Ellen Pao Speaks Out About Sexism Via Lena Dunham’s Lenny Newsletter

The embattled former CEO of Reddit who lost a gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins believes progress continues to be made.

Ellen Pao Speaks Out About Sexism Via Lena Dunham’s Lenny Newsletter
[Photo: Wikipedia]

Ellen K. Pao made headlines for the gender discrimination suit she brought against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and for the outrage she provoked as interim CEO of Reddit.


Today, writing in Lenny, she explained that she grew up believing the world is a meritocracy: “We studied hard, got into good schools, studied harder, got into graduate schools, worked hard, did a great job, and expected to be valued for it eventually.”

Through Harvard Law School and subsequent employment at a law firm, she was disabused of that notion.

We [women] were wondering, Is it just me? Am I really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikable? Are my elbows too sharp? Am I not promoting myself enough? Am I not funny enough? Am I not working hard enough? Do I belong? 

The feeling persisted when she switched to tech. After 17 years, Pao writes, it was quite clear: “Some people just don’t treat men and women, whites and minorities, heterosexuals and LGBTQs as equals. We could all work harder and better than everyone else, but we weren’t getting a fair shot to rise to the top.”

Pao points out how underrepresented women are in tech, and in corporate leadership across industries. For every company like Pinterest that takes a hard look at its own lack of diversity and proposes solutions to fix it, or Intel, which recently opened the books on its progress to close the glaring diversity gap among its ranks, Pao says the system continues to fail on a larger scale.

Citing a range of studies, Pao maintains it’s neither a pipeline problem, nor due to unconscious bias.

The pipeline, that is, the number of qualified female and minority candidates to fill jobs, isn’t an issue, Pao believes. Plenty of women graduate with engineering degrees, for instance, but not all of them go on to pursue it as a career, or leave because of sexual harassment. If women and minorities do stay on, the wage gap–no matter the industry– acts as another barrier to parity with white men.


As for unconscious bias, Pao argues that it can’t be truly unconscious if someone is openly talking about it and using it as an excuse for why they didn’t hire or promote a woman or minority.
After all this, it’s a surprise to hear that Pao remains optimistic and says that “meaningful progress” has been made.

She believes that social sharing has made the “biggest positive difference over the past 20 years” on how women and minorities are being treated. She explains that mobile cameras and social networks have enabled them to record and publicize unfair treatment and bad behavior, and recalls how a community of women who also sued financial firms for discrimination supported her own efforts to bring Kleiner Perkins to court.

For others facing discrimination and unfair treatment, she offers two strategies: Get a thicker skin and speak up.

Resilience is something that Pao had to learn between the lawsuit and her time at Reddit. Bouncing back from being called the “most hated person on the Internet” is no easy feat, but she says she accomplished this by dividing helpful feedback from unhelpful comments.  

Rape threats, death threats, and insults are unhelpful. Being told to smile more, gain or lose weight, or give up on an important value and activity—unhelpful. Specific feedback based on actual events that could shape my thinking and course of action—helpful . . . Hold the good stuff tight and close to your heart, and let the negative slide off like you’re Teflon.


Sharing her story both publicly and privately had a great deal of impact on others, says Pao. It encouraged others to share their own experiences, often ones they’d held close because of shame or fear of repercussions. It’s important to raise your voice, Pao believes, because it will help others who are going through the same thing.


Indeed, even though she lost her gender discrimination case, experts believe that litigation has been effective in combating this unfair treatment across industries. As attorneys Xinying Valerian and Sherri Hansen said in a Fast Company report, “Challenging biased power structures means elevating a case beyond personalities and putting the bull’s-eye on corporate practices that may not even appear biased at first glance.”

Pao believes that when her daughter is an adult, the world will be a better place, simply because “the stories and data will continue to flow, and people will continue calling out those in power on their excuses and inertia.”
For now, Pao encourages women in male-dominated work cultures not to give up. “You are not alone. There are millions of women and men who are supporting you and want you to succeed. Many people will try to blame you—for some, it’s just too hard to acknowledge their own failings and the failings of our system. That’s on them, not on you.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.