Female Tech Execs: Silicon Valley Must Have Zero Tolerance for Sexual Harassment
Proday CEO Sarah Kunst

Silicon Valley's problems with sexual harassment and sexism have come to a head this year as more and more women finally speak out about their experiences. 

The actions have rocked nearly all layers of Silicon Valley, from venture capitalists and startups to tech giants including Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) , and have spurred an unfinished conversation about what the industry should do to bring an end to these issues. Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco on Wednesday, Sept. 20, three female Silicon Valley leaders agreed the responsibility falls on the shoulders of tech CEOs and managers.

Unfortunately, one of those women has a lot of experience on the topic. Sarah Kunst, CEO of fitness app Proday, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment about Dave McClure, former CEO of venture capital firm 500 Startups, that eventually led to his removal from the company. Kunst, who was included in a broader New York Times investigation of venture capitalists preying on female startup founders, said she saw other women coming forward, and that inspired her to do the same.

"It was wrong. You can't get sex in exchange for something," Kunst said on Wednesday. "The other piece was seeing women like Ellen Pao and Susan Fowler tell their stories and realizing that's what it took. ... I was like, you know what, I tried to handle it through the back channels and that wasn't working, so I'm going to tell my story." 

It's not just victims who are realizing the value of speaking out, though. Kim Malone Scott, an entrepreneur and CEO coach, said tech leaders are starting to acknowledge that it doesn't do any good to "cover up the crime." She added that managers need to view issues of sexual harassment, racism or bias just like they would any other possible crime, such as embezzlement or fraud.

If corporate leaders aren't firing the individuals involved in issues such as harassment or racism, they're not doing their job as managers, said Hilary Gosher, a managing director at private equity firm Insight Venture Partners.

"There's a certain category of man who will only understand action and consequences, so there's no point talking to him," Malone Scott added. "Women have been told you'll never get another job or you'll blow up your life if you come forward. But look at Sarah, she's not blown up." 

It's hard to discuss sexual harassment in Silicon Valley without mentioning Uber Technologies Inc. Former Uber engineer Fowler penned a hugely influential blog post detailing allegations of sexual harassment and sexism at the company that included individuals in high-level and midlevel positions. It kicked off a cascading series of events that ultimately led to an investigation by former attorney general Eric Holder's law firm, the firing of more than a dozen employees and the resignation of former CEO Travis Kalanick.

Malone Scott, who was also a former director of Google AdSense, used to work in the same building as Uber. She said the elevator doors would open at Uber's offices and she'd see black mirrors and "thumping music," which made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She added that it reminded her of the kind of clubs a girl wouldn't want to walk into alone.

"It seemed like the kind of place that was dangerous for a woman to walk into," Malone Scott said. 

Uber's problems could have been stopped early on if its board of directors took action, Gosher noted, but instead it turned a blind eye to the situation. 

"Boards need to have a zero-tolerance policy, and that is that if you're a man in a position of power, don't hit on a woman," Gosher added.

Kunst's proposed advice for CEOs was even more blunt.

"Well, I don't sexually harass people, and I don't just hire white dudes," Kunst said. "If you're a manager and you've been a manager for five to 10 years and no one came to you with an issue about sexism/harassment, you're not encouraging enough dialogue."

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