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A look at the sexual harassment accusations sweeping Silicon Valley

Sexual harassment in the workplace is an age-old problem in Silicon Valley and nationwide. What is new, however, is the number of women who are beginning to step forward and speak up, advocating for change in venture capital and technological industries.

An article in the Mercury News suggests that a significant movement toward harassment-free interactions in the tech world may be slowly gathering momentum. Not only have several CEOs and high-level investors lost their jobs in the wake of recent accusations, but attorney Kelly Armstrong points out that more women in general are filing sexual harassment claims today than they did a few years ago.

Why this problem is so prevalent here

Boasting a plethora of tech industries, Silicon Valley is filled with venture capitalists - most of whom are male. When a female entrepreneur seeks the capital she needs to launch her business, it can be difficult to overcome the power balance. He holds the checkbook; she needs the money. In such situations, some otherwise staunch feminists find themselves putting up with behavior they would normally squelch immediately. Many women fear causing irrevocable harm to their careers if they speak out, says Armstrong.

In addition, The Guardian points out that interactions between angel investors and entrepreneurs are inherently challenging to regulate because of the fact that new business founders typically don't have a human resources department to complain to. Employment laws in California are also limited in scope when it comes to investors versus entrepreneurs.

And, of course, it doesn't help that many financial deals are struck in social settings, over a glass of wine at a local restaurant or even at the respective parties' homes. This can further blur the line between business and personal life.

What venture capital firms should do

Venture capital firms are certainly not helpless when it comes to preventing sexual harassment. In an article in Venture Capital Journal (VCJ), Armstrong highlights several proactive steps that such firms can take. These include adding an explicit code of conduct to partnership agreements and promptly investigating harassment allegations, whether those allegations are formal or informal.

How the law needs to evolve

Federal and state laws strongly prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, but there aren't as many legal protections for non-employees. When it comes to the relations between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, for instance, we may need new laws that bridge the gap.

Of course, as Armstrong points out, it doesn't matter how many laws are passed if investors and other parties in power are unwilling to comply with them. In the end, it comes down to changing ingrained attitudes and mindsets - both in Silicon Valley and nationwide.

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