Ethan Baron works as a business reporter with The Mercury News, and a native of Silicon Valley before it was ever known as Silicon Valley. Most recently, he’s been covering the very volatile topic of sexual harassment which is why he is with us today.
Ethan sits down with Silicon Valley’s longest serving CEO Ray Zinn and Ray’s wife Delona to discuss sexual harassment in the work place and in Silicon Valley.
Ray Zinn: Welcome to the ‘Tough Things First’ podcast. We’re excited to day to talk about this very special topic, sexual harassment. And to that end, we have a very special guest. My name is Ray Zinn.
Delona Zinn: And I’m Delona Zinn. And I’d like to introduce our very special guest for today’s podcast, who is Ethan Baron from the San Jose Mercury News. A little background on Ethan, he is a business reporter with the Mercury News and a native of Silicon Valley before it was ever known as Silicon Valley. He has worked as a reporter, a columnist, editor and photographer in the newspapers and magazines for over 25 years, covering business, politics, social issues, crime, the environment, outdoor sports, war, and humanitarian crisis. Most recently though, he’s been covering a very volatile topic of sexual harassment, which is why he is with us today. So welcome Ethan.
Ray Zinn: Just love to get your take on this whole topic of sexual harassment. You know I ran a company, my company, Micrel Semiconductor, for 37 years. And of course, during the 37 years, we had a number of sexual harassment issues that we had to deal with. And it’s a painful topic that always concerned us, but for some reason or other, that we want to get your take on, it has taken a different [inaudible 00:02:09] now. I’m sure that companies like Micrel, the one I ran, had this problem for years, but why now, what has now caused this topic to come to the forefront? So could you help us with that Ethan?
Ethan Baron: Yeah, you’re exactly right I think, that this has been a problem that has been in existence for as long as the technology industry has been here in Silicon Valley, and probably in the defense industry before that. It was largely unseen except by the direct participants because in a lot of cases, they weren’t talking about it. I have a friend who worked for a major tech company 30 years ago here in Silicon Valley, who was pushed up against a wall in the middle of the work day in the office by a superior, and she just managed to struggle her way away from the guy, but was too afraid to say anything about it because of the consequences she could face in her career. I think that’s been one of the biggest obstacles to women actually revealing when they’ve been mistreated by men and when they’ve been victimized by sexual misconduct. And so the big difference now is that we’re all looking at it and we’re all looking at it because women have spoken out about it.
You can trace it back and look at the tech industry in particular as something that’s got its unique qualities that perhaps have fostered environments that allowed this to go on for a long time without people pushing back as much. It’s Silicon Valley; the tech industry is overwhelmingly male. When you get large groups of men, whether it’s sports teams or militaries, the police departments, fire departments, you tend to get pushback against women when they start to make inroads into those fields. And so it’s the boys’ club that being invaded by the girls and some of the boys aren’t so happy about that. Then you also have the power dynamics that lead men in positions of advantage to take advantage of women for sexual purposes. It’s a very ugly look that nobody wants to be associated with, especially today when this is a big topic. I think the media attention has probably led to considerable changes in the way people think about it and also in policy changes. It’s just hard to say how effective those new policies or evolved policies will be in tamping down the problem.
Delona Zinn: Women are more willing to speak up. Do you think that the social media is also playing a bigger role in enabling women to speak up?
Ethan Baron: Yeah, I think it does. I think women can find support on social media. They can find information on social media. It can be an outlet for them to make allegations, as Susan Fowler did on Medium. And it’s also … social media is being used to organize events around ‘Me Too’ and the Women’s March. So you have an amplification. You also have the ability of women to network on these issues. And there’s a huge amount of that that goes on. And it’s also the attention that this issue has lead to development of all of these groups that are ‘Women in Tech’ groups of one sort or another. And most of them are dealing with these issues of harassment or mistreatment in one way or another. And so social media has helped foster the growth of all those kinds of organizations and the connections of women, and really allowed women to understand the issue better and organize with each other and support each other in pushing back against what’s been decades of male-dominated treatment or male-dominated policies in the workplace, just the male-centered workplaces that so many women felt foreign in.
One of the biggest things that women complain about, the women in tech that I speak to about this, is the harassment is common enough, but what’s even more common are things like being talked over in meetings or just not being listened to, or having your ideas ignored or diminished because they come from a woman, as the every day things. And so you see a lot of talk about those every day problems, gender related problems for women. There’s a lot of that on social media, a lot of women sharing stories and talking about how to respond to it. It’s really playing a big role in that, and how much that’s encouraging women to speak up, I don’t know. I would suspect that it does.
There also is the potential of legal liability. That’s an issue that women are just gonna … You look at Morgan Freeman, who’s been the focus of [crosstalk 00:08:12] misconduct allegations, and he’s demanding a retraction from the New York Times from their reporting on this. This is the way things could go for women if they … If a woman publicly comes out and points her finger at a company or at a particular person in that company and says this happened to me, this person did it, this company failed to respond, the same thing could happen, theoretically. If the company is willing to take the risk of fighting back, the woman could be destroyed. She could be hit with a massive penalty and a lawsuit. She could have her reputation destroyed, if she’s not able to prove her case, which is pretty hard when it’s a ‘he said, she said’ situation.
Ray Zinn: But you know this podcast is gonna go to people who are running companies, and I think that with the intense coverage and the highlighting and spotlighting of the issue may have false accusations or at least not important accusations coming out on this, so what can companies do to protect themselves, from your experience, Ethan, in this?
Ethan Baron: That’s an excellent question because there will undoubtedly be cases and there undoubtedly are cases where, as you referred to before, there could just be workplace animosity that leads to false claims that are just intended to harm a man, who may have not done anything improper at all.
Ray Zinn: Or the company. It could be to harm the company.
Ethan Baron: Exactly. If someone makes a false claim, and then says, “And the company failed to respond to my allegations”, well the company shouldn’t be responding against someone as a response to false claims. What you were talking about, with the HR investigation, I think it’s really important for companies, if they’re charging their HR department with investigating these kinds of claims, they need to really make sure that their HR department knows that they need to be essentially impartial about that because the perception out there is, among workers, that if you go the HR, HR is on the side of the company, and they’re gonna do everything they can to protect the company, essentially at your expense. And that can turn out badly.
A lot of these cases where it ultimately comes out where there was some problem at the company and the company failed to address it properly when it was happening, a lot of times the HR department is implicated in that. The women say, “I went to HR about that and they said, Oh, that’s just the way he is, or, you’ve gotta develop a thicker skin, or yeah, well we’ve talked to people and there’s really not a problem so you really need to quiet down about this.” I think it’s really important that companies take these kind of allegations seriously from the start-
Ray Zinn: Absolutely.
Ethan Baron: – as you were speaking of, with what your HR department did at Micrel, and then you can have some confidence that, if you’ve got the right people doing it, and they know that their job is to find out what really happened, and report on that, then you’ve got the system in place, that you’re doing what you can for this. And the other side of it is having really clear policies on what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Ray Zinn: Yep.
We had a video. We actually had to watch a training session on that. And what we also told them, told HR to tell the person who’s bringing the charges, that if they didn’t like the way that their case was being handled, they could always kick it upstairs. And so we did have that open door policy that if you didn’t like the outcome, you could still kick it upstairs, and ultimately it might come to me as the CEO. And then I’d have to then deal with it, so that is another way that the employee can feel comfortable. Again they have to feel comfortable with the CEO too, but that’s another way to ensure, is give that employee a chance to kick it upstairs, as they say.
And with all the spotlighting on sexual harassment in the media, do you see it increasing or decreasing? Is this gonna kinda be a fad that’s just gonna go away after people are tired of hearing about it? What’s the thinking of the media and industry on this one?
Ethan Baron: That’s a really important question. We track our reader/viewer numbers on every story here, and I can say that when all the stories on sexual harassment in the venture capital industry started coming out, about VCs here in Silicon Valley, there was a lot of interest at the start in that, among the readers, and then the more cases that came out, the interest sort of waned. That’s normal. When an issue first breaks into the news, lots of people are like, “Wow, this is new. That’s very interesting” and they’re gonna read about it. And then it becomes sort of a routine thing, and so there is the likelihood that there’s been some sort of reduction in interest in the issue. The women’s march and the ‘Me Too’ movement have really created this national and even global environment where the issue is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds as one of the profound problems affecting workplaces and social dynamics and women’s lives and women’s work.
And then you have Susan Fowler, who very courageously put herself out there with a blog post about sexual harassment at Uber. And that ratcheted up all the attention on this issue, and made people have to concede, even if they were reluctant to see this as a problem, to say “Wow, this is pretty serious graphic stuff that’s being alleged here.” And it essentially turned out to, if you look at what happened within the company, it appears that her allegations were probably on target to a large extent. It was probably Fowler’s blog post that opened the floodgates to a lot more allegations and you had women coming forward and saying they’d been sexually harassed by venture capitalists, who had developed this ‘funding couch’ approach to investing in female founder led companies and basically using their position of power in the purse strings to create sexual opportunities for themselves. So you had a whole bunch of tech people that then were being called out for misconduct, even sexual assault, inappropriate relationships with subordinates. This hit VC firms. It hit Google. It hit a major start-up incubator, with the CEO of one calling himself a creep, and prostrating himself, admitting to his multiple inappropriate advances toward woman.
I think that’s how we’ve gotten here. It’s sort of remarkable to me too, because the women take a considerable risk in making public allegations-
Ray Zinn: Yeah.
Ethan Baron: -serious public allegations that can destroy people’s careers. And it seems that’s what’s happened is that the men who have been the focus of these allegations have probably realized that A, if they fight back, it’s gonna look bad, no matter what, unless they can come up with some pretty compelling evidence that they’re guilt-free. And on the other side of it, it may well be that a lot of these men saw that they were in fact guilty as charged, and that there were other women that would come forward and support these women. So there would be a body of evidence against them if they were to push back too much. And I think the potential push back and legal liability, career liability, those are things that are probably deterring women every day here in Silicon Valley, from actually taking that step and going public with ill treatment at the hands of male colleagues and superiors.
Ray Zinn: Well, you know at Micrel, Ethan, we had come people come forward with charges, sexual harassment charges, and we dealt with them pretty harshly. We had a zero tolerance for it. I know a couple of our supervisors got canned over it, so we took action. A few cases, they were, to me at least, when we looked into it … We would always have HR investigate it and we typically would put a female HR person in charge, rather than a male, just to give the female, the person charging sexual harassment, make them feel more at ease, with talking with a female representative rather than a male. So we had them investigate it. Sometimes, where there were legitimate ones, we took action.
But do you see now, because of the focus and the highlight that the media’s putting on, the spotlight I mean, on the sexual harassment, that more companies are taking a more proactive stance, or not? What’s your feeling on that?
Ethan Baron: It looks to me as if they are, that they’re doing training and they are creating policies that lay out what’s proper and what’s not, and what the consequences are for improper behavior. The degree of commitment to those policies and consequences is hard to assess, because when it comes down to it … When you were at Micrel, if you’re gonna come down on a male employee as a result of that person’s treatment of a female employee, you have the potential to lose a talented man. It can do some damage to the company in that way. What made it worth it for you to take those kind of actions, because it seems a lot of companies, until this became a visible issue, a lot of companies were doing their best to not take action. And it was often the women would often end up either sometimes they’d get canned, sometimes they would just leave, and sometimes leave the industry altogether. What was your rationale for taking the risk of taking action against this stuff?
Ray Zinn: Well it was no issue. As I said, we had a zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Two of the cases were brought against us after the women had actually left the company. I wasn’t even aware of their charge of sexual harassment until we got notification of it through the court. So obviously they were willing to come forward because we had them, I can’t tell you how many we had. We had more than one, several of these cases. They apparently didn’t feel ill at ease talking about it. I know because we had to deal with them. Maybe it was because we did have a zero tolerance, and they just felt that they would be protected. We had one of the lowest turnovers with our employees in the industry, half what the industry suffered. So, I think they felt more at home, they felt safer at Micrel. I’m speaking now from me being the CEO, so you have to take that into consideration, but certainly we did deal with it and we had no problem. I value women. I’ve been married 57 years and so my relationship with my family and my wife are extremely important.
Well, that being said-
Ethan Baron: Let me just answer your other question there, about the media attention. I think that that’s done a couple of things. One is just informed people that this is an issue, because if it’s invisible, even if people aren’t talking about, people within a company, women within the company, aren’t raising this issue, or men within the company raising it as an issue … There are a lot of people in tech here who five years ago probably didn’t really know how much sexual harassment and sexual misconduct was going on in the industry. So the media attention informed people about this. Then you have people being receptive to these arguments and this research that says, “Well, look, if you keep women happy and you make a hospitable working environment for women, then you’re gonna attract female employees and you’re gonna retain them.”
And that is good business because most markets are half or more women, and women do a lot of the purchasing. So if you don’t have women in leadership positions, you don’t have very many women in general in your workforce, you’re probably not gonna have the kind of perspectives that are gonna help you maximize your reaching that market. So I think that’s a growing recognition that’s come about because the media has made an issue about it, and that’s come about because these women have made an issue of it. You have that, and then you also have probably just the prospect of having your company’s name all over the papers. [crosstalk 00:23:12]
You have these other kind of things happening nationally, like Harvey Weinstein, Cosby, and the issues of sexual harassment, sexual abuse by powerful men.
Ray Zinn: The Missouri governor is another one, you know?
Ethan Baron: Yeah, exactly. So these things happen, and that keeps the problem in front of mind for people. And then when a story comes up here, there’s that base level of interest, where people are, “Oh, so there’s more sexual harassment going on here again? Yup.” I don’t think interest is gonna go away in this. It does trend up and down and up in particular when it first becomes a known issue, and then sometimes those things fall away completely. But I think you also have women who are really fed up with being treated badly in the workplace. And so women are going to continue to speak out about this too. And media will continue to report on it. I don’t think this issue, for the public, is gonna become not important. I think people may spend less time consuming news about it as time goes on, but I think there’ll be considerable interest in it, particularly here, because it’s so important to the industry. And the industry is generally recognizing the importance of creating workplaces that are happy and productive for everybody.
Ray Zinn: Well I think that’s a good place to end this podcast, on that note. We want to make women be treated fairly, honestly. We understand and believe that women have a major role and a place and companies, and they deserve to be treated fairly and honestly. I would encourage our listeners to heed those words and listen to what we’ve said here today. Ethan has a wealth of knowledge in this area, having reported on it for quite a bit of time now. So thank you for taking the time today, Ethan, to join us on this podcast, and hopefully it will be of benefit to our listeners. We’d like to subscribe to our ‘Tough Things First’ website podcasts, and also pick up our new book, from Amazon or other major sources for books, called The Zen of Zen. It’s a new book that I recently released and would invite you to get a copy of it.
Anyway, thanks again, Ethan, for being with us, and talk to you again.
Delona Zinn: Thanks Ethan.
Ethan Baron: Thanks Ray and Delona. It’s been a pleasure and I really appreciate your bringing attention to this topic. It’s an important one.
Delona Zinn: It is.
Ray Zinn: Thanks again.
Delona Zinn: Thank you.