Seattle Tech Leaders Panel Confronts Tough Changes Required by #MeToo Movement

by Kelsey Hamlin

As Erik Molano scrolled through his Facebook feed with endless streams of #MeToo posts inundating his eyes, he felt anger but also felt removed. He wasn’t a perpetrator of these harmful and degrading situations. Then he saw it. A woman who on his Facebook feed made a #MeToo post explicitly naming him and something he did.

Molano sat staring at his screen in extreme shock.

“[At first,] I just thought ‘these are some really terrible guys…this is horrible, I’m glad I’m not one of them,” Molano said. “It was a full body shock. I really wanted to understand, ‘How did I get here?’ I think of myself as a good person.”

He started shaking. It took six days before he decided to do something about it.

“[I feel] responsibility,” Molano told the Northwest Film Forum Wednesday night . “It’s really scary to be here [on the panel] right now. But really painful, shameful conversations are what we need to have more of. If we exist in this culture of silence, abuse continues. And the cycle of abuse continues on both sides.”

Seattle’s Tech Workers Coalition (TCW) created an event titled “#MeToo in Seattle Tech: What Men Can Do” to explicitly address gender-based discrimination and harassment in the tech industry.

At one point during the discussion, an attendee asked about the panel’s takes on call-out culture.

Panelist and tech worker Caty Caldwell, and TCW organizer and panelist Austin Valeske, felt the nature of call-outs — where people drop a bomb and leave, out of often justified anger — can be problematic. They felt it doesn’t truly resolve issues or allow for constructive dialogue.

“An ally would say I’m here for your fight,” Caldwell said, “but someone in solidarity with you realizes it’s our fight and we’re fighting together.”

Panelist Susie Lee warned that navigating these situations on the internet often means zero accountability, but constant documentation, which can be a positive and negative thing. It allows people to keep track of what is said in a very tangible, definitive way but it also means it can make people less likely to reveal things, admit wrongs, or be vulnerable. But there’s value in numbers — and not just for data.

“A collective call-out that says how many things are happening in a space is really important,” Lee said, as opposed to one person calling somebody else out.

Lee is particularly affluent in this tricky cyber world. She co-founded Siren, a dating app that gives women the upper hand in selection and screening.

Molano, however, didn’t agree with the panelists. He felt calling people out is important.

“It’s a huge part of why I’m here,” he said. “In a huge way, it’s transformative. It’s shocking. It breaks that pattern…it’s okay for somebody to call you out and be angry. Anger and lashing out when somebody won’t listen means it can instead be done by friends.”

After Molano’s six-day shock to his #MeToo call-out wore off, he decided to publicly confirm the contents of the woman’s #MeToo post. He also reached out to his accuser, with the caveat that he didn’t think she had an obligation to respond.

“I wanted to model what it looks like when a guy says, ‘I actually did this,’” Molano said. “There’s this divide we create in our minds where we’ve never done that, ‘I’m not like them.’ [I want the public to] understand [harassment] is on a spectrum, and that spectrum is mostly based on dominance, anywhere from talking over women at work to grabbing them in a nightclub.”

Molano’s candor was taken with sincerity and approving nods from all gendered attendees. While his honesty about his problematic behavior was unusual, the fact that his actions either harassed or demeaned a woman is not, according to panelists and the TCW’s own research.

The TCW conducted an informal study by reaching out to affinity groups in major Seattle companies. Of the responses received, the Coalition concluded not enough men filled out the survey to conclude anything for that subgroup.

“We’re all works in progress and that’s ok,” Valeske said. “We knew sexual harassment and this problem was happening here in Seattle but we weren’t hearing people talk about it.”

The event was born, in part, out of feeling there are no events targeted toward men to help them better their solidarity and learn more about gender-based harassment and discrimination.

Valeske was one of those who reviewed TCW’s data. He explained that women overall don’t report experiencing workplace harassment or discrimination because when they do, nothing happens or they get retaliated against.  Of 178 incidents reported to the Coalition, 81 percent experienced gender-based discrimination or harassment at work but only 36 percent of them reported it to a manager or Human Resources (HR) representative.

Before launching Siren, Lee had to meet with mostly male investors, business heads and bosses to pitch her ideas.

“Being a female founder and trying to present a legitimate business idea to investors was inviting me to the sexual harassment that we were trying to prevent in the dating world,” Lee said. “It was very uncomfortable to navigate those [presentations] because there was a difference in power.”

Men Lee pitched to asked her if she was single or using her own app. One investor told Lee when she started, “I don’t think you actually know what women want.”

TCW’s data confirmed a difference in gender dynamics where men often have romantic expectations in professional contexts. “Interrupted” was also the most frequently used word in submissions. Women submissions also showed a pattern where their idea or comment goes unnoticed until a man repeats it right after them.

“Men literally just don’t hear when women speak, even if it’s something good,” Valeske said. “Like, men just aren’t listening to women at all.”

Perhaps the most systemically challenging solutions and critical commentary came from Caldwell. She feels HR is meant to absolve the oppressor, there’s power in numbers, and transparency is key.

“HR is beholden to the company and they report up to company leaders and the company is definitely limited by Wall Street,” she said. “So for the company, they mainly try to avoid PR disasters…[HR] is mainly responsible for minimizing any liabilities. As employees, we currently don’t have the power to hold them accountable.”

As such, Caldwell recommends avoiding employee resource groups often organized or managed by HR. Instead, she suggests meeting one-on-one with coworkers.

While she feels believing survivors is a step toward addressing gender-based discrimination and harassment, Caldwell advises going a step further and banding together with others for the sake of employee bargaining power.

“Stop trying to lean in, to trust companies and just wait for karma to work out,” Caldwell said. “It’s not going to end by joining forces with tech workers. We should push our companies to be transparent about what’s happening; it’s unacceptable that it had to take a group of organizers to send out a survey. Get rid of [Non-Disclosure Agreements] and arbitration causes, like, fuck that. Survivors shouldn’t be gagged.”

A small amount of time was spent on considering the leverage of tech workers within their company to protect lower level workers. Low-wage employees often face the brunt of discrimination, harassment and workplace abuses.

Valeske noted that, from experience, it’s best if workers start drafting some proposals, change, movements without permission.

“At this point, we have enough support from employees that leadership is listening to us,” he said. “They can’t really turn it down now. Don’t ask for permission first from leadership.”

Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter with various Seattle publications. She graduated with interdisciplinary Honors, a B.A. in journalism and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice from the University of Washington. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her articles on her website.

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