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“You Just Can’t Imagine How Hard It Is”: Ellen Pao On Dealing With Sexism In Tech

Her discrimination lawsuit had such an impact on the Valley that it’s been called “the Pao effect.” Now she’s on a mission to make the tech industry more inclusive.

“You Just Can’t Imagine How Hard It Is”: Ellen Pao On Dealing With Sexism In Tech
Most tech platforms “were built by people who don’t suffer from the harassment that women and people of color experience,” says Ellen Pao. “They don’t know what harassment feels like.” [Photo: Jenny Hueston]

In the five years since Ellen Pao filed her high-profile sex discrimination lawsuit against VC powerhouse Kleiner Perkins—and was later pressured to resign as CEO of Reddit after backlash from users—the conversation about gender inequality in tech has only gotten louder. In her new memoir, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, out September 19, Pao (now a partner at social impact–focused investment firm Kapor Capital) reveals what it was like to endure years of workplace sexism and have her professional and personal life scrutinized in a public trial—and why she’s still working to make Silicon Valley a more inclusive place.

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Related: This Is What It’s Like To Sue Your Employer For Discrimination


Fast Company: It’s been a difficult but somewhat validating year for women in Silicon Valley, with revelations of sexual harassment and bias contributing to the departure of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, not to mention several high-powered venture capitalists. Do you feel at all vindicated?

Ellen Pao: I’m hopeful for change. I also feel sad that it has taken so much time and so many people speaking up and being ignored until finally it’s come to this point. My hope is that people actually do the right things and put in the changes that are going to make a difference.

FC: Why has it taken so long for tech as an industry to acknowledge that it has a problem? Do you think companies are only addressing the topic in public now because they’re being forced to?

EP: It seems that way, doesn’t it? It’s hard to say, because it’s early yet. You can see Uber taking steps, but they were backed into a corner. When it looked like people were going to make money, [the company was] comfortable with whatever was going on. The board wasn’t holding anybody accountable, none of the investors were holding anybody accountable. At any of these companies. And the employees weren’t getting the help they needed from HR or management, and [so] people started speaking out on their own. And that seems to be finally making a difference. We have seen for the first time people at investment firms being pushed out [for sexual harassment]. But whether [this trend] is short term or long term remains to be seen.

FC: In your book, you talk about trying to heed Sheryl Sandberg’s famous advice to take a seat at the table while you were on a private jet with male colleagues from Kleiner Perkins who insisted on having crude conversations. You concluded that taking a seat at the table isn’t possible when no one wants you there—a feeling that many women can relate to. What’s the best recourse?

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EP: When you’re in that entry-level job, you’re like a commodity. One of the lawyers I used to work for called us pork bellies. One of you is like any other, and it doesn’t matter what you look like. But [as the field] starts to get more competitive, then it starts to matter for some reason what you look like or where you’re from. I wish there was a blanket right answer [for how to address the problem], but it’s much harder than that. Because, for some people, they need that job. For those people, [I’d say,] figure out if there is a different manager you can work for, a different location that you can go to, try to find the people who are more inclusive. If you can get another job, there are companies that may be more inclusive.

FC: What about speaking out—and taking legal action—as you did? Your suit against Kleiner Perkins dragged on for almost three years, and resulted in a judgment in favor of your former employer and you being ordered to pay part of their legal fees. What advice would you give to women now who are in the position that you were in then?

EP: I would say not to do it. It takes a tremendous toll on you as an individual. You just can’t imagine how hard it is, emotionally, financially, and professionally.

Ellen Pao and her legal team speak to the press at the conclusion of her lawsuit in March 2015. [Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux]
FC: Is the legal system failing wo­men? And if so, is winning in the court of public opinion, like Susan Fowler did, after writing a blog post describing the sexual harassment she endured at Uber, becoming more effective?

EP: Yeah, I think [the legal system] is failing women. I think it’s failing people of color, employees who are older. It’s not a great place to try to work out your problems because the company will be able to out-lawyer you, out-PR you, and drag things out and make things expensive and painful for you. I see it as a place of last resort. [Speaking out publicly] is going to be how you influence the managers, CEOs, VCs, board members. That ends up causing change. In the past, the press has not been so easy to work with. [But] a lot of these male reporters are now much more open and understand the issues a lot better.

I think the fact that I lost was validating for some people who had never complained and maybe had an opportunity to litigate and decided not to. They could see that the legal system is not actually a good place to try to resolve these issues. I think it helped some people come to terms with the fact that they didn’t push as hard as maybe they could have because they saw that actually it is not a fruitful path.

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FC: Why do you think it’s so difficult for the general public to believe women when they say that they’ve been mistreated or discriminated against?

EP: Some people [think] that we moved past all this in the ’80s and ’90s. They thought we had resolved all of these issues, and it’s a shock to them that this kind of behavior thrives. And I think some people just don’t want to believe. And then there is a set of people who really don’t think there’s a problem with the behavior, a bigger set than I could possibly have imagined. The election, the behavior of people post-election, the behavior we knew about pre-election and that still got voted in—all of that was a shock to me.

FC: After you took over as interim CEO of Reddit in 2013, you banned revenge porn and unauthorized nude photos, which users largely supported. But when you tried to limit harassment on the site, you received a flood of abuse and online threats. Why?

EP: Five subreddits [featured] coordinated, targeted harassment of individuals. There was racism. One was transgender-phobic. One was fat-phobic. So we took down those five sites, and that was when the backlash happened. These subreddits became part of a crusade around free speech.

FC: This debate about the limits of free speech is still very much alive in the tech world. What obligation do social media sites have to protect users?

EP: There is no way you should allow targeted harassment on your site. Encouraging a variety of views is often what free speech advocates [want]. But bullying people [through] fear tactics shouldn’t be allowed. You could have one vocal group that just harasses every other group off your platform and so you’d have one perspective instead of hundreds of thousands. So when you talk about a free speech platform, part of it is having different perspectives, and that’s not possible if groups are allowed to harass other groups off the platform. If [Reddit] had wanted to go the way of unauthorized nude pictures, [it] could be the site where you could go all day to find nude pictures of your favorite celebrity and could push off all other activity. Would that be a good thing for Reddit? Probably not.

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FC: So many leaders at otherwise visionary tech companies seem really stymied when it comes to ending harassment on their platforms. Is it really that difficult?

EP: It’s complicated. Just taking [hateful content] down is not that easy because it will pop up in different ways. People are always testing the lines. When I was in law school, we had professors who were debating what hate speech is, and it wasn’t always clear. You can’t pay somebody $15 an hour and have them be able to figure it out easily. The second problem is that most of these platforms were built by people who don’t suffer from the harassment that women and peo­ple of color, and especially women of color, experience. They don’t know what harassment feels like.

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change

FC: You titled the chapter about your time at Reddit “The Glass Cliff,” referring to the phenomenon where a woman is brought in to lead a company when it’s having trouble and winds up as the scapegoat. Do you think that you were set up to fail at Reddit?

EP: It definitely felt that way. There was a point when one of the board members said that he wanted me to get to half a billion users by the end of the year, and in my mind that just was so unrealistic. It made me wonder a little bit. But it wasn’t until I had more time and more perspective that it felt more so.

FC: While launching your nonprofit, Project Include, in 2016, you lamented in a post that most startups take limited and often potentially damaging actions to address diversity. They assume they have to “lower the bar” for hiring. How do you propose that new companies make significant positive impact instead?

EP: We [at Project Include] ended up coming up with 87 recommendations. For me, it’s [about] shaping companies by shaping the CEOs—and hopefully influencing VC firms, if that is possible, so that the right decisions get made, the right cultures get built and retained at scale, and everybody gets a chance to succeed.

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30-second bio: Ellen Pao

Current: Cofounder of the nonprofit Project Include; chief diversity and inclusion officer and venture partner at Kapor Capital; author of Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change

Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton University; law and business degrees from Harvard University

Previous jobs: Lawyer for Cravath, Swaine & Moore, followed by tenures at tech startups including BEA Systems and WebTV; chief of staff and junior partner at VC firm Kleiner Perkins; interim CEO of Reddit

About the author

Kathleen Davis is a Senior Editor at FastCompany.com, managing the leadership and work-life section. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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