This article is part of a series of research-based pieces that explore harassment by industry, including healthcare, hospitality, tech, and the industrial and manufacturing sector. The series also delves into harassment-related issues brought about by transitions to in-person, remote and hybrid office work models.
The tech industry is taking action and launching initiatives meant to help create a safer and more inclusive work environment. So why does it continue to be criticized for a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and continually face high-profile scandals and lawsuits? Because the truth is that it’s very difficult to turn an industry with homogeneity at the center of power into one that is successfully inclusive. It requires a shift in culture and a true desire for transformative change, from all levels of the organization.
At its core, organizations must ensure they have a harassment-free culture where everyone feels psychologically safe—setting a platform from which people can feel included, valued and appreciated. Let’s explore the way forward by looking at some of the most recent statistics on harassment and discrimination in the tech industry, come to grips with why harassment prevention must be at the top of the list when it comes to organizational priorities and identify concrete steps that you can take to get there.
Statistics show more improvement is needed
Numbers speak volumes and these statistics on how women are treated in the tech industry show there is still much work to be done in the areas of discrimination and harassment.
Harassment continues to be a problem
One research report shows that 48% of women working as tech employees experienced harassment; 85% of those who reported harassment said their harasser faced no repercussions; and 45% said they faced negative repercussions after reporting harassment.
Another report shows how harassment can have a dampening effect on organizations from the start, as 44% of women tech founders said they have been harassed—and among this group 59% were explicitly propositioned for sex in exchange for investment funding and introductions.
A look at who is experiencing and witnessing discrimination
According to a recent report from Built In, “while inclusivity in tech is improving, many still experience discrimination and unfair treatment in the workplace due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or some other aspect of their identity. In fact, 66% of all respondents (including all demographics) said they have faced workplace discrimination at some point.”
A striking 77% said they have witnessed others receive unfair treatment due to their background. “The statistics around witnessing discrimination are particularly stark when looking at specific demographics. Almost 95% of BIPOC people have seen others discriminated against at one point. And between 85 and 89% of women, non-binary and LGBTQIA+ individuals have witnessed others treated poorly because of their backgrounds.”
Harassment and discrimination affect culture and retention
The effects of harassment are not limited to any one group. They have reverberating consequences that affect everyone in the organization. In a survey of 2,030 tech professionals between the ages of 18 and 28 and 270 business leaders (spanning all demographics) found that 50 percent of them would potentially leave their company if the culture “made them feel uncomfortable.” Sixty-eight percent said they felt “uncomfortable in a job because of their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or neurodevelopmental condition.”
The bottom line? It’s not possible to have a healthy culture when organizations are experiencing such high levels of harassment. Before any real progress can be made toward a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment, concrete efforts on harassment prevention must be made.
How to reinvent culture for a harassment-free workplace
The good news is that there is a path to creating a harassment free workplace. It requires cultivating a new culture that has an openness for change, a long-term commitment from the organization, and perseverance against barriers and resistance. Let’s look at five steps that can lead to transformative change.
1. Create awareness of the damage and dispel fear
Emphasize the importance of having everyone in the organization feel psychologically safe, valued and included—not just to protect the individuals, but also to create a collaborative atmosphere where teams can thrive and innovate. But be prepared for some resistance. Why? Because a fear of change to the status quo can have a vice-grip effect on emotions in a way that can cloud judgment. The first way to combat this is to explain the rationale for why change is needed. That includes sharing illuminating studies, compelling surveys and current statistics that back up the need for psychological safety.
2. Commit to a business-oriented plan
The organization must make it clear that culture change is not a side project. It’s an all-employees-included business imperative that will hold everyone accountable, regardless of their rank in the organization. Early engagement in planning is also key, particularly for frontline managers. They are the conduit to employees and leadership. If they are brought into the process early and engaged throughout, the chances of success will grow exponentially.
3. Ensure that your policies support change
When it comes to preventing harassment, policies must comport with recent laws and regulations, be clear, consistent, as well as broadly and accurately understood. If someone experiences harassment (whether the organization is small or large), they must have a clear path for reporting the incident, as well as a good understanding about how the process will unfold.
4. Cultivate learning as a key organizational value
Creating a culture where people are curious and open to self-discovery is essential to creating change. Part of that effort means introducing the kind of harassment-prevention training that will do more than point out the most obvious and egregious acts of harassment. It means tackling the kind of behaviors, like microaggressions (slights, barbs, demeaning comments, off-color jokes) that can become precursors to harassment. Early intervention of this type can prevent harassment long before it happens.
5. Maintain a sustained effort with an ongoing feedback loop
Culture change is not a one and done effort. It needs constant commitment and nurturing to be successful. That means reviewing and adjusting your plan as your organization evolves. And at the core of culture change is communication. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that communication flows through a feedback loop that taps into the thoughts, feelings and concerns that employees may have about the process. Similar to product development principles, this will be your opportunity to discover barriers to progress and possibilities for ongoing improvements.