Ellen Pao vs. Sexism in Silicon Valley

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On Monday, interim CEO of Reddit Ellen Pao began testimony in a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit she filed against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, LLC. Pao claims the Silicon Valley based venture capital firm denied her promotion due to gender bias. According to the defendant, Pao - a BA in Electrical Engineering from Princeton and a JD and MBA from Harvard - did not exhibit the skills warranted for partner. It’s hard to parse what those skills are exactly – the trial has exposed the contradictory messages that determine success at the firm.


John Doerr, her boss and mentor at KPCB, stated in 2008 that Ivy League drop-out tech nerds with no social skills are great investment opportunities. Yet one of the defenses KPCB has been wielding against Pao is that she didn’t have the personality to lead and was “prickly” with others. A company sponsored ski trip did not invite female entrepreneurs from portfolio companies (because “women don’t like sharing [condos]”)  and an affair with a junior partner created a complicated, voraciously followed court case - which is one of the first and only glimpses into the bizarre cultural dynamics at play in the secretive world of tech investment.


Sexism in technology is part of the territory - this isn’t the first lawsuit describing gender discrimination at a technology-related firm and there is still a ghastly lack of women entering or supported in the STEM fields. An already abysmal picture gets worse in the tony world of venture capital – Dan Primack wrote at Fortune that this case isn't reflective of KPCB’s peers, “because that would at least reflect the existence of more female venture capitalists.” Turns out, only 4% of senior venture capitalists are women.

In the world of technology, venture capital can make or break your business and has implications for the long-term growth and scalability of your company. Many of the biggest and most valuable companies have received rounds of VC funding (Google, Apple and Microsoft). Obviously, not every company will be an Apple, but VC funding generally focuses on technology products that show high growth potential. The impact of VC funding is not just money (generally to the tune of 1-2 million dollars), but expertise and social capital from the investors. Investment with this kind of impact would do well with increased diversity in decision-making.

The case is being defined by line-by-line readings of text messages from Pao's affair with a married peer, but the financial dirt is much more fascinating. Consider this: Pao claimed in testimony she had shown interest in investing in Twitter, but was shut down by a male senior partner. So, how is it that despite the progress in women’s lives, the same gender narrative that dominated previous models of business  (read:the old boys club) is still so present in an industry that regards itself as innovative? What does it mean that this new economy, ripe with high-growth potential for women entrepreneurs, is exposing itself as an outwardly hostile environment for women?


The Pao case demonstrates how subjective the standards for leadership and promotion are. Claire Cain Miller writes at the New York Times that Pao was told, “she didn’t speak up enough and was too passive but also that she spoke up too much and was pushy and entitled.” Another subjective standard was she didn’t exhibit “thought leadership” -something even the court is having trouble defining. And that kind of makes sense - how does one even measure influencing thought? The commonly thrown around phrase just means “having and doling out publicly expertise in your field.” But here's the problem with being "a thought leader" - the most recognized people stick to the script of knowledge and insights that define white, male, privileged experiences. Don’t believe me?  Take look at most technology and/or business conferences – and you will see there is a specific point of view, and identity, that is continually given voice.

To be sure – determining when someone is ready for senior leadership is complicated and goes beyond an impressive resume or Ivy education (anyone building a team can tell you that). But the reason affirmative action legislation was so necessary is because often sexism in the workplace is unconscious – employers may not realize they are doing it and can’t always be trusted to make objective determinations on someone’s abilities. Complicating matters, our relationships to people are often inherently subjective. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, took to the New York Times arguing male bias against women was still a problem – her much touted book, Lean In, was in many ways a set of strategies to overcome ingrained prejudices.


What can be frustrating about arguments against equality is that supporting and promoting women is not just about being “politically correct,” or fair - it makes sense from a business perspective. When it comes to product development or seeing potential in new firms, having a diversity of viewpoints allows you to think critically about the different uses and applications of a possible technology or tool set. Studies have shown that when you invest in women, they often reinvest in their communities. A recent study from McKinsey found that firms with increased diversity in leadership yielded an increase in annual profits.  Denying women in technology is not solely about exclusion – it is unsustainable because bias is not a tenable business model.

Despite the cultural progress social media and online tools have given us, the action behind the scenes of technology powerhouses is still rife with the sexism. As we watch the Pao trial unfold, it becomes clearer than ever that we need more women at the top. According to research from the National Women’s Business Council, not only do companies have to continue to think concretely about other ways to support and sustain women’s involvement in all levels of STEM, we also need to share and document stories of successful women in technology. Considering the trajectory of Ellen Pao, the tech community could specifically encourage women to attend business school and add in more support for women pursing a career in finance.


But, in order for us to have role models in the first place, women need to access the “power corridor.” Ellen Pao did everything right - she has a top tier education, she sought out training where she needed it to be better at her job, she has start-up experience, and a successful track record of valuable investments. What else could she have done?


Last week, software engineer Kelly Ellis tweeted that she quit Google after enduring years of sexual harassment in her job. The company failed to respond publicly to the allegations. Pao, Ellis, Whitney and many other women fighting sexism in the tech world day in and day out are dealing with more than unconscious bias, but an environment that is actively hostile to the advancement of women – sabotaging their careers through an entire spectrum of threats from subjective definitions of appropriate behavior, to sexual harassment, retaliation and intimidation. We simply cannot afford another generation of women left out of the most important financial decisions, because male leaders can’t accept the idea of women in leadership.

We have the tools, money, research and ability to overcome many of the barriers that have always existed for women in the workplace - it’s time to use them to hold accountable the key power players in this Silicon Valley. Ellen Pao is making her case publicly and regardless of the ruling, there is now another heap of excoriating testimony about the experience of women in technology that we simply cannot ignore.


And with that knowledge, what do the John Doerrs of the world ultimately say for themselves?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the Director of Strategic Engagement and Communications at the National Women's Business Council, a non-partisan federal advisory council to the U.S. Small Business Administration, Congress, and the White House on issues of impact and importance to women business owners, leaders, and entrepreneurs.


Editor's Note: This op-ed has been updated to clarify that no female entrepreneurs from the Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers portfolio companies were invited on the ski trip. It also clarifies the sharing was for the condos, not rooms.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a New York City–based digital strategist and writer and the author of “Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life."

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