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Every case of sexual harassment is different, but these tips can help if you want to take action. USA TODAY

Virgin Hyperloop One cofounder and Sherpa Capital investor Shervin Pishevar, who has denied allegations he sexually harassed several women.(Photo: John Gurzinski, AFP/Getty Images)

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SAN FRANCISCO — Women who are subjected to unwanted sexual advances in the workplace say they can't afford to burn bridges and often wind up leaving a trail of friendly messages behind them — continued contact that men later produce as evidence to dispute their accounts and cast doubt on their credibility.

This pattern, repeated in several high-profile business cases that have ousted men from perches of power this year, reflects the bind women routinely face in the workplace. More than half of all American women say they've been harassed on the job, but repercussions for men have been few. 

"You are not going to walk up and say: You are dead to me," says Aileen Lee, a partner with venture capital firm Cowboy Ventures who belongs to an informal network of female investors. "You could potentially do more damage to yourself and to your career."

In 2011, author and entrepreneur Laura Fitton had just left a fundraiser when she says venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar grabbed and forcibly kissed her in the hotel's elevator. 

Fitton deterred Pishevar and a few days later reprimanded the investor about his behavior. But, nervous about alienating an influential business connection, she stayed in touch with Pishevar, whose early bets on Uber and Airbnb  could open doors across Silicon Valley. Over the next few years, she sent friendly notes asking about his welfare and inviting him to speak at conferences in her role as a tech marketing influencer.

Pishevar, who has denied Fitton's allegations, is now using those notes — through his law firm — as proof that he couldn't have done anything that wasn't consensual. 

"Yes I look at the messages I sent and cringe, but in the context of my job I felt I had to repair the relationship," Fitton told USA TODAY. 

For decades, men have pointed to ongoing communication to refute the accounts of women. During Anita Hill's testimony in 1991 against Clarence Thomas, Sen. Alan Simpson, R-WY, hammered Hill on why she followed Thomas from one job to another and kept in touch with him afterward instead of formally complaining about his behavior. 

“If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name when he left his position of power or status or authority over you...would you ever speak to a man like that for the rest of your life?" he asked Hill.

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Anita Hill in 2013. (Photo: Victorial Will, Invision/Associated Press)

Hill explained she worried that deleting Thomas from her Rolodex would harm her career. "I was afraid of retaliation. I was afraid of damage to my professional life," Hill replied. "And this kind of response is not atypical."

"There is this myth that if you are really being harassed or assaulted, you will get angry and get the hell out of there," says Lilia Cortina, professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan. "People say: Why didn't she just report him? Why didn't she just leave? They don't understand all the complicated reasons why leaving is not an option."

More: 'Enough is enough': Gretchen Carlson says bill ending arbitration would break silence in sexual harassment cases

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More: Harvey Weinstein effect: Men are getting outed and some are getting fired as women speak up. And it's spreading.

San Francisco tech entrepreneurs Lindsay Meyer and Niniane Wang were two of six women who this summer accused venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck of sexual harassment in professional situations. 

Wang says Caldbeck tried sleep with her when they met to discuss business, a charge she made public in an article in the technology news outlet The Information that forced Caldbeck to step down from his post running Binary Capital.

After Wang during a July tech conference alleged Caldbeck pressured the women and The Information's news reporter to shelve the article or face legal repercussions, he sent her a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action. In it, Caldbeck also took issue with her contention in a Pando Daily article that he had tried to buy her silence by offering to fund her company. He pointed to a friendly email Wang sent him asking for a business favor.

"You had asked Justin a matter of weeks before the article to introduce you and your company, Evertoon, to Binary companies...and followed up repeatedly while telling him that you hoped 'things were great at Binary!' leaving him no indication whatsoever that you were angry or uncomfortable with him," the letter reads. 

Caldbeck declined to comment. He has apologized to the women who came forward, while disputing some of their allegations.

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Venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck stands for a photograph in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

"In many cases there is always the need to stay friendly and responsive because you might need an introduction within their network or access to their resources in the future," said Meyer, who told the >New York Times Caldbeck used his investment in her fitness startup in 2015 as a pretext to grope and kiss her. "The quid pro quo is a horrible hand in skewed situations like this."

Susan Ho, co-founder of travel planning service Journy, says Caldbeck sent her text messages in the middle of the night suggesting they meet up while they were discussing a job for her at a start-up he was planning to fund. She says, she, too, didn't want to run the risk of alienating Caldbeck. 

"After Caldbeck sent me the late night text, I responded awkwardly in a friendly tone the next morning saying 'lol' and that it was 'past my bedtime,' but remained in touch," Ho said. "As an early-stage startup founder, I knew that at some point I would be raising money and he was a well-connected Silicon Valley VC."

Following that incident, Ho says she took precautions, no longer meeting with Caldbeck one-on-one, and instead bringing along her co-founder, Leiti Hsu. "Clearly that strategy backfired because instead of harassing me, he groped her thigh under the table," Ho said. 

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Evertoon founder Niniane Wang speaks onstage during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference on November 13, 2017 in Dana Point, Calif. (Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Fortune)

For an article on sexual harassment in the tech industry in the New York Times, entrepreneur and investor Susan Wu recounted how, at a mostly male tech gathering in Las Vegas in 2009, Chris Sacca touched her face without her consent, making her feel uncomfortable.

The cowboy-shirt-wearing technology investor best known for his appearances on Shark Tank told the newspaper he was "grateful to Susan and the other brave women sharing their stories." After the article appeared, Sacca changed his statement and said he disputed Wu's account of what happened.

In an effort to undermine her claim, Wu says Sacca shared with the reporter a friendly email she had written to him after the Las Vegas encounter as proof that she could not have felt "too badly about him or what had occurred." 

Sacca says the New York Times initiated the request for the email. The newspaper denies this.

“In researching Susan‘s account that I touched her face at a party, a reporter confidentially reviewed the only e-mail thread she and I ever exchanged as it contained facts directly relevant to her claim," Sacca said in a statement.

New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said the newspaper could not go into detail because Sacca had spoken with its reporter on background. But, Ha said, the reporter "did not initially request to see the email."

Wu says she reached out to Sacca because he had become such a successful investor.

"It would have been very challenging for me to work in tech and not attempt some sort of neutral-to-friendly demeanor with him, since his network of influence was so broad and far reaching," Wu says. 

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Technology investor Chris Sacca. (Photo: Bryan William Jones)

That gatekeeping role in the business world where men hold a disproportionate share of the power is why so many women feel compelled to stay in touch with their harassers, says venture capitalist and diversity advocate Freada Kapor Klein.

"There is no plus for Susan or any woman to come forward about incidents of harassment years ago," Klein says. "You forever become the whistleblower, not the great engineer or VC or entrepreneur. Those who come forward do so to protect others and support the truth."

When investor Pishevar suddenly came on to her in an elevator six years ago, Fitton says she was juggling her instinct to protect herself with her feeling that she had to safeguard her career.

"If this had been a random other person at the party, I would have slapped them in the elevator and walked right out," she says. "It's hard to stay calm, to not get molested but at the same time not destroy a professional relationship you have built."

After the 2011 encounter and her follow-up conservation with him about it, Fitton was sure that Pishevar had understood the inappropriateness of their exchange, and she continue to contact him in relationship with her job. When trying to recruit him as a speaker in 2015, she wrote in a text: "I wanted you to know I'm sorry I had such a brittle response to you at charity ball (sic) years ago. You reached out to me in a way we both badly needed at the time and I reacted with fear and with shaming. I regret that. You are really, really special."

Fitton says today that she sent that message to a man "that I was treating as a person who was doing amazing things, with whom I'd had one bad interaction and who I didn't think was an ongoing threat."

But then the Virgin Hyperloop One co-founder — who resigned Thursday from his firm Sherpa Capital  — denied allegations of making unwanted sexual advances to six women in business situations, which were described in a report on Bloomberg News. Fitton said that his denials prompted her to speak publicly about his own experience. 

After Fitton described what happened to media outlet Axios, Pishevar’s attorney at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan produced 10 pieces of correspondence between Pishevar and Fitton, arguing the regular and friendly contact since the gala support his denials of harassment charges.

Fitton pauses. "I thought I'd done a good job of walking that fine line," she says. "But now I'm just having it thrown back in my face with his lawyers putting a twist on it."

Follow USA TODAY technology writers Jessica Guynn @jguynn and Marco della Cava @marcodellacava

 

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Source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/12/13/men-try-discreditwomen-often-forced-stay-touch-men-who-sexually-harass-them-then-men-use-against/942517001/

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