How Common Is Sexual Assault in the Startup Industry?
Jessica Goldberg

Sexual harassment and assault are fairly common in the startup industry for multiple reasons. Most of the time, victims are female, though men do sometimes fall victim to sexual harassment and assault as well. There have been several studies detailing the scale of sexual harassment and assault in this industry. In these surveys, acts of assault are typically labeled under the broad category of harassment. Some of these offenses could include groping and other unwanted physical contact, not necessarily rape.

In an industry predominantly run by men, it is sadly commonplace that women experience a great deal sexual harassment and assault at the hands of their coworkers and leaders in the startup industry. The statistics of these acts are startling, especially considering a good portion of them are not even reported.

For example, Women Who Tech, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the presence of female entrepreneurs in the startup industry, completed a survey of 1,003 tech employees. This 2020 survey found the following about female founders:

  • 44% of female founders reported experiencing some form of harassment. Of these women, 65% noted that they were propositioned for sex. These propositions typically included promises of funding and networking. This is an increase of 9% from the 2017 Women Who Tech survey. 59% of them experienced unwanted physical contact.

  • The #MeToo movement was seen as having a positive impact by male founders, whereas female founders reported higher rates of harassment during its peak.

  • LGBTQ women and women of color experienced even higher rates of harassment than white, cisgender, and heterosexual women.
The survey had the following to say about female employees working in the startup industry:
  • 43% of female startup employees stated that they had been sexually harassed. 54% experienced unwanted physical contact. This is a decrease of 4%. 51% had sexual slurs directed toward them. This is a decrease of 1%. 35% were propositioned for sex. This is a decrease of 3%. 13% were groped. This is a decrease of 5%. 13% were sent graphic images.

  • Reporting rates of harassment have gone down since 2017.

  • Harassment in these settings typically comes from coworkers rather than supervisors, though supervisors do carry a large portion of the harassment. 76% of women and 68% of men that have been harassed stated that the harassment came from a coworker. 42% of women and 35% of men stated that the harassment came from their supervisor. Women are more likely to be harassed by senior leadership (25%) than men (5%).

Men are not entirely safe from harassment and assault in the startup industry either, though. In general, about 81% of women and 43% of men will experience sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime. Within the Women Who Tech survey, about 12% of male founders experienced sexual harassment and 11% of male employees reported experiencing some form of harassment, not necessarily sexual.

Other surveys place these numbers higher, depending on where the company is located. For example, one study of Silicon Valley startup employees found that 60% of women experienced unwanted sexual advances. These advances typically come from supervisors rather than same-level coworkers.

Why Does It Happen?

There are many reasons why sexual assault and harassment are able to occur in the workplace. However, one of the leading theories surrounding startup companies is the lack of capable Human Resource departments. In many cases, these companies are so focused on jumpstarting their business and gaining quick profits that they fail to properly consider the needs of their employees. This means that they also fail to implement HR departments capable of handling these inappropriate employee relations.

Another issue that could play into this is funding. A very small amount of venture capital (VC) funding goes to female-led companies. Venture capital funding is money given by investors to startup companies and small businesses. In 2019, only about 2.7% of this type of funding went to companies founded by females only. Even less (0.64%) went to companies headed by women of color.

One other major contributing factor is the distrust in leadership that many employees who experience harassment have. In 2020, 45% of female employees stated that they harassment to senior leadership, compared to the 55% that reported it in 2017. 67% stated that they do not have a good amount of trust with how their startup company would handle allegations of harassment. On the contrary, 50% of men experience this same level of distrust.