Technology

Tech Tent: Sexism in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley and the wider tech industry have a problem with women. At least, that is what you might conclude after a week that has seen a leading tech investor resign after admitting his involvement in sexual harassment.

On the Tech Tent podcast this week, we talk to two women who have been on the receiving end of that kind of behaviour and ask why the culture of Silicon Valley appears to be stuck in the last century.

We also discuss a week that has seen the demise of the internal combustion engine come closer – as Volvo announced that all its cars will soon include an electric motor – and we meet the woman who has a powerful role in regulating Facebook and other tech giants in Europe.

Tech’s Problem With Women

You might think that California was among the most liberal, even politically correct, places on Earth. But tell that to women in the technology industry. We knew how few women there were at senior levels in tech companies – and the situation is even worse at the venture capital firms that fund them. Now we are finding out just why they may find it difficult to thrive.

This week has seen the latest in a series of scandals that have underlined something deeply wrong with the culture of Silicon Valley. Dave McClure, the co-founder of 500 Startups, an important and powerful figure in the funding of small tech firms, resigned after accusations that he had sexually harassed a female entrepreneur.

Then another woman came forward with similar allegations. Malaysian tech entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh posted an account on her website of a brainstorming evening with Mr McClure and a group of other people in her apartment, which ended with him proposing that they should sleep together and pushing her against a wall to demand a kiss.

On our programme, Ms Yeoh gives her first interview about her story, telling Zoe Kleinman she did not confront Mr McClure after the incident, afraid of what it might mean for her business and the deal she was trying to strike with him.

“If I had told him how angry I was at the time, he might have pulled the deal off.”

We’ve contacted Mr McClure about the allegations but have not heard back from him so far.

We also talk to one of the most prominent women in Silicon Valley, Danae Ringelmann, co-founder of the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. She tells us of her own experience of sexual harassment, when a drunken entrepreneur groped her at a post-conference party.

She says there was not the same power imbalance as in Ms Yeoh’s case – she wasn’t seeking funding from the entrepreneur – but she still thought long and hard about reporting the incident. “I’ve had the same type of concerns as other women – do I say something and risk hurting my company or do I shut up?”

In recent weeks, more women have felt emboldened to tell their stories about sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. Silicon Valley’s cool liberal image is under threat – and the pressure is growing to do something about it.

The Electric Future

Will we look back one day and say this was the week when the electric car’s time finally arrived?

At a press conference in Sweden’s capital Stockholm this week, Volvo Cars announced that from 2019 all its new models will be fully or partly electric-powered.

On Friday, the first Tesla Model 3 – the electric car-maker’s first mass-market model – rolls off the production line.

And France has announced that by 2040, cars that use petrol or diesel will be banned from its roads.

But reaching a time when the internal combustion engine can take its place in a museum rather than on the road may still prove a long and complex journey.

A Tesla electric vehicle plugged in at a charging station in Germany
There could be a shortage of electric car charging points

For the mass of motorists, electric cars are still much too pricey a proposition. Of nearly 250,000 cars sold in the UK last year, fewer than 11,000 were electric or hybrid vehicles.

Then there is the infrastructure needed to make electric cars a practical choice. For someone like me who lives in a terraced house, the idea of stretching an extension cable across the pavement to power my car does not appeal. Until there are charging points on every street and a network of fast-charging stations across the country, many motorists will say no to electric.

Rachel Burgess from Autocar magazine tells the programme that Volvo’s pledge may not be quite as dramatic as it appears – all carmakers have signed up to reducing the carbon emissions of their fleet and quite a lot of its cars will be what are called 48v mild hybrids, mostly powered by petrol or diesel rather than a small electric motor.

Still, the electric car now has momentum, and we can expect to see further announcements from major carmakers who want to seem in tune with the future.

Ireland’s Data Overlord

It’s a small country geographically on the fringe of Europe, but Republic of Ireland wields great power when it comes to regulating America’s tech giants. That is because many of them – and notably Facebook – have their European headquarters there, and that means that Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon can change the way they operate in the EU.

She tells Tech Tent that American firms are learning they have to shape their policies to a European view of data privacy. One example: she has told Facebook that it can’t use the facial recognition technology it applies in the United States in Europe.

Helen Dixon
Image captionHelen Dixon has been looking into some issues surrounding online advertising

She also feels that European consumers are becoming less accepting of the bargain where we get free services from the American tech giants in return for being tracked. Ever noticed that a pair of trainers can seem to follow you around the internet if you’ve searched for them once? Ms Dixon tells us that this phenomenon is irritating more and more people: “They want to know why it is that you’re serving me these ads.”

This week the UK’s data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner, criticised an NHS hospital for the way it handed over patient data to Google’s DeepMind division without many checks.

Ms Dixon says these kind of deals that see public bodies collaborate with the tech giants will come in for closer scrutiny and regulators will ask some key questions: “What’s the transparency to the public? Do they understand that the data is being shared and what are the purpose and benefits?”

In May next year, Europe’s new data protection law, the GDPR, comes into force. That will mean every organisation, large or small, has to be much more careful about how it shares data across borders – and it will make regulators like Ms Dixon even more powerful.

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