Another day in tech, another allegation of harassment. Social Finance became the latest startup accused of sexually harassing its female employees after a lawsuit was filed on Friday.
In the suit, former SoFi employee Brandon Charles said that he had witnessed managers using “lewd, sexualized gestures” and inserting “explicit sexual innuendo and statements into normal workplace communications.” After Charles brought his concerns to managers, the suit states that he was fired and that the company said his claims were “devoid of merit.”
Charles’ lawyer told The New York Times that this is only the first case being brought against SoFi; he expects to file a broader lawsuit with class-action status next week.
Gender discrimination allegations are a persistent problem for Silicon Valley companies. At Uber, Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the ride-share start-up, alleged sexual harassment and a human resources department that ignored these claims. Fowler’s allegations were used in an internal Uber investigation that led to dozens being fired. Since Fowler’s story gained national attention, many notable female engineers, entrepreneurs and coders have come forward with their own stories of workplace sexism in tech.
Most recently, Google fired engineer James Damore, the author of a controversial memo on the company’s diversity initiatives. Damore told news outlets he had been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”
One potential solution? Class-action lawsuits.
If you’re the victim of workplace sexual harassment, and you’ve have exhausted your options with managers and human resources departments, some experts suggest that it’s time to go to a higher power: the law.
Class-action lawsuits are an idea that’s been gaining more traction with Silicon Valley cases of gender discrimination.
In a recent opinion editorial for the Times, Anita Hill said that class-action suits should be the top solution for women in tech facing discrimination. Citing successful precedents with Wall Street class-actions suits, Hill said that women don’t have the time to wait for negligent managers and CEOs to be held accountable for their actions. Instead, they should take power into their own hands and sue.
“Women in tech no doubt have hurdles to bringing class-action lawsuits, including the requisite preponderance of statistical evidence,” she wrote. “But this challenge doesn’t mean the suits cannot be brought, or won. This is a route that the women of Silicon Valley should consider, especially if regulation is not an immediate and viable solution.”
Hill would know. In 1991, Hill changed the national conversation around workplace harassment after she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her. Thomas still got confirmed to the Supreme Court, but Hill’s public testimony before a congressional committee resonated with others, including Ellen Pao.
“I was at a law firm at the time, and we watched her [Hill’s] testimony, and it was just shocking for people who could see she was telling the truth,” Pao told USA Today.
More than two decades after Hill spoke to Congress about her allegations, Pao came forward with a gender discrimination suit against her former employer, venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. She eventually lost the case, but her month-long trial opened a conversation around discrimination in the industry — and even led to Pao headlining an event with Hill about the topic.
Unlike Hill, Pao said she does not encourage litigation as a solution to workplace harassment but maintains that for her, it was the right choice.
“I don’t encourage people to litigate: It is so hard—painful and difficult,” Pao told Marie Claire. “But when you see that you could be the person who impacts the conversation in a meaningful way—or that you could inspire a few people to feel better about themselves, to speak up, to inspire others, to create this broader wave of change— I don’t regret that at all.”