SALT LAKE CITY — The recent maelstrom of highly publicized sexual harassment allegations have left few business categories unscathed, but a series of incidents that implicated some mega tech companies, and their CEOs, have cast a pall over an industry already struggling to build diversity in its ranks.
Amid the turmoil, however, some see an opportunity to take the first steps toward a paradigm shift that could lead to better, fairer and safer workplaces for all, while also boosting the ranks of women in a sector that is finding challenges in hiring qualified workers to fuel its explosive growth.
"Winston Churchill said, 'Never let a good crisis go to waste,'" said Utah Technology Council Board Chairwoman Kathryn Murphy. "Right now the media coverage is blowing up these issues, and while that may be a flash in the pan, we have an opportunity before us to take action and start the slow process of change."
Murphy, an engineer and vice president of product management for Salesforce, the San Francisco-based tech giant that specializes in customer relations management software, just became the first woman to chair the tech-focused trade organization.
Murphy said while she's been lucky to not have encountered harassment in her tech career, she knows the issues have been as rampant in her industry as others.
"It was only the last few years that I personally embraced, as a woman, the role I have to play in this problem," she said. "I have had the luxury of not feeling oppressed or having to fight for opportunities. But I realized I have the responsibility to help pave the way for many others."
According to a recent survey of almost 900 technology business founders and CEO's compiled by California venture capital firm First Round, Murphy's experience as a women tech professional who has not personally experienced harassment makes her more of an outlier than not.
In the First Round survey, 78 percent of female respondents said they have been or know someone who has been the victim of workplace harassment, while 48 percent of male respondents said the same. And 70 percent of women surveyed said sexual harassment in the industry is underreported, and 35 percent of the men agreed.
In another recent survey of more than 200 women who work for Silicon Valley tech firms, 60 percent of respondents reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.
For Utah tech veteran Sunny Washington, the founder/CEO of Salt Lake City-based tech education company Because Learning, an informal personal poll of friends who joined her for an outing last summer resulted in even more chilling results.
All eight of the friends, all accomplished tech professionals between the ages of 37 and 43, had experienced harassment in the workplace. But Washington, like Murphy, said she sees the recent surge of allegations, and their associated exposures, as the potential start of something positive.
"These incidents are awful, but I think it’s incredible to have the awareness that's being created by the issues becoming public," she said. "It's bringing light into the conversations."
Cydni Tetro, co-founder and president of the Women Tech Council, a Utah nonprofit group working to build the ranks of women in the technology/innovation sector, said the tech industry is now at a critical juncture to seize an opportunity created by the publicity surrounding sexual harassment issues.
"We have a chance now to bring things back from who's being accused today to what are we going to do to make it better," Tetro said. "We're going to need to work as a community. Communication and collaboration will be critical to making a cultural shift."
Tetro noted that painting the entire industry with the same brush wouldn't be fair, or accurate and that there are many Utah tech firms that have committed to build, or have built, safe and inclusive work environments.
But, she said, there's no single solution to revamping those dysfunctional offices to build a future where equity is a given and opportunities are simply a function of merit, uninfluenced by gender. Ensuring that women are included in the work of recalibrating will be key, Tetro said.
"Having one woman at the table isn't enough," she said. "You have to have two or more, and we need to be talking about solutions. We come from different worlds, and our different experiences build up our perception. That in and of itself means we have to be in the same room and having these conversations."
Tetro said addressing disparities in the tech sector also would lead to positive outcomes for workplace issues. Utah lags behind national averages in both number of women employed in technology-related business, under 24 percent, and the number of women in executive positions in tech firms, currently under 5 percent.
Washington's Because Learning employee demographic serves as an example of how a woman CEO can impact how the rest of the corporate pyramid looks. At her firm, more than 50 percent of the employees are women.
"My feeling is, building a culture of diversity and welcoming other opinions starts with the CEO," she said. "If a company's CEO cares about it, the benefits flow from there."
Murphy said one of the challenges facing tech startups is that new founders frequently lack management experience, nor are they financially able, when growing a new company, to hire external expertise.
"One of the things that we can do in the tech community is connect startups with the amazing large companies we have here, with great executives and programs about how to treat employees, and be inclusive," she said. "We feel at the (Utah Technology Council) that we can leverage these great leaders to help and mentor these companies."4 comments on this story
A sentiment shared by Murphy, Tetro and Washington is that failing to address issues within the tech community, like sexual harassment, could exacerbate the already critical shortage of tech-ready talent in Utah and potentially derail the state's fastest-growing employment sector.
"It's not hard to imagine what young women engineers or women students considering entering the engineering field might be thinking about the industry with this kind of negative publicity," Washington said. "There's no way we'll keep up with the job growth if we alienate 50 percent of the potential workforce."