Pao hits ‘Reset’ button on Silicon Valley sexism
Says it’s time to ‘shake out’ those who don’t believe in inclusion
SAN FRANCISCO Ellen Pao has a message for Silicon Valley: It’s time for the tech industry to reboot.
Her new tell-all, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, details her gender discrimination lawsuit against powerful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and her ongoing struggle to pry open the doors of the white-male-dominated tech industry to underrepresented groups.
“When I use the term reset, it’s really that we need to shake out the people who don’t believe in inclusion and bring in the people who have been excluded,” Pao told USA TODAY in an interview.
In other words, it’s time for the tech industry — not just women — to lean in. A big shift has taken place since Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller urged women to demand a seat at the table, the 47-year-old diversity advocate and tech investor says.
“Five years ago I think Lean In was just starting to surface that there are these issues, but it was oriented toward women changing their behavior,” Pao said. “I don’t think we were ready for people to say: You need to reset everything that’s happening, and you need to break down these systemic barriers.”
If the industry is ready to do that now, it’s in no small part due to Pao’s headline-grabbing lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins.
Little ink had been spilled on the gender imbalance in venture capital before Pao filed her case in 2012. The tech industry had successfully promoted itself as a young meritocracy where the best people and ideas win. One of the believers was Pao herself.
As the introverted, highachieving daughter of Chinese immigrants with a prodigious work ethic and multiple Ivy League degrees, Pao says she clung to this notion of meritocracy even as she confronted bias and harassment. At the law firm where she worked, a male partner routinely brushed up against women in the hall and a female lawyer was sent home for wearing pants. At Kleiner Perkins, she says women were paid and promoted less than men, pornography was discussed on a private plane and sexist and racist jokes and remarks were routine.
Yet Pao figured hard work and her “super power” (sleeping very few hours a night) could overcome any inequities thrown her way. “It’s not something you want to believe. It takes a lot to shake that belief out of you,” Pao said.
But, when she had trouble getting investments approved and to holding onto companies that were doing well, she noticed she was not alone.
“There’s a point where I realized that other women were doing much better work and had much more successful investments than the men,” she said. “It made me realize the system really wasn’t fair, and it really wasn’t based on merit.”
The jury in her suit against Kleiner Perkins didn’t agree. In Reset, Pao writes that the lawsuit “almost ended my career in tech, cost me half-a-million dollars and launched a thousand hit pieces on me and on my family.”
It also woke many to the treatment of women in Silicon Valley and emboldened other women to come forward: AJ Vandermeyden, a former Tesla engineer who is suing for gender discrimination; Susan Fowler, whose blog post about sexism and sexual harassment at Uber helped oust its CEO; and women whose accounts
of sexual harassment led to the resignation of two prominent tech investors.
With Reset, Pao says she’s not out to settle scores but to shed light.
“People should really understand what is happening behind closed doors inside these corridors of power and what they are up against,” said Pao, now chief diversity officer for Kapor Center for Social Impact and a venture partner at Kapor Capital.
She’s also co-founder of the non-profit Project Include, which helps companies foster diversity and inclusion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On why she chose Reset as the title: For me, it means fundamental change, and that is what tech needs today. We need to really fix the culture.
On the personal resonance of Reset: It was a shock to me to realize tech was not a meritocracy and that there was no way for me to get promoted. It didn’t matter how much money I brought in. It didn’t matter what my relationships were with entrepreneurs. I didn’t have the right gender.
On why she wrote Reset: There’s just so much misinformation out there, and I wanted to make sure that if people were going to judge me, it was based on the facts.
On whether she thinks the tech industry can reset: I know the industry can change. We’ve seen huge transformations. The question is: Do people have the will to make these hard decisions and to have the hard conversations? Are they willing to do the work?
“People should really understand what is happening behind closed doors inside these corridors of power and what they are up against.” Ellen Pao
Ellen Pao, center, walks to the Civic Center Courthouse in San Francisco on March 27. A jury ruled against Pao in her sex discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.