clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ellen Pao on Gender Bias in Tech: It's Improving ... Slowly

In the Lenny Letter, Pao explains why "just ignore it" doesn't help.

Asa Mathat for Re/code

Ellen Pao believed in the system until she couldn’t anymore. And as hard as it was to ignore bias in law firms, switching to tech dropped her into a cold new world of gender discrimination. But not only would she do it again — she wants you to speak out, too.

Last year, the former VC’s gender-discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers created seismic ripples throughout Silicon Valley. This week, she wrote a column for Lenny Letter, the newsletter and online magazine helmed by Lena Dunham with her “Girls” showrunner, Jenni Konner. It’s only available to newsletter subscribers right now; it’ll be on the site in a few days.

The column is heartfelt and focused, and rebuts many of the criticisms leveled against Pao. But more importantly, it outlines exactly where her starry-eyed optimism and “just do everything better!” ethos began to fade, and why that path alone won’t move the needle on systematic bigotry.

Pao began her career in law firms. Yes, she says, she and her female cohort held alternate events to counteract the sausage parties thrown by male associates: “All major law firms seemed to be organizing all-male events. … We organized our own co-ed steak dinners, I persuaded my office neighbor to get me an invite to the Rangers games — and we just worked even harder.”

Working harder — that is supposed to be the front-line defense for those fighting bias in the workplace. But dinner parties are just one piece of the shit-puzzle. For instance, some behavior doesn’t quite cross the line, but has the effect of subtly changing how a woman is perceived in the workplace. Pao tells the story of one woman who literally closed her office door on a creepy senior partner’s behavior, only to find herself labeled “distant” as a result.

“After a while,” Pao says, “we were all treading water, just trying to get by as our ranks thinned and progress got harder. We were wondering, Is it just me? … Do I belong?”

The questions add up until “eventually, there comes a point where you can’t just rally and explain away all the behavior as creepy exceptions or pin the blame on yourself,” she goes on to say. “You see patterns, systemic problems, and it doesn’t matter where you are or what industry you pursue.”

She knows because she tried. Switching to tech investing made the sexism in law firms look like small potatoes.

“The tech industry had even fewer people who looked like me … and I soon realized these institutions were using the same methods to build management teams and boards of directors and to invest in co-founders who are the next generation of wealth, power, and leadership.”

In law firms, she writes, harassment and gender bias were simply ignored. Tech paid lip service — and then did nothing:

In VC, I saw inconsistencies in what people said and what they actually did. I saw many firms talking meritocracy but ignoring great opportunities that women brought in or giving men credit for them. I saw the bar for promotion move as soon as a woman crossed it. I saw inconsistencies in how aggressiveness and strong opinions were rewarded across genders. I heard stories about harassment and off-color jokes and sexist/ageist/racist conversations. Women founders were pushed out or into lesser roles as a condition for investment, while similarly inexperienced male founders were given the benefit of the doubt and supported. And a crowning indignity was listening to a group of men from work talk about porn stars, sex shows, the Playboy mansion, and sexual-partner preferences — and then hearing them discount a talented woman CEO by saying she was only valuable as a board member because she was “hot.”

It is a charge raised throughout tech. Leslie Miley, a senior engineer at Twitter, recently left that company after a senior executive told him “diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.” This is an argument heard over and over: To promote diversity is somehow to dirty the pool. And yes, if the only path to diversity were to randomly push women and brown-skinned people into jobs, that might be a problem (though nobody seems to mind that the pool of Harvard underclassmen is “tainted” with random legacy students, who are four times more likely to get in than the average student).

But the most obvious path to diversity, as Jesse Jackson pointed out to Re/code earlier this year, isn’t tokenism; it’s widening the pipeline to include engineering schools outside of white-male-dominated universities.

“They were like one-eyed quarterbacks that can’t see half the field. … It was just a failure of imagination,” Jackson said, speaking of tech companies that emphasize the need for H-1B work visas to hire Asian engineers rather than hiring from traditionally black schools like Howard University or North Carolina A&T.

Pao agreed, in her Lenny column, with the supply side of the argument: “Meritocracy defenders say there weren’t enough of us in school … otherwise known as ‘the pipeline problem,’” she writes. But the problem goes much deeper, she says: Even when women and people of color are invited to the party, they’re often treated like barely tolerated interlopers. It’s constant, it’s taxing and it’s quantifiable.

Here’s the good news: You’re not crazy because you believe that to be the case. It is, in fact, the case. And Pao has specific advice for how to handle it so that slowly, ever so slowly, the needle can move.

“Twenty years from now,” she says, “when my daughter is in her 20s, I know her experiences will be even better than mine and than yours. They’ll still be worse for her than for many others, but the stories and data will continue to flow, and people will continue calling out those in power on their excuses and inertia.”

Watch for Pao’s column on the Lenny Letter website if you aren’t a subscriber to the newsletter.

This article originally appeared on