‘Things might go better if you slept with the boss’: #MeToo and the NZ tech industry

New Zealand’s burgeoning tech industry may be dodging some of the systemic issues plaguing traditional corporate culture, but Victoria Crockford discovers it’s also developing within the same structures that resulted in the #MeToo movement.

As a kid, I often imagined what would happen if the world was turned upside down and shaken. Animals from the zoo, a trillion pieces of parking metre change, single earrings, odd socks, and old TVs from the dump would all fall out – the detritus of humanity laid across the ground.

The movement to expose sexual predation against women that’s set social and news media ablaze over the past six months feels a bit like that: a cultural shake-up that’s turned accepted wisdom on its head, making us all take a hard look at each other (and in the mirror). Harder than is comfortable, and harder than we imagined we would have to in 2018.

It started as an underground trickle, an acknowledgement among friends to take care and avoid certain situations. Phrases from our parents, and theirs, subliminally informing our attitudes and choices. ‘Boys will be boys’. ‘Don’t ever walk home alone’. ‘Careful how you dress’. All of a sudden, the whispers became louder, took their form as a flood, and the torrent swept away all that lay in its path. Famous names were emblazoned across headlines. Lawsuits commenced. ‘He said-she said’ writ large across the media landscape.

A movement was sprung – #MeToo – that felt like an outpouring of intergenerational grief. We realised that it was a spectrum. That it wasn’t ‘just a joke’, that it wasn’t ‘workplace banter’, it was ‘sexual harassment’. From law clerks at a top-tier firm to an intern at the Human Rights Commission, no amount of achievement or workplace policy seemed to be able to shield young women who are beholden to older, more powerful men.

It wasn’t just the bastions of the old boys’ network that were prised apart and shaken up. That shining light of the brave new world, Silicon Valley, was also made to answer for its culpability in allowing a culture of workplace sexual harassment to thrive. In one example, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure quit last year after describing himself as a “creep” following numerous allegations of sexual harassment, including hitting on a prospective female employee during a recruitment process. In another well-publicised case, ridesharing company Uber fired 20 employees after claims of a toxic workplace culture that fostered sexual harassment.

Demonstrators participate in the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles in 2017. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

#NewZealandToo?

These stories set me to wondering: what about New Zealand? We haven’t escaped the cult of tech here – digital disruption is on the lips of most of our companies and parliamentarians. Tech is an industry of growing significance in terms of employment, and the digital economy is now our third largest export sector. In recognition of this, the new Minister for Government Digital Services Clare Curran is currently recruiting a chief technology officer to set the digital agenda, which includes improving digital equality.

On the surface, it all seems new, shiny and diligent; impervious to the systemic issues that have plagued traditional corporate culture. T-shirts, tattoos and unlimited paid leave characterise the next generation workplace which tech companies epitomise. When we’re all bringing our whole self to work (including our dogs) how could things possibly go wrong?

That’s the thing with silver bullets. They’re never the miraculous fix that we want them to be.

Tech in this country isn’t developing in a vacuum. It’s developing within the same structures that resulted in the #MeToo movement. A February 2018 report by accounting software company MYOB highlighted just 23 percent of the New Zealand tech workforce is female, a figure which is of concern in the context of a skills shortage and in the context working towards a more progressive workforce. The report points to a lack of female role-models in the local industry as a significant issue that needs an industry-wide approach.

Inextricably linked to a lack of visibility is tech’s #MeToo: the stories of female founders not only dealing with the unhelpful perspectives from potential investors, mentors and  themselves, but also from overt and traumatising sexual harassment.

Yes, it most definitely is #NewZealandToo.

This article was inspired by the stories of one local female founder. She decided swapping warnings at events was no longer enough and that something more explicit was required to highlight the risk – and the reckoning – that our nascent tech industry faces if such experiences aren’t aired and dealt with. Tellingly, she wishes to remain anonymous out of concern for the impact going public with her experience could have on her growing company. Her fear? That investors may be put off by her publicising the actions of some of their own. That her years of hard work could be compromised because she’s a young woman in a world where the capital so often flows out of the pockets of older men. So, for her sake, we’ll call her Felicity.

Photo: Getty Images

‘We should become lovers’

Felicity can recall many instances of sexual harassment over her lifetime, but she tells me that the one which shook her self-confidence the most happened during the initial capital raise for her early stage company. The man involved was a potential investor with whom she was already acquainted.

“He asked how he could help and I let him know I was struggling to find investment for my early stage company. He cut me off mid-sentence with an enthusiastic, ‘We should become lovers’. I was stunned. He laughed, and it seemed plausible for a second that it was a bad joke. Then, after letting me finish talking, he leaned over the table and said, ‘You know, I’ve been known to support people like you. I’m very philanthropic. I just think things might be going better for you if you slept with the boss’.”

Felicity says while she’s been groped, winked at, followed home, and lewdly told by a senior professor during a postgraduate function that “from behind you so remind me of my partner”, the incident with the would-be investor was made so much worse by the fact that she was new to the industry. It was precedent-setting. Following that, she couldn’t help but ask herself: how many others are there like him out there? Is this what it’s going to be like for every raise? How much do I have to steel myself for?

While she hasn’t come up against such direct propositioning since, she still happens upon “creepy men” on her start-up journey on a semi-regular basis.

“Just recently, I got stuck next to a would-be-investor at an industry dinner who asked if I wanted children and then proceeded to tell me I’d regret it if I didn’t have them because that’s the only really valuable thing a person can do. Two beers later, he was waxing lyrical about the difference between male and female orgasms. I didn’t stay for dessert.”

Felicity says that she takes practical steps to avoid such situations, but acknowledges with visible sadness that they’re of the “don’t wear short skirts” school of thought.

“Don’t schedule a meeting with a male colleague you don’t know after 5pm, never at a bar, and keep the conversation strictly about business.”

Dale Nirvani Pfeifer. Photo: Screengrab

‘Women are not victims’

Dale Nirvani Pfeifer, co-founder and CEO of fundraising software company Goodworld (which recently raised $3 Million USD in a seed round) agrees with Felicity on the list of self-protective measures.

“Never do an investment meeting after 4.30 pm, always do it at an office, and don’t involve alcohol or food until you get the deal done. Understand what appropriate meeting protocol is – steer away from small talk that’s too personal. Instead, talk about sports teams or university affiliations. If there’s a dinner involved, I take my [male] co-founder. If you put those rules in play, you’ll be less likely to end up in a meeting that feels more like a date.”

Pfeifer was born in Invercargill but spent most of her career in the United States. Looking back at New Zealand and at Felicity’s situation, she’s both disgusted at what Felicity experienced and clear about the steps that need to be taken to empower female founders.

Speaking to me from Washington DC, she also has stories of would-be investors taking advantage of her faith in their genuine interest during the early days of her company. “I had one instance where I was invited to the house of a wealthy man in my network for dinner with the expectation that his family would be there. I turned up and the guy was naked in his swimming pool… clearly, this was not the type of person I want to do business with so I got out of there immediately.”

Her perspective on her experiences and on #MeToo, however, is clear: “Women are not victims.” She acknowledges that unconscious bias exists, citing an ongoing study by Pitchbook that highlights the fact that female-founded companies continually receive less funding than companies with male leadership teams. She also knows this from personal experience. “The truth is, I couldn’t raise a dime for my company until I brought on my co-founder. He’s a highly skilled person who’s Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, used to teach finance at West Point and he’s raised millions of dollars for start-ups before. He also happens to be a man.”

She doesn’t view this predominantly male investment world being unfair to her specifically. She sees it as a two-way issue that’s underpinned by the gendered ways in which we – both men and women – think and talk about money. “I think part of the reason was my lack of confidence in talking about money. I had to push through my fears and talk about money with conviction. As a kid in Invercargill, money was a bit of a hush-hush subject. You kinda take that on. So, money became a scary thing for me to talk about.”

It is also Pfeifer’s belief that a lack of women being mentored in finance and economics reinforces some of the gendered interactions that unfavourable to women – a view that was reinforced by Leading Women CEO Susan Colantuono’s Ted Talk on ‘the missing 33%’.

“You have two groups of guys, and they are mainly guys, that go into finance and economics. One group are the academic, CTO-types who were likely to be the geekier, more shy guys at school. Then you have the hard-driving business, finance, investment banker types who grew up in the frat boy culture. Both have a skewed sense of gender roles. So when a woman comes in, the cognitive loop and the learned approach on how and what to talk to women about kicks in. It’s just not as natural for the conversation to steer towards the hard facts of the business [with a woman].”

This insecurity has a role to play in the environments of ‘toxic masculinity’ that have been the backdrop of the #MeToo movement. Men who have felt unable to relate to women, or relate to them only in terms of sex, find themselves in positions of power over young women. How better than to put a woman back in her cognitive box than by discussing child-rearing and your theories on female orgasm?

For her part, Pfeifer thinks it is unhelpful for female founders, or male investors, to be painted into a corner, however. She thinks that the investment world is increasingly hungry for women-led ventures and that we need to move beyond our stereotypes and design the structures that move us into a post-#MeToo world. “I am in a position to do something about [sexual harassment]. I strove to create a new context that was going to be much more comfortable. We know it happens, now how do we focus on making it not happen?”

SheEO New Zealand lead Theresa Gattung. Photo: Screengrab

‘More representation in the industry at all levels’

Combating sexual harassment requires a seismic shift in attitudes. For New Zealand’s tech industry, which is still so young, there is more opportunity than in other places to establish the structures that call-in unconscious bias and call-out – and act upon – sexual predation.

Both Felicity and Pfeifer agree New Zealand is an exciting global example of female tech entrepreneurs, with a community that is accessible and generally supportive. It is seemingly a good foundation on which to build the infrastructure that supports diversity and facilitates transparency. Felicity is especially positive that the evolution of our investment landscape includes an increase in female angel networks, such as ArcAngels, and female investors focused not just on the money, but on creating a favourable environment for female founders to thrive.

SheEO’s VC fund in particular has had a high profile of late, with its plan to raise a $1billion fund for women-led ventures globally. Founded in Canada in 2015, SheEO is predicated on the idea that the first 500 investors (Activators) in the fund will donate $1100 each as an ‘Act of Radical Generosity’. The money is pooled and then loaned out to five women-led enterprises selected by the Activators. From there it is intended that both the fund and the community grow.

While this type of collectivisation is not unusual, the taglines of “designed by women, for women” and “an environment of radical generosity” are what set SheEO apart in the world of seed capital. New Zealand is the first country outside of the North America to offer the SheEO model and the New Zealand fund is led by Theresa Gattung, former CEO of Telecom and a co-founder of the wildly successful My Food Bag. Such a high profile person leading the charge does lend weight to its potential for success.

As promising as SheEO is, it is unlikely the success of one fund can do anything to stop the sexual harassment that will happen tomorrow, or the next day. It will take, as Pfeifer puts it, “more representation in the industry at all levels” to change the conversation. It will take a critical examination of every single established paradigm. The industry must ask the hard questions and effectively measure the responses: who are we recruiting and how? How much will we worship at the altar of ‘hustle’ over the well-being of personal and family lives? Are female-founded projects receiving equal funding, and if not, why not? How can we better build a pipeline of female Angels and VCs? What is our understanding of gender and gender diversity and is it as inclusive as absolutely possible?

Quite simply, combating sexual harassment will take bloody hard work. If New Zealand’s tech sector is to fulfill its promise, then it is incumbent on tech’s leaders, including whoever is appointed as chief technology officer, to unflinchingly commit to this work right now.


The Spinoff’s business content is brought to you by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.

Check out how Kiwibank can help your business take the next step.


The Spinoff’s business section is enabled by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.

Check out how Kiwibank can help your business take the next step.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.