Silicon Valley-Style Sexual Harassment Undermining Silicon Savannah

By Tom Jackson AFKI Original Published: July 17, 2017, 1:15 am
Sexual harassment seems to be on the rise in Kenya's Silicon Savannah. Photo: KenyaForumSexual harassment seems to be on the rise in Kenya's Silicon Savannah. Photo: KenyaForum

A crisis of epic proportions has erupted in Silicon Valley, with many of the ecosystem’s most prominent individuals and companies caught up in sexual harassment scandals.

Recent examples include accusations against Binary Capital co-founder Justin Caldbeck, prompting his resignation, with the likes of Chris Sacca and Dave McClure also the subject of allegations. McClure resigned, over claims such his alleged messaging of a potential employee saying: “I didn’t know whether to hire you or hit on you”.

Even major companies have been hit by the claims. Former Uber employee Susan Fowler’s accusations of sexual harassment at the company prompted an internal investigation, and eventually led to Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick resigning from his position. Other Silicon Valley firms have also been forced to react to claims.

It is, frankly, an unsavoury epidemic, and raises serious questions about attitudes to women in the tech world. A recent survey of more than 200 women with at least 10 years of work experience in areas such as Silicon Valley reported horrific results.

Sixty percent of respondents reported being the target of unwanted sexual advances from a superior, while 90 percent said they had witnessed sexist behaviour at company off-sites or industry conferences.

Just as concerning, is the fact that 60 percent of those who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the outcome, while one in three said they had felt afraid for their personal safety due to work-related issues.

Sexual harassment in the tech world

However, sexual harassment in the tech world is not unique to Silicon Valley. It is happening across the board. And this month it reared its head in the Silicon Savannah.

Ushahidi is probably the flagship company of Kenya’s tech revolution, with its crowdmapping software used across the world.

But, a company whose software was used in Egypt to protect women is apparently not immune to the issues seen elsewhere. It emerged this month that an individual within the senior leadership of the company had been accused of sexually harassing women in the company over a number of years.

That individual is now on gardening leave and an investigation is underway, but that has not stopped Ushahidi from being accused of a wholly substandard reaction to the claims.

Even Ory Okolloh, who co-founded the company but has since moved elsewhere, called it an “unacceptable response”.

She said the scandal raised serious issues about the tech community’s attitude towards women in the workplace, and said Kenya needed to up its game.

“We as a tech community must examine the series of events that led us to a point where an organisation and community that is well placed to do better has failed,” she wrote.

“The startup ecosystem in Kenya is no longer nascent, it can and must handle the hard work and tough conversations that will happen in the coming weeks and months.”

It is clear that Ushahidi is not the only tech company in Kenya, or Africa, where this kind of thing has been going on unreported and uninhibited. Long-held chauvinist attitudes, particularly in a tech world long dominated by men, take time to change.

Naomi Wambui is co-founder and chief operating officer of Kenyan startup Campus Discounts. She said it is “sad and disheartening” that women still experience harassment in 2017.

“This shows that sexual harassment is deeply rooted in our human nature and thought, and much more needs to be addressed to raise awareness and stop the practice,” she said.

“I think each company’s management team is responsible for creating a safe environment for their employees. Where they can work freely without fear of victimisation, harassment or intimidation. Additionally, responsible offenders should face legal action regardless of the position they hold. The days of firms sending out press releases stating that they are investigating claims and then going mum should be put behind us.”

Wambui said she herself has been the victim of demeaning behaviour from men, on an online forum where she was referring to how hard it is to raise startup funding in Africa.

“One guest in particular took issue, stating that it could not be the case because we are not living in the 90s. He added that I would be better placed tending to my children. He later deleted this particular response but went on to disprove my input to the discussion,” she said.

“It was an unfortunate encounter because I was affirming my experience as a black female founder based in Kenya – where most startup resources, including funding, available in developed countries are lacking.”

She said not enough is being done to encourage women to enter entrepreneurship and thrive. From her experience in Y Combinator’s Startup School, female founders from all over the world face challenges in starting, running and financing their ventures.

“Removing barriers to entry and supporting female entrepreneurs will definitely get more women venturing into entrepreneurship,” Wambui said.

“I applaud initiatives like Y Combinator’s female founders’ conference and Kenya’s women enterprise fund that target thousands of female entrepreneurs. But globally, more governments and private sector stakeholders need to start and run programmes that support female entrepreneurs.”

 

Tom Jackson is the co-founder of tech news and research platform Disrupt Africa and a journalist covering innovation on the continent from the Cape to Cairo.

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