I can say that we have spoken with dozens of women and men across the ecosystem - including investors, founders, startup employees, community builders, and more, from entry-level to senior roles - and these are the types of stories we’re hearing:

  • The founder who joked about sending dick pics to a colleague’s wife in front of their staff,

  • The senior leader who requested that a direct report document her periods on a public calendar to forecast when she would require time off work,

  • The tech recruiter whose male client threatened to withhold business unless she dated him, orchestrated ways at various client events to double down on his ‘offer’ (threat), and who was told by her manager when she asked for help to “take the date”,

  • The founder’s protegé who offered a job in his team to a junior woman with his hand on her thigh while drinking, revoked the offer and began following her around company events - who was promoted and moved to another team when the issue was raised,

  • The founder who pressured a victim of harassment to “go easy” because the perpetrator’s wife was about to give birth (and gave the perpetrator a generous exit package two years later after continued complaints from other team members),

  • A senior venture investor’s advances towards a junior investor at another fund being disregarded in the interests of maintaining relationships, 

  • The senior leader who describes people as “cunts” in open forums with his team,

  • The copywriter who created a list of “suggestions for PR” joking about non-consensual sex and colleagues getting caught in blackface,

  • The much-hyped company who settled a harassment complaint with an agreement to implement sexual harassment training for their managers but never followed through,

  • The investor & board member whose message during a sexual harassment proceeding against a founder was that the process needed to clear the founder.

As a founder working in sexual wellness (a space with an intense focus on topics like consent), I’ve often been surprised by the impunity people feel to behave in ways that would be incredibly inappropriate in a corporate context - from LinkedIn messages being used to send sexual propositions, to one investor discussing his porn addiction while I was pitching my company, or another investor who started pitching a sugar daddy app to me during my own presentation. 

In hearing and sharing these stories, our goal has been to support victims and raise awareness of what’s happening on-the-ground. This isn’t a substitute for rigorous, ecosystem-wide gathering of data on prevalence - it is the observations of a group of victim-volunteers carrying the triple burden of experiencing, calling out and advocating for change on the issue of sexual harassment in startups in their spare hours. But everything we are hearing points to the conclusion that there is a much deeper problem in the startup world. 

And for every story we have heard in this short period, I would suggest there are many more going unreported. 

I have heard about frequent use of non-disclosure agreements (tying company stock or investment fund profits to public silence) or the threat of being labeled as a ‘Bad Leaver’ (Bad Leaver clauses allow employers to force former employees to sell back their equity at heavily discounted valuations - effectively, incurring a large financial cost). These all prevent people speaking about their negative experiences. 

And many victims report a total lack of confidence in formal reporting and accountability procedures within startups. 

Sometimes because there is no HR, or no policy.

Sometimes because it reports up to the founder who is a perpetrator or friends with them.

Sometimes because the “bro-y, bloke-y” everyday culture conveys that this is not a workplace which will support victims and implement changes.

Sometimes because you’ve seen the board members who are meant to provide governance - venture capitalists and advisors - publicly celebrate these company leaders so many times on podcasts, panels and all-hands meetings that it feels impossible to believe they will listen to you as well.

And sometimes, because you’ve spent so long working in companies that confuse “bringing your whole self to work” with “anything goes” that you feel crazy for thinking there’s something wrong at all.

And while there has been work done previously at an ecosystem level - for example, on a Model Code of Conduct shared by many major investors back in 2018 - most people we polled in the ecosystem have no idea it exists (including a lot of people at the funds behind it).

There’s no monitoring or measurement to tell us how prevalent these issues are - or whether what’s been done to date has made a dent. But all of the anecdotal evidence is pointing in one direction - this is really common, and it’s not getting any better.

We need to invest in prevention, because the startup world is a perfect storm of risk factors for sexual harassment.

It’s easy to think the world of startups is innovative and progressive - and assume that a community built on those values would not have a harassment problem.

But I actually think the opposite is true – that people working in startups are uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment.

If you look at the Australian Human Rights Commission‘s 2023 report on the risk factors in a workplace that increase vulnerability to sexual harassment, the startup ecosystem ticks nearly every box:

And it has some unique risk factors which aren’t on that list as well:

  • Inexperienced founders who have never run teams or organisations before (and often haven’t even been inside organisations that manage this well) suddenly being given large amounts of money and power - and being put under pressure to grow at all costs,

  • Being a highly networked, interdependent industry – one where jobs, fundraises, warm intros and more come through networks. The positive side of this is a relatively generous culture where people are willing to help one another in whatever ways they can. But the downside is that if you’ve experienced harassment and want to escalate it, being perceived as ‘difficult’ or unofficially blackballed is a huge personal risk,

  • Cultures that prize ‘informality’ and ‘not being corporate’ can be great – or they can be breeding grounds for everyday sexism that goes unremarked, or the classic “stop being so sensitive” dismissal,

  • A lot of mission-oriented employees who see what they do as more than a job, see companies through that lens, and often “put up with a lot more shit” (to quote one senior woman) than employees in the corporate sector,

  • Especially before the Series A stage, most startups are small businesses with no HR function – and even beyond that point, there is often a huge informal power differential between HR leads and high performers or leaders within a business that mean staff don’t trust complaints will be handled well,

  • Boards comprised of investors who have strong incentives to side with founders in the event of complaints or cultural issues (if a company is growing well, the venture capital model is focussed on being “founder-friendly” and maintaining the relationship - especially because most investors make most of their returns from 1-2 top-performing companies in each fund they invest).

Tech should be leading - but we’re currently behind the progress being made in the corporate sector.

I left my first ‘grownup’ job as a management consultant and joined the startup world 4 years ago, inspired by the ambitious mission-oriented companies. I came in through a program that I loved - the Startmate Women’s Fellowship - which was initially designed to bring more women with professional services skills (consultants, lawyers, accountants, bankers and more) into the startup sector.

And in the last few weeks, it’s been heartbreaking to hear many women who came in through that same program have had bad experiences working in the startup world - and how many have quit or considered quitting to go back to other work environments where they feel safe and respected.

The tech community has the opportunity to lead on this issue and create the best working environment anywhere in Australia, but right now, we are decades behind the standards of professionalism in the corporate world.

You know what I miss now? The corporate world.

I miss professionalised HR.

I miss managers who’ve been trained in what harassment, bias and bullying look like - and who understand their role in preventing them, not just responding to the most extreme, persistent and public examples.

I miss male leaders who believe that “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. 

I miss organised, super-effective, evidence-based programs like the Champions of Change initiative created by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick and taken up by male CEOs from the AFL to Qantas and the Army.

And like one of the victims who has spoken up over the last few weeks put it so beautifully in her post on LinkedIn, I miss people being upset when the harassment happens.

One experience has been stuck in my head.

I caught up with a senior male leader who I worked with at McKinsey recently for coffee. We had a great catchup and chatted about our respective working lives.

At the end, I asked “are you hugging these days?” (thinking more of Covid in that moment than anything else). He said in a friendly way “I want to be conscious of gender and power imbalances, and I’m happy to follow your lead”.

We hugged. And all day long, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much lighter it made me feel - that small signal that spoke to a wholly different worldview to the ones I encounter in the startup world.

I hope that this period turns into an inflection point where the startup world ‘grows up’ on these issues and starts taking responsibility for ensuring everyone can come to work in a safe, respectful environment.

Fundamentally, that’s all it’s about.