Editor's note: We don't publish many anonymous pieces on Forbes.com, but this compelling first-person account of sexism in the startup world merits an exception. I met the author several months ago and was floored by the stories she had to tell about her dealings with mostly male investors. Like many men (as she writes), I knew women in tech faced a certain degree of chauvinism and harassment, but I'd had no idea it was so barefaced and routine, in an industry that thinks of itself as egalitarian and forward-looking.
After much persuading, she agreed to write about her experiences but asked that I omit her name, for several reasons. First (again, as she writes), the startup community is a small one, and founders rely heavily on social capital and goodwill to navigate it. Speaking up carries big risks.
But fear of retribution wasn't her only concern. While putting an individual human face on an issue, it can also be a way for critics to short circuit the discussion by engaging in ad hominem attacks. "I don't want it to be about me, but about the issue at hand," the author says. "When we get into a witch hunt around particular personalities, we lose sight of the problem we should be tackling."
Read on to learn more about that problem.
Armoring Up: Surviving Sexism As A Female Founder
As I walked down his front steps towards my car, laptop and business documents slung over my shoulder, I wondered how thick my skin really needed to be if I wanted to continue down this path. I had been put in another impossible situation, cornered by a lopsided power dynamic and subjected to what any HR department in the world would define as sexual harassment.
But I don't work for a company. I run one. This wasn't happening inside the confines of a tidy company with an employee handbook and a legal team. This was fair game – it was the wild west of fundraising and I needed to learn how to navigate the alpha male-dominated VC community as a female founder.
That particular Saturday started as usual. I picked up produce at the farmers market and headed into the office for what seemed like the twentieth consecutive day that month. Like most startup founders I work weekends to stay on top of the seemingly endless tasks that arise from my growing company.
After releasing our Android app earlier in the spring, I felt we were ready to approach investors about seed funding. Our app had been downloaded in 52 countries, we had an active base of supporters and we had revenue, something many startups in the Valley lack. We'd also survived bootstrapping for almost 18 months, which was no minor achievement given that we started with less than $10,000 in the bank.
Engaging investors is a full-time job, so my schedule was busier than normal. As I sipped my second latte of the day, I sent out emails to those who had asked to be kept up to date on our fundraising efforts. One elicited a quick reply: "Sure. Let's catch up. This evening. My house? I need to put the kids down." We had met months earlier through a family acquaintance. A limited partner in a local VC firm and a known supporter of the arts, his interests aligned well with our mission. Since we had previously shared several civil lunch meetings, I didn't give too much thought his choice of location.
Before heading out, I dashed home to change out of a dress into nondescript pants and a baggy high-necked sweater. I pulled my hair back and made sure that my makeup didn't communicate anything other than professionalism. Assuming that his wife would be home, I didn't want to give either of them the wrong idea.
None of that mattered. His wife wasn't home. I quickly realized that none of the paperwork I had prepared mattered, either.
After some small talk, he sat next to me on the couch and commented that I looked stressed. He put down his glass of wine and reached to massage my shoulders. As he slid his hands further, I made a nervous joke, quickly trying to shift my weight away from him. I leaned into the corner of the couch and crossed my legs, attempting to put an obstacle in his way. Undeterred, he continued to reach for me.
I got up and walked across the room. Trying to keep it light, I comment on how often men made inappropriate advances towards me during business meetings, hoping he'd get the message.
"Yeah, that's tough. You can't really say anything because it's one tight knit community," he said, probably thinking he sounded sympathetic.
If I chose to complain—or make a scene and wake up his children who slept nearby—it would be another case of he said / she said, like the countless harassment cases that have made headlines in the tech community but have not done much to change status quo. Given his standing in the community and his personal wealth, who would believe my claims as anything more than those of a spurned little girl upset that a VC had chosen not to invest in her company?
The dance between work discussion and groping continued until I was able to finally excuse myself. In this case, I could have been more prudent. But sexism is a daily reality as I attempt to play ball in a man's world.
A few months before my encounter with The Masseuse, there was The Bachelor. After hearing our business plan, he said he was interested in spending more time getting to know me. He was looking for a wife, he continued, sans segue, then proceeded to enumerate all the monetary advantages that wife would enjoy, including a $4 million apartment in San Francisco. As in many similar situations, I attempted to politely pivot the conversation in order to not bruise the ego of the man who had just proposed something akin to an 18th century marriage of convenience.
Shortly after this encounter, I began wearing a simple gold band to meetings. It might be awkward to explain, should a potential investor ask about my spouse, but the awkwardness it might deter was far greater.