A Tesla engineer in San Carlos, CA, has blown the whistle on a culture of “pervasive harassment”, pay inequity, and retaliatory action by Human Resources

The lawsuit, which comes on the heels of similar revelations from a former engineer at Uber, have left the tech community reeling—and activists wondering what it will take to have a real conversation about the struggle for gender equality in tech and start-up culture.



In light of Tuesday’s news that a female Tesla engineer has filed suit against Elon Musk’s electric car company for alleged lack of wage equality, failure to advance in spite of high performance, and an all-around persistently sexist environment,1 many in tech and start-up culture have been left wondering what it will take to have a real conversation about Silicon Valley’s gender problem. The allegations come less than two weeks after an explosive blog post2 by a former Uber engineer detailing the company’s sexist environment prompted the ride-sharing giant to order a thorough investigation—but not before other women had come forward with similar allegations, and not before the author of the original post claimed to have been the subject of a retaliatory smear campaign3.

The stories, though they sent shockwaves through two of Silicon Valley’s biggest properties, sound all-too familiar to the writers and activists who have been calling out tech’s thorny relationship to gender equality for years. Below, in excerpts from Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture, the contributors examine just some of the ways the putatively “disruptive” and “forward-thinking” tech industry is fifty years behind the rest of the country with respect to the people it represents:


Elissa Shevinsky on why the pipeline isn’t the problem:

The idea that tech has a pipeline problem—one that can be solved by teaching five-year-old girls to code—infuriates me.

It’s awkward to say so. I need to tread carefully here, lest I be accused of bad feminism. I can see the headline now: “#LADYBOSS Against STEM Education for Girls. Also Secretly Hates Pupplies.”

I am, of course, in favor of teaching girls to code. And it is true that there are more men than women applying for jobs and programs in Silicon Valley. But the reason why we don’t have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It’s because too many high profile and influential individuals and sub-cultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn’t women, it’s tech culture. That’s the issue that needs to be addressed.

The mistake that we have made, as journalists and as readers, is taking the narratives espoused by executives at big tech companies at face value. Sometimes those executives, expressing deep concern about the “pipeline problem,” are women. That doesn’t mean that they are speaking as feminists. An executive woman at a company like Google or Yahoo is just as likely to be speaking on behalf her company—beholden to its quarterly revenue numbers and its many public shareholders.

We all know that there is a “Women in Tech” problem. But the nature of that problem looks very different, depending on our vantage point.


Katy Levinson on the fear of being labeled a liability:

On two occasions, my employers have offered me bribes to leave quietly because they were worried about sexual harassment claims either slightly before or after dramatic percentages of women either transferred to another department, quit, or were removed. I had not brought any harassment concerns forward prior to either offer. In both cases I have reason to believe I was the only woman offered financial compensation. I have spoken at a professional conference and had about two dozen drunk fully grown men shout-chant at me to take my shirt off, becoming louder and growing more numerous the longer nobody responded to them. Security did nothing, and I was on my own to de-escalate the situation.

There is one thing you know about every single person who has ever complained about an act of sexism loudly enough for the public to notice: they worry that they will be seen as liabilities for the rest of their career. No whistleblower has ever been given a “team player” award by the organization they spoke ill of. That shouldn’t be too foreign a concept: people we call whistleblowers who outed the wrongs of government or industry, certainly aren’t doing it for personal gain. In this way, sexual harassment whistleblowing is the same as any other kind of whistleblowing.


Sunny Allen on the difficult of bucking the boys’ club pattern recognition:

Think about Silicon Valley as a race up a mountain. There’s a suite of traditional prizes, like owning a Tesla and the social currency of tech fame that gets you invited to the best parties. There is the question of which Burning Man camp you camp with, and which corporate cafeterias you eat at. How many fancy bottles of bourbon do you have on a cart next to your desk? Then of course there is the granddaddy of tech wins—the entrepreneur’s IPO. This leads to “fuck you money.”

There’s a traditional way to run the race, too. A boy’s club, although women can join if they do it just right. This involves going to Stanford (MIT is also acceptable) and networking events and joining Angel List and having great recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. At cocktail parties you talk about lean pivots and the importance of a Good Team. You are young and white and gorgeous. Or as gorgeous as nerds ever get to be. You wore glasses until you got lasik. There is a thing called pattern recognition, there is a thing that Venture Capitalists and Hiring Managers look for. And I am not that thing.


Gesche Haas on going public with the experience of sexual harassment:

I spent many years working on my companies before becoming Internet-famous for being sexually harassed by a VC in Germany. As soon as I came out with my story, I was flooded with letters from other women who had been similarly treated. They’ve asked me… what made me brave enough to speak up? And how did I feel?

…On the one hand, I was proud of my refusal to accept the said behavior—regardless of the potential risks. However, one can only imagine what a huge time-suck in mental distraction and self-questioning this incident provoked. Imagine how painful this felt to an entrepreneur who carefully and meticulously optimizes every second of her life. It drained me. Early on, the email led to many sleepless nights during which I felt conflicted, unable to stop analyzing the situation. Should I do something or nothing at all? Countless hours were spent drafting anonymous blog posts about what had happened. Embarking on this journey, I never expected the story to eventually make its way into the press—but when it did, it went viral. The aftermath was so consuming that my productivity and focus was immensely impacted for several weeks.

In addition to the (unwelcome) distraction from work, I am also the first to admit that becoming a figure in the media’s discourse regarding sexual discrimination had never been part of my five-year plan. Yet, if you Google my name today there is no doubt left that it is now my “claim to fame.” Case in point, you are reading a piece right now about sexism, written by me.



lean out cover

ours to hack and to own cover

1 The Guardian, accessed 28 February 2017
2 Susan J. Fowler, accessed 28 February 2017
3 Mashable, accessed 28 February 2017

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