Ellen Pao is a tech world tour de force whose bona fides include ridding Reddit of revenge porn and an impressive venture capital career. But the reason she’s become a household name over the last several years has less to do with her actual accomplishments and more with Silicon Valley’s notorious woman problem: Back in 2012, Pao filed a lawsuit against her former employer, venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins, alleging gender discrimination. The subsequent trial, which reached a verdict in the spring of 2015, was contentious to say the least. Both her personal and professional life were picked apart under the microscope; ultimately, Pao lost the case.
It was a “dark time” in her life, she recently reflected during a phone call with Refinery29, one in which her days were managed down to the minute and she wasn’t available for her family in the ways she wanted to be. For a second, she considered walking away from Palo Alto completely. But then she did a decidedly Pao-like thing and decided to channel her frustrating experiences into something positive. She got back to work, re-joining the investing world and founding her own diversity consulting nonprofit, Project Include. She also put pen to paper: On September 19, Pao’s memoir about the dark side of Palo Alto finally hits shelves. Refinery29 spoke to her about Reset, how lasting change starts in the C-suite, and why the Google memo is just the tip of the tech world's toxic iceberg.
Between the SoFi scandal, Uber, and the Google memo — among many others — what has to change in the Valley to interrupt the pattern of sexism?
"People ask me: What are the three things a company or a CEO should do? Unfortunately it’s not three things. It’s a much bigger set of activities, and it’s going to take a lot of effort to change things because it means changing every aspect of how we do business: where we recruit from, how we recruit, how we interview, how we come up with an offer, how we onboard a new employee, how we give out assignments, how we think about events, how we think about building panels for our conferences, how we think about who speaks at internal all hands meetings. It’s really thinking from a different lens as you go about your day to day activities.
Do you think that 3-point checklist — the idea that you can do just a couple things and solve the problem — is symptomatic of a moment we’re in?
"Yes. It’s short attention span culture. But also, making 87 changes versus three? That’s daunting. The good thing is that once you start with small actions within a comprehensive plan, the change feeds itself. People get excited; you’re able to attract different candidates to your company. You’re able to get people to talk and to speak up — to do some of the work themselves, because they see that you’re making an effort."
We’ve seen a lot of shift in the C-Suite in response to allegations of discrimination at tech companies. But how does a change of CEO really impact an organization?
"If a CEO doesn’t make the hard decisions needed to build inclusion into the culture, change is just not going to happen. For example: When you’re a startup and you don’t have very many people, and the so-called rock star engineer — who is maybe arrogant, or who says or does inappropriate things — is producing, people often turn a blind eye to that behavior. If a company is being driven by deadlines to ship product or services, the idea of upsetting that engineer, or even firing that engineer, can be daunting. It’s the CEO who has to come in and say that it’s okay to flip that release date, because it is so important to get the culture right and to hold employees accountable. If it goes up to the CEO and they’re like, ‘no, we need to ship’, then it becomes okay to have the inappropriate behavior, which can be extremely toxic."
It’s hard not to relate this thought thread back to the Google memo. Did you read it?
"I have been following the story. I have to tell you: It had such a lack of rigor that I could not read the whole thing. I know I’m going to get critiqued for commenting on something that I haven’t fully read. But I think the idea that women are biologically less suited to engineering is just offensive. I’m very relieved in many ways that Google fired him."
I wonder though: In cases like that, what’s the best course of action for the long run? Is it better to fire an employee like James Damore or to educate and illuminate?
"It’s complicated. We don’t know the whole story about what else he’s done or his performance. But in general, I think if you have somebody espousing racist and sexist ideas in your company, then you need to get rid of them. Just having that debate about whether or not women are as good as men is counter to building a productive company. If you’re a company that’s oriented toward a certain set of values and you’ve got people who aren’t in agreement, who are actually trying to shoot those values down, you need to make that hard choice to remove them. If people aren’t on board, then they don’t belong."
Your professional life has been very public for the last several years. But what has been less visible are the extra “shifts” you work as a parent, a partner, everything else. How did you manage that balancing act during the trial?
"It was fortunate that I only needed two to four hours of sleep a night, so that added quite a bit of time to my day. I’ve never needed much sleep, but it was also that there was so much going on at work that I would wake up without the alarm going off because I wanted to get stuff done. I had to be completely efficient: I would do up to 18 meetings a day, 20 minutes at a time, when I was in the office, because I had to touch so many people.
"At the end, I wasn’t there for my family as much as I wanted to be. But it was an exciting time at Reddit. We were really driving change. We had taken down revenge porn and unauthorized nude photos, and that started a wave of companies doing the same thing. We were testing out the negotiation salary program where we would just give people the highest offer we were willing to pay instead. It was exciting because we were doing so many things. It didn’t feel like a grind."
It often seems like female executives are brought in to do the dirty work, to clean up a problem — like revenge porn, for example — in a way that isn’t reflected in the hiring of men. Is that a trend you’ve noticed?
"It’s not scientific, but I do see women being called in to do the unglamorous work of fixing problems. Often they don’t get rewarded for it because nobody wanted to acknowledge that there was such a huge glaring problem to begin with. Women don’t get the promotion or the bonus because what they were brought in to fix is something that people wanted swept under the rug. So you solved this huge problem and everybody feels better — though not enough to value the work that was done. But sometimes those are the only opportunities women can get. So what are they supposed to do?"
You’ve become a leader in this push for gender equality in corporate and startup culture. How has carrying that mantle made you feel?
"I do feel some pressure. There was a time after Reddit when I went to Hawaii, and there was a woman there who said, ‘You should just move here and relax. There’s some investing going on and some entrepreneurship.’ It’s a great environment and that was so tempting. But I felt like: If I can come back and show people that you can have this horrible experience, hopefully I could inspire others. I’m glad I came back. I’m glad I sued. I’m glad that now that so many other people are speaking up and that the public and the press are much more receptive to believing people’s stories, and believing these experiences are happening."
Who has showed up to support you that you weren’t expecting?
"Almost no one showed up in the beginning. But I knew that — I talked to people before I sued, and they warned me. So that wasn’t a huge surprise. But I was surprised when people did show up. That was meaningful to me.
"I’m presently surprised to see a lot of CEOs being engaged in Project Include; most of them are part of the dominant demographic and have benefitted from the existing structure; but they’re really interested in having better companies, in doing the right thing, in making a difference. They don’t want to see their companies become stagnant at low levels of women, and black, and latinx employees; they want to see their companies reflect a broader labor workforce in the country, versus what the tech ecosystem sees. So it is really encouraging that they’re all stepping up to do the work and make a difference."
Reset: My Fight For Inclusion And Lasting Change, by Ellen Pao, is out September 19.