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From Silicon Valley to the Nile: Middle Eastern Women Speak About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Silicon Valley may be making the news for its roiling sexual harassment scandals, but it isn't the only work culture plagued by male privilege. We speak to women in business and tech from MENA and around the world about sexual harassment, the pay gap, and the cost of speaking up.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome, but it isn’t unfamiliar.

Just as most women don’t make it to adulthood without at least one story of being harassed by a catcaller, most women in the business world don’t make to to retirement without at least one story of sexual misconduct or discrimination in the workplace. The media has been awash lately with stories of powerful men falling out of favor after weathering accusations of misconduct from female colleagues. Increasing numbers of women are finding the courage to speak openly about these issues, and it has had a snowball effect: the accusations are rolling in at a manic pace. Much of the frenzy is centered on the Silicon Valley culture, but this issue isn’t endemic to the world’s tech capital. Being casually disrespected or even overtly harassed by male bosses and coworkers isn’t a Silicon Valley problem. It’s a man problem.

Aya* had tolerated two years of inappropriate casual touching from her manager before he crossed the line so outlandishly that she had to react. “We weren’t just coworkers, we had become friends, and he taught me a great deal at work. He’d sometimes touch my arm or thigh when we were talking but I’d always step away from him, to send the message that this was unacceptable,” says the Cairene interior designer.

Mistaking friendliness for an invitation is something that often characterises the harassment issue in Egypt.

One day, as Aya was leaving the office, located in an upscale Cairo neigbourhood, her manager spanked her. She was shocked but knew the time had come to take action, and the next day got her manager’s boss involved; unfortunately, the two men were close relatives. “I would have fired him on the spot,” he told Aya. “But it’s a family business. He won’t be getting a promotion, though.” The 29-year-old stood paralysed, her face shocked with disbelief.

Yasmine’s* boss tried to kiss her in a hotel one night while the pair were on a business trip, away from their office in Cairo. But there was no HR department at the startup to stand up for the media executive. “I left the company shortly after, but I could not leave immediately as I was pending a sizeable bonus in the same month and I had a feeling that if I had left immediately I'd be denied the money I had worked very hard for for over a year,” she explains. The 29-year-old woman was stuck in a terrible position. “The few weeks between the incident and my departure were very difficult as I had to weigh my morals against my finances and be strategic in the way I dealt with it, rather than taking an immediate stand and leaving like my gut reaction wanted me to.”

“Speaking definitely up carries a cost,” says Kimberly Koenig, a former tech employee and digital nomad who is currently freelancing her way across the globe. “At best, you feel like you’re a killjoy for calling out sexism, even if you’re doing it in a gentle, non-blaming way that coddles and protects their feelings. At worst, you fear that you’re starting to be viewed as a ‘problem employee.’ It’s navigating a minefield, and it’s a huge burden of anxiety for any one person to take on.”

He has a family, are you sure you want to do this?

Koenig’s first experience with harassment in tech started with a high school internship, when an older man she worked with made a lewd comment about her in front of several of their colleagues. Her manager initially reacted with disbelief, but moved on to making excuses for the offender. “He’s a good guy, I’m sure he didn’t mean it!” and “he has a family, are you sure you want to do this?” he asked her. Wracked by misplaced guilt, the minor reported him to HR anyway, but the experience with her harassment being treated dismissively left a sour impression. 

Famous men who misbehave

Dave McClure may previously have been well known in entrepreneurship circles as the co-founder of the world-renowned 500 Startups; but if he was famous before, he’s infamous now. In early July McClure was asked to resign, following a high-profile accusation of unwanted sexual advances. “I was getting confused figuring out whether to hire you or hit on you,” he had written to  entrepreneur Sarah Kunst in a Facebook message. When Kunst brought up the message to a colleague of McClure’s, 500 Startups ceased contact with her, ending her consideration for employment. 

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is another mega-successful Silicon Valley hotshot who has been publicly shamed and forced to step down following repeated scandals. In February, ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a tell-all regarding Uber’s misogynistic corporate culture and HR’s reluctance to take action following sexual harassment from her manager. Not long after, a female employee alleged that he had taken colleagues to a bar in Seoul known for its escort services; and the last straw was the outrage following his decision to share the private medical records of a Delhi woman who had been raped by her Uber driver. In late June, he resigned from his post.

One night I excused myself to the bathroom, but I was really looking for a sharp instrument in case he got handsy with me.

These cases got an unusual amount of media attention, but stories like these are far from rare. According to the Elephant in the Valley initiative, which collects anonymous data and stories from women mainly in leadership positions in tech, academia, entrepreneurship and investing, 60 percent of women surveyed had received inappropriate sexual advances from male coworkers. A third of them feared for their personal safety due to work-related issues. “My boss used to keep me in the office late at night alone with him even when there was nothing to do,” says Mariam*, a former software developer from Egypt in her mid-twenties. “He’d just sit and talk about his personal life. It used to make me very uncomfortable. One night I excused myself to the bathroom, but I was really looking for a sharp instrument in case he got handsy with me.”

“He doesn’t think he did anything wrong”

“I don’t think a single one of the men who’s harassed me has been aware of his inappropriate behavior. I’ve never been approached independently or offered an apology by a male coworker who’s realized something he said or did was sexist or improper,” says Koenig, who experienced multiple episodes of harassment while employed at a major tech company.

Yasmine’s boss was equally clueless. “I don't think he thinks he did anything wrong. He seems to be under the impression that the laid-back and collaborative attitude that defined the company culture, as it does many startups run by millennials, leaves the door open for things like this to happen.” Startup culture shares common threads with the larger tech culture as a whole. “There’s so much of a bro culture that making sexist jokes or behaving inappropriately is either viewed as par for the course, or these guys seem to think they can somehow get away with it,” says Koenig.

In some cases, the failure to recognise inappropriate behaviour is the product of the interplay of office culture with wider cultural mores. “Mistaking friendliness for an invitation is something that often characterises the harassment issue in Egypt,” Yasmine adds. But women who aren't constantly friendly or approachable are at risk of being characterised as cold or bitchy by their colleagues - even if the same behaviour is seen as a positive when exhibited by men. So what's a woman to do?

It goes deeper than overt sexual misconduct: daily micro-aggressions are par for the course for many women in business. Some men don’t even realise that business culture puts women at a disadvantage, such as this man who experienced a dramatic shift in behaviour from his clients after he accidentally signed off his emails with a female coworker’s name. “I wasn’t any better at the job than she was, I just had this invisible advantage,” he realised. But this story isn’t unique. Unfortunately, it takes accidentally walking in a woman’s heels for many men to start believing women when they talk about jumping through additional hoops to be treated seriously at work.

Do big business have a bro culture issue?

One of Silicon Valley’s original tech leviathans is battling harsh accusations on multiple fronts. A Google employee’s now-viral internal memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” swept the net in early August and sparked an international dialogue concerning big tech’s even bigger culture problem. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” asserts the author of the infamous diversity memo, who goes on to explain that inherent psychological differences and capabilities between men and women are to blame for the disproportionate gender ratio in STEM fields, rather than institutional or cultural biases. He decries Google’s minority-focused mentoring programs and classes, calling them “discriminatory practices.” But even as the irked Google employee outlines his hypotheses about preferential treatment toward women and the “myth” of the gender pay gap, his employer is fighting a federal wage discrimination investigation. 

He used to make fun of everything I said. I was the only woman there and I was the only person he talked down to.

Does this widespread gender pay discrimination subconsciously foster a workplace culture that demeans female professionals? It’s a distinct possibility. A resounding 88 percent of women surveyed reported to Elephant in the Valley that clients and colleagues have demeaned them by directing questions to male peers instead of them, and a nearly equal amount complained that their clients would avoid eye contact with them if there were male colleagues present to acknowledge instead. With over 47 percent of respondents claiming that they’ve been asked to perform tasks outside of their pay grade or job description such as fetching coffee and organising social events, it seems women have a long way to go before they’re truly viewed as professional equals. In an environment that still treats women like housewives instead of business professionals, is it so surprising that sexual misconduct happens so frequently?

“I once worked with a man who was an admitted Islamist,” says Mariam of an old officemate. “He used to make fun of everything I said. I was the only woman there and I was the only person he talked down to, so I'm assuming my genitals had something to do with it.”

“Women entrepreneurs are at the mercy of VCs”

The world of entrepreneurship presents an additional row of hurdles for women. In venture capital, women make up only 7 percent of partners. Female enterprisers are faced with a vulnerability their male counterparts are fortunate not to share - with a 93 percent chance she’ll be pitching to a man, how sure can a founder be that the moneyman won’t abuse the massive power imbalance that already exists between investor and entrepreneur? “Women entrepreneurs are putting themselves out there at the mercy of VCs who can theoretically make or break their future startups, whereas female employees at established companies ostensibly have HR departments and managers who can protect them,” says Koenig.

The co-founders of Witchsy were so fed up with the sexism that they invented an imaginary male co-founder named Keith. 

In addition to the fact that numerous big-name VCs like McClure are treating business meetings with female founders like opportunities to score dates, they’re often so unwilling to take these women seriously that some entrepreneurs are going to extreme measures to even the playing field. The co-founders of eclectic art marketplace Witchsy were so fed up with the sexism that they invented an imaginary male co-founder named Keith - whose emails were responded to promptly and with respect, while the women were faced with condescension or disregarded entirely.

Where do we go from here?

What role will men take in recognising and correcting this behaviour, assuming they even manage to pass the starting line by acknowledging they have an issue? With tone-deaf lip-service apologies from disgraced CEOs and VCs such as McClure’s “I’m a Creep. I’m sorry,” the prognosis isn’t good. McClure’s public apology received accolades from men who called him “courageous,” and criticism from women who called it “a PR move” and “the easiest way out.”

Despite the lack of self-awareness from numerous offenders, there has been some movement towards change. The recent media flurry surrounding famous accusations and resignations has encouraged more women to speak up and more managers to start taking them seriously. Some companies are proactively investigating their employees in the hunt for wrongdoers, including some startups questioning investors regarding misconduct, not wanting to risk being associated with such misbehaviour. However, it goes a different way in the Middle East, where victim-blaming is deeply rooted in the collective consciousness. "There is this kind of submissive thing that you are raised up with here, that you have a hard time saying no, or knowing how to say no,” says Egyptian Sharine Atif, an Egyptian filmmaker who made headlines in 2016 with a scandalous video series on sexual harassment.

One of the solutions for venture capital has been women branching out and creating their own VCs, such as UAE’s Womena and the Lebanese Women Angel Fund.

Correcting poor male behaviour is a band-aid for healing the issue of misogyny in business and tech, though. Part of the solution to making it less of a “man’s world” is to hire more women, as well as other minorities, and start fostering a more inclusive culture. "Not only must we hire for diversity, but we need to ensure that workplaces are supportive and non-toxic so that women and other underrepresented employees don’t leave midway through their careers," Koenig adds.

One of the solutions for venture capital has been women branching out and creating their own VCs, such as UAE’s Womena and the Lebanese Women Angel Fund. This has created safer spaces for female founders to seek funding. Last week, the Womena's founder Elissa Freiha and Blooming Founders’ Lu Li held a webinar to discuss gender discrimination in tech and business. 

And what should we expect from men who legitimately want to change their behavior? If the stories from these women teach them one thing, perhaps it's that they need to listen to and acknowledge the women with whom they work - to take them seriously, to be cognizant of sexist behavior, to encourage the other men they work with to take women seriously as well.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Photos by @MO4Network.

Photographer: Amr Medhat.

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