Lisa Gelobter has had male engineers she works with say they're surprised she knows software programs like Shockwave and Flash. She's heard co-workers wonder whether she could follow a technical conversation. And she recalls how when she studied computer science, she and other women felt they had to prove themselves more than their male classmates.
So when the #MeToo movement broke open, Gelobter, a former technology executive at BET (Black Entertainment Television) and Hulu, embraced "a moment of clarity." She wanted to take her familiarity with discrimination -- "when you're a black woman in tech or in entertainment, it's day in and day out" -- and co-found a startup, tEQuitable, to help companies and employees address issues of bias, discrimination, harassment and the uncomfortable situations that fall in between.
"We want to be a confidential digital ombudsman," said Gelobter, 46, who was also the chief digital service officer in the Obama administration's Department of Education. "We want to digitize that human advice."
TEQuitable is among a wave of businesses emerging in the wake of widespread revelations of sexual misconduct in workplaces. The startups, many of which have female founders or co-founders, want to disrupt a costly and persistent problem. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll this fall reported that nearly half of women say they have been sexually harassed at work, and the financial stakes for employers are substantial.
According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers paid $699 million to workers alleging harassment via the EEOC’s pre-litigation process going back to 2010. That doesn’t include indirect costs such as lower productivity and higher turnover, which could be staggering over time.
Yet such start-ups are entering a market where companies have long been hesitant to spend big to prevent bad behavior. Many large companies already give employees access to third-party phone lines to anonymously report harassment. Meanwhile the new tools could also create dilemmas for human-resources managers who may not have the wherewithal to act on the information they receive.
“It creates some risk — it’s a bit of unknown territory,” said Jonathan Segal, an employment lawyer based in Philadelphia. “You’re being told there’s a potential crime in the workplace — but not being told there’s a clear crime in your workplace.”
The new startups take a number of approaches: AllVoices, which, like tEQuitable, helps employees anonymously report harassment, offers a platform aimed directly at the CEO and board and was created by a former 20th Century Fox vice president. Bravely, which launched with its first clients in November, works with employers to offer workers a third-party, independent human resources "coach" they can call to sound out conflicts or communication problems they face at work, in an effort to fill the "trust gap" between employees and the human resources department.
The startup Botler AI uses artificial intelligence and, by cross referencing thousands of legal documents and complaints related to sexual harassment, predicts whether a user’s experience might represent a violation of the law in the United States or Canada. BetterBrave, created by two female engineers in Silicon Valley, offers a how-to guide for people harassed at work. And STOPit Solutions was started as an app to address school bullying, but has begun selling to workplaces.
“It’s thanks to all the news cycles,” said Neil Hooper, STOPit’s chief revenue officer. “People are awakening to the fact that you can get ahead of these issues before they become claims.”
Kat Manalac, a partner at the prominent Silicon Valley start-up incubator Y Combinator and an investor in tEQuitable, said in an email that she sees the growth in such businesses as a trend. She said it began last year after former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published an essay detailing the sexism and harassment she experienced there. And it grew with the media coverage about venture capitalists harassing female founders.
(There’s also a deeper tie to the Uber story: The Silicon Valley venture capitalist and diversity advocate Freada Kapor Klein is both an investor in tEQuitable and in Uber, and was a diversity consultant for the ride-sharing company.)
"It's become clear that sexual harassment and unfair treatment is a problem across all industries," she said. "Founders, CEOs and human resources departments are looking for solutions, and there's a huge opportunity here for founders who are passionate about solving the problem."
The trend follows a spike in startups in recent years focused on broader issues of gender diversity and bias. The Boardlist, a tech platform that works to get more women on corporate boards, launched in early 2016. Textio analyzes hiring data to help companies write and format effective job listings. Among other things, it helps companies cut down on bias by eliminating phrases such as “coding ninja” or “fast-paced work environment” that have been shown to attract more white males. The startup Blendoor offers candidate profiles to employers without names or photos to help prevent unconscious bias.
Now entrepreneurs are sensing a related opportunity.
"After the Harvey Weinstein expose came out, I thought 'wow,' this is a way bigger problem than I could have imagined," said Ritika Dutt, one of the co-founders of Botler AI, which was originally launched to help her co-founder, Amir Moravej, filter legal cases and data related to immigration questions. Dutt said the wave of recent allegations "absolutely" led them to focus on harassment cases first. The current tool for consumers is anonymous and free, but Dutt and Moravej plan to create paid versions in the future for business users.
Gelobter’s tEQuitable is a website and an app that functions as an independent third party where an employee can confidentially discuss a complaint and get assistance with how to address it. On the back end, the service is a digital platform that collects data to measure the performance and progress of a company — and uncover systemic patterns. It then shares the data, which could include everything from employee services to reports about a particular executive, and it provides recommendations for improving the workplace culture.
“We’ve heard the stories of harassment,” Gelobter said in an interview. “But it starts earlier than that — from these little cuts and jabs — it’s a death by a thousand paper cuts, the daily microaggressions. If we can serve as an early-warning system, [we can] help reduce the number of folks that are having to tweet or write a letter on Medium about their experiences.”
A recent data analysis by the Pew Research Center found that women experience such slights at nearly three times the rate men do at work. Sixteen percent of women — and 29 percent of women with advanced degrees — said they had received repeated, small slights at work, compared with just 5 percent of men. Twenty-three percent of women said they felt they had been treated as if they were not competent, compared with just 6 percent of men.
Claire Schmidt, the founder of AllVoices, said she started her reporting platform, which will launch during the first quarter of 2018, after talking with people “who had experienced harassment but really did not feel safe reporting that harassment at work, to human resources, to their bosses.”
"They were worried about retaliation, worried about how they were perceived, worried how they might lose their jobs," she said. It's a well-founded concern: The EEOC's report cited a 2003 study which found that 75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.
AllVoices provides employees a guided, structured questionnaire to help them recognize harassment and anonymously report it. It then provides aggregated responses directly to the chief executive and board to help them gauge cultural blind spots — and prevent them from being able to say they didn’t know there were problems.
The workplace platform Blind, where employees within a company can chat anonymously, has seen use of its mobile app soar since Fowler went public with her complaints. Before February, average use of the app was roughly 20 minutes a day, according to Blind’s global operations head Alex Shin. And it has since increased to about 40 minutes a day.
Though currently focused on the tech industry, it hopes to expand in 2018 in other sectors, such as start-ups and finance. And it is exploring ways — cautiously, without violating users’ safety or privacy — that it can work with human resources to securely tap into the worker opinions expressed on the app.
Its initial goal was to become “a better Glassdoor,” Shin said, referring to the careers site where employees post reviews. “We didn’t realize once we got [so many] employees on the app, that HR would be so interested.”
The new apps and services are not without complications. Executives may be hesitant to install such programs for employees if the implicit message is that human resources will be filtered out of the conversation or that HR isn’t trustworthy. Bravely co-founder Toby Hervey, who started the company with Sarah Sheehan and Ras Patel, acknowledges that could be a “tension.” But he hopes the reputational risk and high cost of conflict at work will help forward-thinking employers get past that concern. “It requires recognition of the structural imbalance,” he said, between HR and employees.
Another question for anonymous reporting apps has to do with authenticity, and whether disgruntled workers might use the programs to target other managers or employees. An AllVoices representative said that it’s still testing the best login approaches but that the platform doesn’t currently ask for names — identifying broader patterns and trends to give top management data on cultural issues — and offers little opportunity to publicly humiliate employers, so there’s low incentive for people to make false claims.
And some experts worry that anonymous reporting tools or chat apps could create other challenges.
Segal, the employment lawyer, said that as long as employers have multiple other reporting tools and strong communication plans in place, such tools could be additive, but “employers need to think before they jump.”
Companies, he said, “could find themselves in the dilemma of learning there are problems — the specifics of which they don’t know — but with a minimal ability to handle it.”