Inside Silicon Valley's 'brotopia' and the lawyers fighting rife sexual harassment claims

telegraph.co.uk—Natasha Bernal Joseph Archer

For many residents of the Bay area, Silicon Valley has become a glorified frat house. Drugs, ambition, sex and money have created a toxic “bro” culture in which women at best, feel sidelined, and at worst, feel abused.

“[The men] think they are above the law because they think they are changing the world,” says Emily Chang, journalist and author of bestselling book “Brotopia”.

Silicon Valley is still reeling from Chang’s book, which was published earlier this year, in which she claims to expose the tech industry’s “secretive, orgiastic dark side”. “From drug-fuelled orgies to the freewheeling sex lives pursued by men in tech - from the elite down to the rank and file - have consequences for how business gets done in Silicon Valley,” she writes.

That certainly seemed to be the case this week, when a new, explosive series of allegations rocked the tech world. According to an investigation by the New York Times, Andy Rubin, who invented the Android smartphone software, was handed £70m in exchange for his letter of resignation after being investigated for sexual assault. He allegedly coerced an employee into performing a sex act on him in a hotel room in 2013 - a claim he denies.

Google’s bro culture has been the subject of problematic headlines before. Former Google engineer Loretta Lee sued the tech giant for sexual harassment and discrimination earlier this year. She claimed that male colleagues would spike her drinks with whiskey and frequently made her the target of lewd comments. Google failed to do anything to help, her lawsuit claimed. When she reported the incident to human resources, she was told to take medical leave, and when she returned she was fired for “performance issues”.

“This kind of behavior is rampant in the Valley,” says a source close to Google. “We all talked about it but no one seemed to care.”

These explosive accounts only represent a fraction of the complaints against tech giants.

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The world is seldom awarded this kind of peek at the seedy underbelly of Silicon Valley because NDAs and clauses in contracts ensure that any conflict is settled behind closed doors.

Instead they take place within the walls of arbitration rooms, where the public cannot hear victim’s side of the story.  “People get ripped to shreds,” says Jennifer Schwartz, an employment lawyer that has tackled Silicon Valley tech giants for years. “So many women are fearful and rightfully so, going to a jury or an arbitrator and being torn apart.”

The vast majority of women who have exposed sexual harassment are already traumatised, she explains. “I see a lot of white-washed internal investigations where the woman is either disciplined or terminated. It upends their lives and the last thing they want to do is go through the horrors of trial.”

Allegations about the bad culture in Silicon Valley have existed since before the #MeToo movement. Ms Chang says that Silicon Valley men get “incredible powerful and unimaginably wealthy, leading them to become disconnected with reality, causing their bad behaviour”.

Ms Schwartz says this behaviour is getting worse. There is a tolerance of bad behaviour because there is a “wild west” culture and an esteem for peculiarity. It has contributed to a failure to care about diversity and egalitarianism on all levels. This, she says, has been sacrificed for being the next IPO.

Silicon Valley, she adds, is the worst workplace she has ever seen. “Over the past seven or eight years or more I have been flabbergasted at the kind of behaviours that I am seeing through the women that come to me with claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.”

Lawyers fighting sexual harassment claims have gained a small victory. From January 1 next year employers in Silicon Valley will no longer be able to silence workers who claim to have been victims of sexual harassment and assault.

New laws will allow an alleged perpetrator name to be made public, while an alleged victim’s name will remain private. The hope from the employment lawyers battling big tech organisations is that this will put an end to damaging non-disclosure agreements, which claimants are forced to sign if they want a settlement.

Whether that changes the “brotopia” of Silicon Valley remains to be seen.

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Q&A | Sexual harassment

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:

  • Violates your dignity
  • Makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • Creates a hostile or offensive environment

You don’t need to have previously objected to someone's behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

If you're being harassed at work

Sexual harassment can include:

  • Sexual comments or jokes
  • Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault
  • Displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
  • Sending emails with a sexual content

If you're being sexually harassed by someone you work with, you should:

  • Tell your manager - put it in writing and keep a copy of the letter or email
  • Talk to your HR team or trade union - they’ll be able to give you advice
  • Collect evidence - keep a diary recording all of the times you’ve been harassed

If your colleague doesn't stop harassing you, you could raise a formal grievance (complaint). All employers must have a grievance process - ask your manager or HR team.

You could make a claim at an employment tribunal if you can’t solve your problem using the grievance procedure.

Are you being harassed at work?

Harassment in the workplace falls under the umbrella of discrimination. Sexual harassment can be broken down into these different types:

  • 'Unwanted conduct' related to a person's sex - causing a distressing, humiliating or offensive environment for them
  • 'Unwanted conduct' of a sexual nature - this is sexual harassment
  • Less favourable treatment of an employee because they have rejected sexual harassment or been the victim of it
  • Treating an employee unfairly who has made or supported a complaint about sex discrimination

Making a claim:

If an employee feels they been discriminated against, they will be able to bring a claim to an employment tribunal. However, it’s best they talk to their employer first to try to sort out the matter informally.

Call the ACAS helpline on 0300 123 1100 from Monday-Friday, 8am-8pm and Saturday, 9am-1pm for free support and advice.

All information according to ACAS