Pando

Binary Capital's Justin Caldbeck accused of unwanted sexual advances towards female founders. Where's the outrage?

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 22, 2017

From The Gender Wars Desk

The Information has a story today about Justin Caldbeck, of Binary Capital that should have been greeted with far more outrage than it has been. Frankly, the story should have been written with more outrage than it was.

The headline --  “Silicon Valley Women Tell of VC’s Unwanted Advances” -- is almost Onion-like in it’s “yeah, well, duh” quality.

It’s only after reading past the paywall that you realize the extent of the “well-connected” Silicon Valley venture capitalist’s “advances”. They included allegedly groping a woman under a table, sending lurid texts late at night, and propositioning them for sex.

The Information deserves credit for breaking the story, and I’m sure there were myriad legal considerations before publication, but still: If you’re going to publish a story like this, you can’t downplay the details.

Here’s a better headline: Six women allege lurid texts, groping and unwanted sexual propositions from Binary Capital’s Justin Caldbeck

Several of the women say the advances occurred when they sought funding or advice while trying to start businesses. At least two of the women decided to avoid business dealings with Mr. Caldbeck as a result of the episodes.”

The Information also buries the most important part: Three of the six women they spoke with spoke on the record using their own names to describe the harassment they say they experienced.

Those women, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho and Leiti Hsu, took massive professional and personal risks in doing this. Most men in the startup world won’t speak on the record about a VC who treats them poorly. For three women to do so and risk the industry’s retaliation shows not only their courage, but the giant shift that’s taking place in Silicon Valley.

We are now in a post-Susan Fowler world, where the power of one woman coming forward and saying things so many other women experience on the record has never been clearer. I wrote after Emil Michael’s ouster from Uber that no bro is safe anymore. Everything I said in that piece goes double after Travis Kalanick’s ouster. It’s hard to overstate the cultural shift and importance of Susan Fowler’s honesty and courage bringing down the most untouchable bro in the startup world.

In the immediate aftermath of Fowler’s post, a lot of people in the Valley dismissed it as saying everything in tech is just like this. Nothing to see here! Move along! This is the same dismissal we saw after Ellen Pao came forward against Kleiner Perkins with her litany of so-called “micro-indignities.” Similarly, the accounts of these women in the Information story are unlikely to shock any woman who has raised money, reported on this industry, or worked in the industry.

But the fact that this is so commonplace is why the move was so brave. It was a way of standing up and saying that something that most women consider an inevitable part of doing business here simply isn’t OK. That if you do it, you will be outed.

“Leiti and I originally were not going to say anything because we felt that what happened to us was just unfortunately so commonplace and trite these days,” Susan Ho told me via a closed Facebook Group this morning (she gave me permission to quote her publicly.)

“But after hearing the stories of other women who endured much worse, we decided we had to say something to make sure this article would get written. Niniane Wang was the first to agree to go on the record and she said it best — if we don't say anything and this happens to someone else, it's really something we could have had a hand in preventing.”

Binary Capital, for one, seems to agree that the actions are so commonplace that Caldbeck did nothing wrong. The firm’s statement in his defense to The Information is jaw-dropping:

In a statement, Mr. Caldbeck said, “I strongly deny The Information’s attacks on my character. The fact is, I have always enjoyed respectful relationships with female founders, business partners, and investors.”Binary issued a statement that said the notion Mr. Caldbeck had “engaged in improper behavior with female entrepreneurs”was “false.” Binary said that while The Information had “found a few examples which show that Justin has in the past occasionally dated or flirted with women he met in a professional capacity, let’s be clear: there is no evidence that Justin did anything illegal and there is no evidence that any of his investing decisions were affected by his social interests.”

His social interests.

Let’s unpack both statements. By saying he has “always enjoyed respectful relationships with female founders” Caldbeck is either claiming these women lied or that he considers grabbing a woman’s leg under the table is “respectful.” I’d love to understand which, and have emailed Caldbeck to ask him. I’ll update this post with his response, if he gives one.

Binary’s statement is worse. It denies that these accounts are “improper,” for one. And it minimized his abuse of his power position to fund or not fund a woman’s business as mere “social interests.” Bear in mind, the Information reviewed the lurid emails and texts.

[UPDATE: Binary Capital has sent a new statement from Caldbeck. It reads: "Obviously, I am deeply disturbed by these allegations. While significant context is missing from the incidents reported by The Information, I deeply regret ever causing anyone to feel uncomfortable. The fact is that I have been privileged to have worked with female entrepreneurs throughout my career and I sincerely apologize to anyone who I made uncomfortable by my actions. There’s no denying this is an issue in the venture community, and I hate that my behavior has contributed to it."

Will the bravery of these women have any impact? You’d think in a week where Travis Kalanick’s resignation has put yet another spotlight on Silicon Valley’s bro/harassment culture that this story would be leading every industry news site, and maybe a few mainstream outlets. And yet I’m seeing remarkably little outrage or even coverage. Social too: The story has gotten almost no attention in my Twitter feed-- which is a pretty large cross-section of men and women in the venture capital industry.

Oh, and speaking of Uber….

I don’t quite know what to make of the silence on the Caldbeck allegations and his response. Does the wider tech industry agree with Binary? That these actions aren’t “improper”? Does it agree with Caldbeck? That this is what a “respectful relationship with female founders” looks like? That propositioning a woman who is pitching your firm is a mere “social interest” that shouldn’t have any impact on a man’s perceived “character” in the industry? Will any venture capital firm or male VC come forward and say, “Oh, hey, FWIW, we don’t think this is cool…”

Perhaps the Valley hasn’t come as far as I’d hoped earlier this week.

There is another elephant in the room here: All three of the women who came forward are Asian. As is Ellen Pao. As is Tina Huang who sued Twitter for discrimination. As is Chia Hong who sued Facebook for discrimination. Other women of color like Tracy Chou and Susan Wu have also been outspoken in sharing their experiences and demanding the industry become more inclusive.

I was reminded about the Facebook and Twitter cases by a female venture capitalist who has herself suffered discrimination in Silicon Valley (I’m not naming her because our conversation wasn’t explicitly for publication).  When I asked her this morning what she made of the coincidence (?) that the women in the story were all Asian, she responded: “It is interesting, isn't it?”

I don’t quite know what to make of this clear correlation that no one wants to seem to publicly acknowledge. Are women of color more frequently targeted by abusive men in Silicon Valley? Or are they just more likely to be the ones who come forward?

Think Progress wrote about this correlation when the Pao, Hong and Huang suits were all filed around the same time. It honed in on Kleiner Perkins seemingly contradictory claims that Pao was both so meek she was unable to hold a room, but also combative and arrogant and competitive. It quoted the work of Joan C. Williams, whose widely cited book “What Works for Women at Work” is essentially the bible of decoding universal workplace bias.  Williams did a 2015 study of the double jeopardy of bias that women of color face in the STEM world, in particular.

The study found that all of the women interviewed said they’d experienced gender bias, that African American women were the most likely to have to prove their competency over and over again, that Latinas who assert themselves are seen as “angry” or “too emotional” and that Latinas are most pressured to do admin work for male colleagues. It found that both Latinas and African American women reported “regularly being mistaken as janitors.”

Wow.

The findings from Asian women were interesting too. Williams found that the stereotype that Asians are “good at science” was helpful when they were considered as students, but not as colleagues. Asian women also reported more pressure to “adhere to traditionally feminine roles.”

This brought to mind the work of behavioral scientist Amy Cuddy, who has measured the impact of viewing different groups as warm or cold and competent or incompetent. These are mostly snap judgements people make rooted in evolutionary survival, she argues. In terms of leadership, the best quadrant is warm and competent. Guess who owns that one? Working dads. The well-known “fatherhood bonus.”

Working moms are seen as warm and incompetent, invoking pity. Single moms of in poverty are in the worst of all quadrants: Cold and incompetent, invoking hostility.

Guess where professional women of color land? Cold competent, invoking envy and resentment. As Cuddy describes it, these women are frequently picked to be part of a team for their skills, but grudgingly.

From a Harvard Magazine piece on Cuddy’s work:

A new pupil in a mathematics class is told to pair up with another student to work on a problem. Research suggests that a pupil who knows no one in the class will tend to partner with an Asian student; Asians are stereotyped as cold/competent. “People are willing to team up with them, but it’s only out of self-interest,” says Cuddy…

...In general, she explains, this cluster “tends to contain high-status minority groups: they’re seen as having a good lot in life, but there’s some resentment toward them. ‘We respect you, there’s something you have that we like, but we kind of resent you for having it--and you’re not the majority.’ Asian-Americans, career women, and black professionals also tend to be perceived in the cold/competent quadrant.” 

If gender discrimination and harassment is about power and putting women in their place, it makes sense that women of color would face that in a more pronounced way. Williams spoke about the issues Ellen Pao was facing with Think Progress and how common that is among professional Asian American women:

[The] diametrically opposed images of Asian American women in the industry aren’t odd or uncommon at all but part of the very specific oppression Asian women face in STEM. Her research shows while all women are forced to navigate a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent or too masculine to be likable, Asian American women walk the thinnest line of all.

“The tightrope is literally narrower for Asian American women,” Williams said. Asian American women are more likely than other women to report pressures to play traditionally feminine roles, such as office mother or dutiful daughter, but also backlash for stereotypically masculine behaviors such as being assertive and self-promoting. Williams said she clearly sees these same narratives being spun in Ellen Pao’s case, “There it is. Right there.” 

Another issue Asian women face in particular is a perception that they are the minority group that is doing well in the tech world, when evidence has found the opposite is true. Studies have shown that Asian women lag behind men and all other women when it comes to career advancement. From that same Think Progress piece:

The percent of Asian women employed in universities and colleges who were tenured in 2008 was 20.6 percent compared with 40.5 percent of white women, 32.1 percent of black women and 30 percent of Hispanic women.

Among Fortune 500 companies, Asian women lag behind pretty much everyone, including not only whites and Asian men but also all other people of color, men and women…

...According to a report by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business and the professions, women of Asian origin are one of the fastest growing groups of women in the U.S. labor force and yet their scant representation in influential leadership roles demonstrates profound racialized gender bias. Asian American women are most likely to have a graduate education but least likely to hold a position within three levels of the CEO or to have supervisory responsibilities. 

It’s possible in the allegations made against Caldbeck that the ethnicity of the women he targeted (at least those who have spoken on the record) is a coincidence. “A type,” if you will. But industry-wide, it’s hard to ignore this much anecdotal evidence and statistical data, that something unique is going on when it comes to women of color increasingly being the ones to stand up and demand change.

It’s also impossible to ignore the depressing reality that, despite the departure of Travis Kalanick and the occasional other “victory” for women in the Valley, there is still a mountain to climb. The first step should be demanding a far, far better response from Caldbeck, and Binary, to the incredibly serious allegations made against him.