Working for one of the best-funded startups in Los Angeles’ “Silicon Beach,” Chelsea decided to perform a social experiment with her work clothes.
She usually wore the same standard tech uniform as her male coworkers — jeans and a t-shirt — but felt she wasn’t getting treated with the same respect. Techie that she is, she conducted research — by switching to a more “professional-sexy” look.
“I changed my clothes for two weeks, and the response I got was incredible: My ‘work was improving. You’re doing a great job,'” Chelsea recently told TheWrap. “I should note for those two weeks I basically did nothing. I not only just changed my clothing, I probably decreased my work by, like, 60 percent.”
She said the experiment provided a microcosm of the “little sexism” women deal with on Silicon Beach.
As the tech industry grapples with a New York Times piece on sexual harassment in Silicon Valley, women working in L.A.’s burgeoning tech scene also struggle — but in a smaller, arguably less scrutinized environment, where casual sexism can come with no repercussions for those responsible.
Chelsea is one of six women who agreed to share their experiences with sexism in Silicon Beach with TheWrap, on the condition that their real names not be used. None wanted to risk professional blowback.
Chelsea, blonde and in her late twenties, was nicknamed “cheerleader” by her CEO, who she said “hit on me all the time.” At one point, she said, the chief exec told her she was “visual foreplay” for him and his wife.
Chelsea said the “harmless but uncomfortable” comments set a tone that trickled down. After she organized a company-wide workout, a married C-level executive approached Chelsea and said a woman had “never worked my groin so hard.”
Even her intern made crass comments, she said. When she closed a deal with a male entertainment executive, the intern bluntly asked her, “So, did you sleep with him?”
Chelsea said she cried when she got home, and reported the slight to her superiors. But the intern escaped a reprimand. Chelsea considers it a manifestation of a tech “bro culture” that favors young men over young women.
“Male leadership see themselves in a young guy and mentor them, whereas they’ll see me and think, ‘Oh, there’s a girl I’d sleep with when I was young,'” said Chelsea.
But there are fewer places to turn with complaints.
All six of the women interviewed by TheWrap noted a conspicuous lack of a Human Resources department at Silicon Beach startups. HR, they said, was seen as an unnecessary expense that wasn’t essential to a scrappy new company.
So the only managers to whom women could have reported harassment were the men doing the harassing.
One woman, Tegan, said forced dinner dates and incessant flirting with her last CEO felt like part and parcel of moving up in the tech world. She said going public with her stories would “end” her career.
“To keep from being shoved out in the cold, you had to stay in the inner circle,” said Tegan.
That leaves many Silicon Beach women treading water.
“You had to balance being yourself, but also trying to have fun — but not too much fun — because you were being judged,” said Chelsea. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells all the time.”
The grim options: “Playing along and being seen as slutty, or hold back and get labeled a bitch,” she said.
For the sake of career advancement, playing along is seen as the best option. But even when Chelsea moved to a different L.A. startup, the same problems popped up.
“The fact is, I’d have to quit every job I’ve ever had. So what do I do, just keep quitting?,” she asked. “A part of me feels an obligation to stay to bring more women into tech, because I really do love it.”
TheWrap will have more women’s stories of sexism in Silicon Beach in the days and weeks ahead.