The predatory danger of startups

Disruptive claims of tech firms can mask exploitative behaviour, with young females at higher risk

FRESH allegations of sexual exploitation by a startup here adds to the uncomfortable sense that tech firms, with their lofty claims of disruption and innovation, have been emboldened to stretch and break the limits of employment rights.

A director at Apps Authority, a Singapore startup, has had a police report filed against him, after he was alleged to have made inappropriate offers to several female interns from a local university.

The New Paper first reported that the student from National University of Singapore (NUS) had been interviewed by this director in March. It was via a one-way Skype video call, so only the director could see her.

It was reported the director then offered the student twice the usual internship allowance, as long as she went with him on a business trip without telling the school. It was further revealed that an earlier business trip made by this director with another intern was of an alleged "sexual nature", with a text message on this alleged trip having been floated around campus about a year ago.

The latest harassment in Singapore points to a global trend of women facing sexual harassment in the tech scene. A damning survey in 2015 about gender in Silicon Valley showed that a staggering six in 10 women in tech firms had been sexually harassed.

The report, dubbed "Elephant in the Valley", added that of all the women who had been sexually propositioned, 65 per cent had gotten it from a boss. Close to 40 per cent of them did nothing because it would hurt their career, another 30 per cent just wanted to forget. The whistleblowing account of former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, who detailed her HR battles after being sexually harassed at the firm, speaks to the odds stacked against women in tech.

Against this backdrop, younger females are likely at higher risk of exploitation. The "move fast, break things" spin of tech firms can arguably create unnecessarily grey areas for which those in power can manipulate to their advantage. It seems depressed wages at loss-making startups is only the beginning of risks for potential interns to take in, where women are concerned.

In the book Brotopia by Emily Chang, she wrote of a female Google employee who was once, as an intern of a photo-app startup, choked by a drunk male engineer. The startup did not have a human resource department. It was the worst but not the only form of harassment that she faced during her internship.

"I was thinking that 'oh, this is what the industry is like. This is bad. I didn't sign up for this, but I guess I better get used to it'," the senior product manager at Google told the author.

There are also reports of male startup investors harassing female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, seeking sex in exchange for money and access to their network of Silicon bros.

Back home, similar allegations of misconduct by the director at The Apps Authority had been reported, but little was done publicly to flag the risks posed by this company. Over the last two years, NUS got complaints from three other female students about unfair work practices in the company. Yet, Apps Authority continued being listed on the internship portal of NUS until this year, after the fourth female student raised her suspicions to the faculty staff, who then also made a police report.

It can be argued then that such behaviour was in danger of being normalised, to the detriment of those who had allegedly been preyed upon.

Established corporations are usually structured to offer appropriate checks and balances against unscrupulous behaviour. Let's be clear: harassment can, and has, continued to exist at established firms. Where there is power, there is then room for abuse. But the institutionalised standard holds leaders and corporations accountable.

Those who have been sexually harassed at MNCs will tell quietly of detailed internal investigations that are treated seriously. While extremely trying, these internal investigations sometimes succeed in weeding out perpetrators, despite the common hierarchy gap. In return, affected staff tend to stay on, out of renewed trust in the institution.

By contrast, the disruptive gloss of startups and tech firms with a corporate history of less than 25 years can mean these institutional structures - and then, its people - are made to seem rather dispensable at Silicon Valley or any other tech hub.

This arrogance comes even as the facts show that just one out of 10 startups survive. Perhaps we have mistaken aggression driven by insecurity as leadership.

What's also specific to the dangers at tech firms is the halo effect of technology today that allows more of those in technology to claim intellectual wizardry in all aspects. It's elitism in its drunk and wild form.

Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist professor who comments frequently on the social impact of technology, observed this tech halo being displayed as Tesla founder Elon Musk lashed out on Twitter after his idea of a submarine to rescue the 12 boys and their football coach from a cave in Thailand was deemed impractical.

"The idea that being smart in one domain qualifies one to just dabble in another is dangerous. For too long, many Silicon Valley companies refused to understand they are in the people business and tried to handle it as a side issue because they are smart. Nope," Professor Tufekci tweeted. "The flashy tech solution and the saviour make good movies. But what makes most things work is the quiet hero or heroine embedded in institutional knowledge, like the divers who brought decades of knowledge."

To understand exploitation in all forms is to realise that power, left unchecked, is ripe for abuse. The sexism in a glorified industry with large egos leaves young females disproportionately vulnerable.

Better workplace standards should have been in place for women in tech yesterday - not ever to fulfil the weaker-sex cliche, but because barriers here have been artificially raised so high for women to even begin to be measured as equals to men.