In December 2016, following accusations of sexual assault against prominent men like Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and then-President-elect Donald Trump, technical writer April Glaser postulated a simple solution to combat sexual assault: create a tool that combines identity verification, encryption, anonymization and messaging to allow victims of sexual assault to report their aggressions and communicate with other victims who have reported the same perpetrator.
As Glaser envisioned it, this platform would be a trusted, fully encrypted system that would allow the victim to maintain control of their identity. If others reported the same perpetrator, they could alert and invite victims to join a private courier center. There, they could communicate, coordinate and, if they so decided, send a report to the police and to all the organizations affiliated with their alleged aggressor.
A system such as Callisto already existed on university campuses, and Glaser argued that it was a relatively trivial matter to expand technology to victims who had already graduated from university (or who had never attended in the first place).
This is only the first stage in a larger plan to expand service to a variety of industries
Two years after Glaser's piece, Callisto announced plans to do just that: this summer, the organization will launch a new version of its platform, one designed to allow the founders of technology startups to report the harassment and abuse of investors. Although this new platform, known as the Callisto Expansion to differentiate it from the campus version, is limited to a relatively small elite user group, the team notes that it is only the first stage in a larger plan to expand the service to a variety of industries, empowering victims of bullying everywhere with the tools to fight against abuse. (Callisto representatives refused to be interviewed when contacted to comment on this piece).
Given the success of Callisto on university campuses, the platform may be the best option to provide victims of sexual assault from all walks of life with access to the kind of assistance that Glaser dreamed, assistance that, in an era after # MeToo, it feels even more necessary than ever.
But even when free access to this platform extends to the inhabitants of the startup accelerators, joint work spaces, technology conferences and wherever the Callisto team finds the founders of the technology companies, there are some problems that suggest that the path may not be easy. In his move from the ivory tower to Silicon Valley, Callisto has made fundamental changes in its internal functioning, changes that could undermine the true value that Callisto offers to the survivors.
More worrisome is the fact that, although Callisto's expansion has identified investor harassment as a major threat to its users, the organization has taken funds from a collection of six venture capital firms. Is Expansion really a way to help startup founders fight investor harassment, or is it just a way for some prominent VCs to divert attention from the widespread harassment and sexism that exists within the technology industry?
Although the expansion marks a new and bold step for Callisto, it is not the first adventure of the organization outside the academy. In July 2017, Callisto partnered with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (UCB), a prominent force in the world of comedy that had been shaken by accusations of sexual assault in their community just a year earlier.
A UCB representative spoke of Callisto in glowing terms, and the UCB students I spoke with had equally positive comments. Stefanie Flamm, a writer and actress based in New York who used the platform last October, was incredibly impressed with Callisto's patient interface. "I have to take my time to send the report, so when I went to meet with [a UCB administrator] I did not start from the beginning," he tells me through Facebook Messenger. "I had to inform other people in person, and it was really unchaining and retraumatizing, so having the little ground covered in the report helped me feel much more in control of the situation."
"Having the little ground covered in the report helped me feel that I had more control of the situation."
There are parallels between women's experience of harassment within the technology and comedy scene that could suggest that what is good for UCB could also be good for the world of startups. Both technology and comedy are relatively small communities, cloistered and heavily dominated by white men, in particular, a handful of guardians at the top. Like start-up accelerators, schools like UCB can help students build the essential connections they need to succeed, and they can also be the site of traumatic experiences that ultimately drive women out of the industry.
Although women in the technology industry are forced to deal with sexism and harassment, the situation for the founders of startups is more isolating than most. To be successful in Silicon Valley, the founders must win the favor of venture capitalists and investors. And, as revealed by the 2015 lawsuit by Ellen Pao against the company of VC Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, those environments can often feel toxic to women. Employers who endure harassment do not have the support of a human resources department, or even the protection of the EEOC, while investors like Shervin Pishevar are said to repeatedly abuse their power, and rarely face consequences. When an entrepreneur is harassed by an investor, it is not always clear what the appropriate remedy is. And that reality is one of the main reasons why Callisto Expansion has so much appeal.
Just having someone, or some platform, to go to in these cases is a great source of comfort. And the potential to connect with other victims, to receive evidence that your experience was part of a pattern of abuse and not as something you yourself caused, also has great appeal. Without a system like Callisto, "the only way to inform is to get online," says Lisa Wang, founder and CEO of SheWorx. "It's one thing to inform, another thing is to take oneself seriously and have a whole wave of support and exposure that helps to push the issue."
Establishing patterns of abuse, rather than simply reporting isolated incidents, can help build that wave. And for founders who are more interested in being known for their creations than for their victimization, being able to divert attention from their own experience of abuse or assault to the extended history of abusive behavior by the perpetrator can help mitigate some of the impacts lasting the arrival forward.
Not everyone is convinced that the platform is capable of living up to their expectations. When I spoke with some of Callisto's detractors (who asked to remain anonymous), their concerns were very varied: some were worried that the Callisto model would not make sense when it was transplanted to the startup scene in Silicon Valley. In fact, some of the realities of the startup experience that justify Callisto's expansion – the lack of a human resources department, the nebulous feeling of where to turn when things go wrong – are what make this expansion so important. tense
Callisto's success on university campuses is based on the ability of the platform to partner and improve the effectiveness of existing reporting systems. If a university student reports an assault on Callisto, the platform can help him process the consequences of an experience at his own speed, rather than requiring him to report immediately. It can also offer information about resources and regulations on campus. But it is an addition to, and not a replacement for, the Title IX offices that ultimately process the reports.
Not everyone is convinced that the platform is capable of living up to its exaggeration
At the University of San Francisco, one of Calisto's first partner schools, the platform is just one of the many reporting options offered to students, including in-person reporting and an additional and immediate reporting option. line. While USF's Title IX coordinator, Leighia Fleming, values being able to offer Callisto as an option for students, she points out that on her campus it is the least popular way to report an assault. For undergraduate students, reporting in person or with an online tool that does not require them to create an account seems to be preferable to Callisto. The platform is most popular among graduate students living off campus and students seeking information on how to help a friend who has experienced an attack.
Even at UCB, where Callisto is a primary reporting tool, it is just one component of a larger system. Callisto helped Flamm in the initial drafting of his report, but it was the administration of UCB, not Callisto, that finally took care of his attacker, taking him out of his improvisation team and his staff position.
But with Expansion, Callisto is the sum total of the reporting process, and that makes the next steps much more nebulous. What happens when the platform has identified a serial perpetrator and users have been connected to an options counselor? If two (or more) startup founders report the same VC to Callisto, will they be instructed to go to the police? In a situation where there are repeated cases of sexual assault, and victims may come to know that their accounts will reinforce each other, obtaining guidance through the legal reporting process would certainly be beneficial. But making a police report and navigating the criminal justice system is a very different experience than reporting a sexual assault on a Title IX administrator on a campus that has partnered with Callisto. And it is not clear how effectively Callisto can help users deal with police officers who may be disinterested in the sensitive handling of their reports.
Also, what happens if users report harassment, such as an inappropriate proposal, a dirty joke, or grabbing someone's butt, instead of attacking? However abhorrent these things may be, they are not considered police matters, and it is not clear what remedy Callisto offers beyond a general knowledge that a stalker has attacked several people. Will the victims be instructed to go to the press? To complain to the company about harassment?
All this means that Callisto's expansion successfully identifies serial perpetrators. According to a white paper on cryptography of the platform, Callisto users identify their attacker by providing a cell phone number, a social network URL or an email address, but it is not clear how two reports will be combined if the users provide different information about the same offender. . If I inform @ vcharasser from Twitter, but you inform [email protected], will the system understand that we refer to the same person?
"The startup community is undoubtedly a boys' club."
In addition, because Callisto Expansion is not affiliated with a Title IX office or other investigative body, users who report that the same perpetrator are directly connected to each other, and that is a reality that opens up the possibility of someone falsely reporting to a colleague. boss or co-worker to drive out and intimidate someone who has been really mistreated. There is also the question of what happens if a report leads to a court case, one that ends in a verdict of innocence. Callisto updates the reports in that instance? And if he does not, does that make the entire project responsible for defamation charges?
However, the most problematic aspect of the Callisto Expansion is the thorny conflict of interests embedded in the DNA of this project. How can Callisto really protect its users from the abusive members of the investment community when their very existence depends on the generosity of that community?
An optimistic reading could be that venture capital firms line up behind Callisto because they really want to be accountable. In fact, one could point to Greylock Partners past response to internal sexual misconduct and the story of comrade Reid Hoffman of speaking out against harassment as evidence in support of the possibility. (When Hoffman requested his comments, he refused to be interviewed for this piece.) The communications director of Greylock Partners directed me to Hoffman's public statement about Callisto's expansion.)
But you could also browse the websites of the six firms that have committed to fund Callisto, note that, in general, they are predominantly men, and realize that one of the biggest problems that sustain the harassment and assault suffered by many The founders are the only ones that Callisto is ill-equipped to solve.
"The startup community is undoubtedly a children's club," Wang tells me. "Money, power, everything is consolidated in a small and homogeneous group of men … Until that group is powerless, nothing goes to change".
Empowering founders to reject abusive investors could be a powerful first step
If Callisto's expansion works as advertised, there is a chance it could help destabilize that children's club, by removing some of the barriers that prevent founding women from reaching the highest levels of power. But while the existence of Callisto's expansion depends on the generosity of that children's club, it is difficult to see how it will be able to effectively hold its members accountable.
There is no doubt that Silicon Valley needs a way to help keep women safe, to allow them to do their jobs without having to worry about the harassment of abusers within the community. Empowering founders to put pressure on abusive investors could be a powerful first step in making the technology industry more women-friendly.
But at this moment, it is not clear whether the Expansion is a step towards real change or just another instance of, as one source called it, "# MeToo-Washing." Paradoxically, the structural change that Callisto hopes to bring to Silicon Valley may need to happen before Callisto can be effective.