Cherilyn Tan’s experience with sexism in the workplace began after graduation, when she started her own design thinking firm. “I had male clients who refused to pay unless I went out for drinks with them,” she says.
Today, Tan is the founder and CEO of Asia Law Network, an online database that connects legal professionals to clients.
She recalls an incident where, after closing a business deal where she invested a handsome sum of her money, her new business partner suddenly kissed her out of the blue. “I had the biggest shock of my life,” she says. “I realized it was the worst investment I had made – I knew I was stuck.”
Entrepreneur Joelle Pang has seen quite a few cases of discrimination and harassment in her time. As someone who helps launch startups in new markets, she spends a lot of her time traveling and meeting business contacts in different cities and countries. “The most common experiences are those where clients and partners have gone on to text and call me beyond what is appropriate – content- or volume- wise,” she says.
She describes instances when VCs have unexpectedly kissed her on the cheek after she pitched her #startup at a networking event. She also tells of a VC who grabbed her as she was leaving and tried to kiss her on the lips, and of an uncomfortable taxi ride where an angel investor was getting intimate in the back seat.
The recent sexual harassment scandals out of the US startup scene rekindled the debate about sexism in the industry. From Asia, these events might feel distant and removed, like this kind of thing only happens somewhere far away. Until a blog post by former MaGIC CEO Cheryl Yeoh detailing her assault by former 500 Startups co-founder Dave McClure shattered that picture.
For this story, we spoke to several women founders, entrepreneurs, and employees in Singapore’s tech startup ecosystem, as well as eight VCs who are active in the region.
Some of the women agreed to speak publicly about their experiences. Some of them wished to share their stories under the condition of anonymity. And some did not want them to be published at all.
Out of the six VCs who got back to us, all except one claimed they had not heard of incidents of harassment in the community. In fact, some expressed shock when hearing how many women have stories to tell.
It speaks volumes about the ever-present fear of retaliation against those who speak out, even in the wake of recent events. But what they all highlight is that Yeoh’s ordeal is far from isolated. What’s different here is that people still find it hard to talk about this openly.
Women speaking out
Tan published an account of another sexist incident she experienced, emphasizing the difficulty of talking about such experiences. “Sharing takes a lot of courage and we should allow for that to happen so perpetrators are identified for what they did and the rest of the women can be aware,” she tells Tech in Asia.
Rose* has worked in startups and venture capital firms in Singapore. She says it was during a stint at one of the investment firms when her boss bragged to her about his genitals on multiple occasions when they were alone. After the initial shock, she attempted to report the incident to the company. She says nothing was done, as it was her word against his.
From her perspective, she had no way of taking action – even lawyer friends told her there was not much she could do about it. Not wanting to leave the job, she instead resigned herself to enduring a situation she found deeply uncomfortable.
I was shocked and afraid.
Sally* is co-founder of a successful Singaporean startup. When the company was in its early stages, she was meeting lots of partners and collaborators in the ecosystem. She details a business dinner with the CEO of another company to discuss potential collaboration and describes how the CEO, who was married at the time, started flirting with her. She was also in a relationship and told him so. She says that after dinner, in the elevator down from the restaurant, he proposed going back to his home and placed his hands around her waist.
Ruth* is an entrepreneur from Malaysia. She remembers a meeting with a startup founder when she was trying to build her business. She wanted to learn from his experience, and valued his opinion. She says the founder got drunk and started getting overly familiar, groping her and trying to kiss her, and inviting her back to his home.
“I was shocked and afraid,” she tells Tech in Asia. At the same time, she was unsure how to react. “I was thinking, if I slap him, how will this affect my future journey?” So she tried to handle his advances as diplomatically as possible before she was eventually able to leave.
Xin-Ci Chin is the founder of Watch Over Me, a personal safety app that was born after she was able to escape from a kidnapping attempt. The startup was acquired by Carousell last year.
She recalls being introduced to a potential collaborator by her investors. After an initial phone call, the person chatted to her online over the Christmas holidays. When she casually mentioned that she was on vacation, she says the person asked her for “sexy pics.” Feeling that to be utterly inappropriate, she decided not to contact him again.
In another incident, she asked a local VC how he would react if he or any of his colleagues faced a sexual harassment or assault charge. She claims that, to her shock, the VC explained he would try to discredit the woman making the allegation and deny the charge in public, but deal with the perpetrator privately.
The women we spoke to declined to name the perpetrators because of the risks they feel are involved. Rose says she was starting out in an industry she was excited about and needed her job – and even though she looked for ways to push back, she could find none.
Sally and Ruth say they were fledgling entrepreneurs looking to learn from a more experienced businessman. And despite the obvious power imbalance (or perhaps because of it), they’re convinced the consequences would be worse for themselves than their harassers if they spoke out.
If we don’t know what is being done to us is wrong in the first place, how do we even speak up for it?
“[People] would say, ‘Oh, it’s just a proposition, it’s like picking girls up at the club.’ But you just don’t use excuses to prey on unknowing young entrepreneurs who sincerely wanted to learn from someone with experience. You don’t put your hands around them. You don’t ask them repeatedly if they want to go to your place,” Sally laments.
“People question where is the line. [The answer] is always the context. I am sure if women were in a bar and some flirting happens, it does not constitute harassment,” says Tan. “But when a man purposefully makes sure that a woman is slowly isolated or unable to fend for herself by means of using alcohol or driving her home late at night, [he] is definitely crossing the line.”
Pang stresses the danger in dismissing the severity of sexual harassment as innocent fun: for one, such behavior is actually a crime, something people might not always realize. Also, women tend to be blamed for it. “We are less educated in our part of the world in terms of what falls into the grey zone of sexual discrimination and harassment, and the black zone of sexual assault – if we don’t know what is being done to us is wrong in the first place, how do we even speak up for it?” she asks.
“I think that’s because of a lack of awareness of what sexual harassment is,” says Ruth. “If a girl comes out for drinks with you it doesn’t mean you can grab her breasts. People need to be educated as to what [constitutes] sexual harassment.”
Somewhere to turn
It doesn’t help that victims of such incidents feel there isn’t much they can do. Often, it seems that processes that should protect people in the workplace break down, or are not in place to begin with. Under Singapore law, most of the incidents described above would fall under the provisions of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014.
For this to work, however, someone must point a finger at someone else. In practice, it’s not easy to prove any wrongdoing – many of these encounters take place in private with few, if any, witnesses. The prospect of a lengthy, expensive, and public legal battle adds to the pressure.
And that’s not even counting the perceived social stigma. Women who speak out against this kind of treatment can find themselves labeled as “difficult,” “overly sensitive,” “tough to work with.”
“Going to the authorities was perceived to be ineffective, cumbersome, or worse, could be potentially flipped back on me as someone who encouraged the situation through alcohol consumption or even what I was wearing,” Pang explains about her previous experiences.
For women founders who are already on an uphill slope with their first companies, fundraising, or looking for connections and networks, getting singled out like this can be a professional death sentence. Some feel these incidents might define who they are in the eyes of their colleagues and peers, when they would rather be recognized for their professional achievements.
Some women feel these incidents might define them, when they would rather be recognized for their professional achievements.
“It is a very sensitive issue, which is why it does not surface, because of the shame and embarrassment,” says Christopher Quek, managing partner at Tri5 Ventures. For example, a startup founder who’s had an ordeal involving a VC may feel reluctant to expose them because they’ll be ostracized from the investor community.
Usually, women who have been through such experiences share them and seek support through tightly knit private groups. In Singapore, organizations like gender equality advocacy group AWARE do research on gender discrimination and sexual harassment, in the workplace and elsewhere, and provide support to victims.
AWARE executive director Corinna Lim tells Tech in Asia it should be the responsibility of employers to provide a safe working environment and emphasize prevention, rather than place the burden on the individual under harassment. “We recognize that it is an extremely difficult decision to speak out or take action against workplace harassment, especially if future career prospects are at stake,” she says.
AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Center saw 267 cases in 2015, of which 25 percent involved sexual harassment in the workplace. In 2016, the figures rose to 338 cases and 27 percent. Lim notes the increase doesn’t mean that instances of harassment are up, but perhaps that more women reach out to the organization for help.
The organization does not have industry-specific figures, so these cases are not necessarily all related to tech startups and VC firms.
While harassment and discrimination are a part of many other industries, the blur between professional and personal life seems to be particularly prominent in the tech startup space. In this industry, working and socializing often overlap and a lot of successful networking happens over drinks somewhere out of the office.
“Our female team members do get contacted from time to time for meetings outside of office hours. We need to strike a balance between reacting to every meeting request as a proposition, and using common sense,” says James Tan, managing director of Quest Ventures.
We should think about how to change these attitudes and encourage more equality for future generations.
“On the other hand, we also have female staff who are courted by male founders. In most cases, it is easy for them to tell who is serious about fundraising and who just wants to date them.” The firm prefers to err on the side of caution and have any incidents reported internally, he adds.
Some people also note how Asian business culture is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. A combination of machismo and the need to broadcast and restate one’s heterosexuality means that business deals may often be discussed in places like strip clubs.
Holding a team event at a hostess bar in Korea was, interestingly enough, one of the things that eventually got Uber in hot water, but such activities are in fact quite widespread in Asia.
“The business culture here certainly exacerbates the problem given our Confucian values where men are traditionally in senior roles. Japan and Korea especially come to mind,” says James Tan.
“It is perceived to happen in western markets primarily because it is getting a lot more attention, but if it’s not spoken about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in our part of the world,” Pang says. She adds that although inequality in the workplace is a global problem, conservative attitudes in Asia mean women face harsher judgment when they’re victims of harassment.
“There is still an underlying current where the ‘重男轻女’ culture of Asians still runs,” she adds. The Chinese idiom means, “To value males and belittle females.” Pang suggests that if older generations are subconsciously brought up on such values, we should think about how to change these attitudes and encourage more equality for future generations.
Others agree on the cross-border, systemic nature of the problem. “Unequal power dynamics that incite or exacerbate any kind of harassment or assault are really not confined to any specific region or industry,” says Justin Hall, principal at Golden Gate Ventures. “You’ll see this same kind of destructive behavior anywhere there is a clear power imbalance, real or imagined, between two or more parties.”
A house in order
For VC firms, the challenge is identifying and handling this kind of problem responsibly and transparently when it arises. Although McClure has since stepped down from 500 Startups and team members have vocally expressed disappointment and outrage over his actions, the handling of the case did make partner Elizabeth Yin resign in protest.
“We shouldn’t take this lightly as this will deter more women from speaking up,” says Willson Cuaca, co-founder and managing partner at East Ventures. “I would encourage more women to speak up, not necessarily to the media but at least to their peers. We need everyone to watch out for each other.”
Other VCs agree on the need for the community to police itself. Jenny Lee, managing partner of GGV Capital, has faith that VCs will see these events as a wake-up call and adopt zero tolerance policies.
Behavior like this can be punished if enough women speak out. And punishment can be harsh.
Kris Leong and Soo Ping Yong, vice presidents for Singapore at Walden International, advocate “wisdom.”
“Draw clear lines between work and social. Even when camaraderie develops over time with co-investors and founders, still maintain professionalism and respect. Treat others as you want to be treated,” Leong says.
Quek agrees that the community should be quick to call out such incidents when they happen. “Sexual harassment does not only impact VCs, but the business of startups as a whole,” he says.
“VCs are on one side of this power imbalance, entrepreneurs the other,” says Hall. “I think any behavior, good or bad, can be quickly recognized by entrepreneurs, and news of that can spread quickly throughout the ecosystem.” An open environment within firms to discuss such issues and make it possible for people to speak out is important, he notes.
Bad for business
Recent events have shown that behavior like this can be punished if enough women speak out. And punishment can be harsh. The examples of the Silicon Valley VCs are striking – Binary Capital, co-founded by Justin Caldbeck who resigned over sexual harassment reports, is winding down. Dave McClure has been removed from 500 Startups and some limited partners in the firm have considered pulling their money out. Uber’s management all but imploded after the internal investigation that was prompted by Susan Fowler’s scathing account.
“When men know that their behavior directly results in the company losing real money and reputation overnight, that it means losing their jobs, they will think twice approaching women they think they can prey on,” says Sally.
“Asia will embrace this sooner or later. They have to, or they won’t thrive as an entrepreneur hub. But right now, I think the general attitude is still ‘that’s how boys have good, clean fun,’ and ‘it’ll always be the case,’” she adds.
Cherilyn Tan stresses the importance of not staying silent. “I wish to really put it out there that sharing does not make one weak – at any time, whether it is when it happened or ten years later. Sharing helps women realize they are not alone.”
*These names have been changed to protect the women’s identities.