Spotlight Ellen Pao on #MeToo: Can Discrimination Be Fixed Through a Distributed Movement?

On #metoo: Can Discrimination Be Fixed Through A Distributed Movement?
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In 2012, Ellen Pao filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, the storied technology venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. This was five years before the #metoo movement alighted in 2017, and married virality and wokeness to educate and inform around sexual violence and harassment. Pao’s voice was prescient, and her lawsuit shook the entire industry. She lost the suit in 2015, but her very public case amplified awareness and drove greater discussion around the lack of diversity in the technology industry — a problem which remains unresolved and relevant in 2018.

Pao’s case was ongoing as she simultaneously served as the interim chief executive of reddit, where revenge porn was banned during her tenure. Since leaving reddit, Pao has dedicated herself to diversity and inclusion efforts in Silicon Valley, including writing a book last year called Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change and co-founding Project Include.

We met with her in San Francisco and talked about intersectionality in Silicon Valley and what most people — including, perhaps, you — get wrong about #metoo.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Daniela Perdomo: What’s changed between now and 2012?

Ellen Pao: People are talking and people are listening. There’s a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of harassment, both online and offline; in the workplace and outside the workplace.

DP: What’s the same?

EP: I haven’t seen massive, widespread solutions. “Oh, we’re going to kick out this one bad person,” and then sometimes that person gets resurrected. Ends up getting money anyway, or getting funded, or starts their own fund. It’s not clear what the consequences are, and whether there is long-term accountability, and what the boundaries of what you need to do for redemption are.

DP: Were colleagues and friends supportive when you decided to try and hold Kleiner accountable through the legal system?

EP:  My friends — my good friends — were supportive. Colleagues were either unsupportive, fearful, or disappeared. It was a tough time.

DP: If you were to file your suit today, would things be different?

EP: I think it would be very different. I think that at the time people assumed I was lying because they had never heard of anything like this. And at the time I thought, “Well, maybe this is why people don’t mention it.” That time has passed. Now people understand these things happen.

DP: How do you feel about the case today?

EP: It’s mixed. I’m glad I did it. It’s not a process I recommend to people. It’s incredibly hard — financially, emotionally, career-wise. A lot of good came out of it. Just shining a spotlight on these issues. Also in some ways, the fact that I lost made it more relatable.

DP: What was it like to work as reddit’s interim CEO during this case?

EP: It was kind of surreal. There were a lot of things that had to be done. We had to change the company culture, move it to mobile, and, yes, get rid of some of the harassment.

We were the first big media property to say, “No, revenge porn doesn’t belong on our platform.” So we got rid of unauthorized nude photos. That was a big shift for us. And then we got rid of a bunch of the more harassing subreddits. So I feel like we accomplished so much, and I feel good about it.

DP: You now have a platform. How do you wield it?

EP: It’s a huge responsibility. I want to be positive, because people see me and think, “I see my experiences in your experiences.” And I want to make sure there is something good at the end of the tunnel. It is harder for women, for people of color, for older people, for people who are not part of that core, homogenous group. But I want them to know it’s not them. I want them to understand the issues, and to push through.

It’s not clear what the consequences are, and whether there is long-term accountability, and what the boundaries of what you need to do for redemption are.”

DP: Can you tell me more about your choice to start Project Include?

EP: It’s focused on helping CEOs. The mission of the organization is to give everyone a fair chance in the tech workplace. And our core belief is it’s up to the CEO. If the CEO isn’t bought in, if the CEO isn’t modeling it, if the CEO isn’t making decisions for diversity inclusion, people in the company know that. And they’re not going to prioritize it either.

We work closely with CEOs in small cohorts where we have them meet in groups and we do a survey, at the beginning, of all employees at each of their companies, to see what their teams’ diversity is like. And also to see how different groups within each team are feeling in terms of satisfaction levels across eight different areas. And then we share a company report with the CEO, and also a cohort-level report, which gives you a sense of where you stand in tech as a whole — which is a pretty low bar — and within a cohort of like-minded, progressive, diversity-and-inclusion-oriented CEOs.

DP: You said you’re interested in solutions. Which methods of holding people accountable and effecting change around sexual harassment and general discrimination in Silicon Valley actually work?

EP: Today the most effective one is shaming a company or its CEO in the press. It’s unfortunate, because it’s kind of random. Random reporters making big decisions about what to cover and what not to cover. But that fear of the public knowing what’s actually going on in a company seems to be driving a lot of change.

DP: Which methods aren’t effective?

EP: Most current HR policies. A lot of it is, “We want to protect ourselves from legal risk, so we push out the person who’s complaining, and get them to sign a settlement where they aren’t allowed to talk about it again.” And then it just keeps happening internally, because the person isn’t held accountable — and often it’s because they are a star performer, or a key executive, and people understand that behavior is allowed. And, you know, maybe it’s even part of what made them successful! The culture then goes to hell-in-a-handbasket, because you’re seeing the rewarded people exhibiting this bad behavior, and that becomes part of what people think is valued.

DP: In the last year or so, it feels like every major VC firm announced a female partner.

EP: I think it’s the difference between diversity and inclusion. You can bring people in, and you can hire them, and get them in the door, but if you’re not creating opportunities for them to be successful, they’ll end up either opting out or getting pushed out. I would love to see those women having the same opportunities as men, by being supported, by being given opportunities to invest and to hold onto the good investments they bring in.

DP: Which name-brand tech companies are doing a good job around diversity and inclusion?

EP: There aren’t that many of them who are hiring at huge levels, especially in Silicon Valley. It’s tricky right now, because we’re still at the point where we don’t have that outlier, that Facebook-sized company built on diversity and inclusion. But we have a bunch of Facebooks that are not diverse nor inclusive.

I was interviewing this engineering candidate once and asking him how he felt about diversity. And he was like, “I really believe in diversity, I think diverse opinions are really important, and I’m willing to lower the bar to bring them in.” And I was like, “Whoa. You’ve been in tech for many years, you’re a manager and a leader, and you think it’s okay to say this. And you’re trying to use this as supporting your diversity and inclusion orientation.”

Amanda Peyton: When you sit down with companies and they say, “This is so hard, we have such a pipeline problem.” What is your response to that?

EP: Sometimes it’s, “Well, if you look at the pipeline, you’re not even getting the people from the pipeline in. And often you don’t have anybody who’s not white or Asian.” At Project Include, we try not to bring those companies in. We try to work with people who are open. We’d rather work with people that have started the flywheel a little bit. We want to help you accelerate by finding where your pockets of problems are. How can we help you see and acknowledge them, and have faith you’re actually going to try to do something about it?

It’s tricky right now, because we’re still at the point where we don’t have that outlier, that Facebook-sized company built on diversity and inclusion.”

AP: Do you think the sole 25-year-old woman at Tech Company X walks in there and knows what she’s signed up for?

EP: I don’t think she knows. I don’t think most of them know. But this new generation is much more aware. When I was 25 I had no clue about anything. Young women today have all read Lean In. They know there is this systemic issue, and they may need to get the door shut in their face five times before they realize it happens at their company. But they will figure it out sooner than I did, and sooner than most people have so far.

AP: What do you think needs to change within the field of human resources to better address the problem?

DP: And isn’t it troubling that HR is a part of the problem when over 70 percent of HR professionals are women?

EP: HR is actually quite bad at a lot of tech companies because they are about protecting the company, but they don’t make it clear. They make it fuzzy: “I’m your friend, tell me everything.” And people go in not realizing that HR is recording everything and trying to build a case against you, because that’s how you protect the company. I think if you really want to protect your company, work with the information and fix these problems and work to bring them up earlier, before it becomes a discrimination lawsuit, or a driving-people-out-of-the-company situation.

AP: You mentioned the press as an effective outlet. Do you think there is a sort of DDoS-style-lawsuits-from-women tactic that maybe hasn’t been deployed well?

EP: Litigating is really hard. And the lawyers who usually get involved are often more interested in settlement as an effective tactic. Because it does cut down on costs and time and risk. 

I see the Google case, which people have described as a DDoS attack on Google. Here you’ve got a bunch of alt-right supported people who are taking up resources in the court system and also collecting information from internal company conversations and doing what they do on reddit, which is to get coworkers so angry that they say something that can be used against them. And  the alt-right can screen capture it, take out of context, and use it as evidence in public and in court.

The other lawsuits like the ones against Uber, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft are definitely helpful because they force people to look at evidence and facts. In my Kleiner case, I don’t think everybody knew that my performance reviews were completely doctored. And that would not have come out except through litigation. So you do get some more information, and maybe that’s helpful to the CEO. But you do often get emotional. Like “I’m not going to let this person win.” Or “I’m not going to let this person get anything.” And that can make the issues harder to solve and fix.

DP: Is the#metoo movement effective?

EP: I think it’s too early to say. It’s been very effective in creating this rallying cry, and giving people confidence that there’s a group that has their back. “There’s a hashtag, and there are people who are going to support me as I go out with my story. And there’s a whole set of stories ahead of me that have paved the path for me to tell mine.” I think that’s been incredibly powerful. And hopeful.

The fact that the leadership is diverse and they’re trying to be inclusive of people from all different groups, the fact that this Hollywood commission has this focus on creating a legal fund for people at the bottom of the ladder, the people who don’t have resources. Is the system able to be changed by that? I don’t know, because it is such a huge systemic problem.

When people are members of multiple underrepresented groups, the biases are additive and sometimes even greater than just the sum.”

DP: The #metoo movement sometimes feels like it’s about bold-faced names. People who effectively shame can because they already are in a place of visibility and privilege.

EP: It’s true. But it’s not like it’s their fault that people only care about people with privilege. We’re in this society where people don’t care about the average person. And where someone has to be like, “Oh they remind me of my daughter.” Or, “I’ve seen her on-screen and really like her.” The connection to these experiences often has to be very personal.

And that troubles me, because I think that’s why there’s this whole focus in many companies on women, and mostly white women. Because of this “I think of my daughter” connection, and it’s like, well, you have problems with all these other groups. Your whole system is broken. Why don’t you fix the system rather than just adding a few more women to the included group? Why don’t you get rid of exclusion completely? I struggle because it’s so hard to get through to people. But that’s not the movement’s fault, it’s society’s.

DP: What can people like you, with visibility, do to change that?

EP: So for Project Include, one of our general values is inclusion of everyone. And that means paying attention to intersectionality. When people are members of multiple underrepresented groups, the biases are additive and sometimes even greater than just the sum, and you have to take that into account as you craft your solution.

AP: Can you give an example of that?

EP: If you look at the research on pay or promotion, you’ll see that women get paid less, and black employees get paid less, but black women get paid even less so. Asian women were least likely to be promoted to executive.

DP: When the #metoo hashtag started, I wasn’t surprised by it — every woman has a story. How effective is it to share in public?

EP: I think everybody’s different. I’ve been contacted by hundreds of people now, maybe thousands. And everybody has a different way they want to deal with it. Some people just want me to hear them. They privately connect with somebody who had a similar experience, and that is enough for them. If I hadn’t sued, I would never have told my story. I’m extremely private. I totally understand why people don’t want to share. And I think there are, at this point, enough people sharing that it’s not a necessity even though hearing others’ stories has value.

DP: Are there any other decentralized movements around this issue?

EP: I think there’ve always been whisper networks. There are people I will ask before working with a company. So there continues to be conversations around who are the good and bad actors. I only talk to people I really trust, because it’s a little bit dangerous. That kind of privacy prevents people from correcting wrong information, so there’s a bit of risk to it.

And now there are different Slack channels. And Erica Joy Baker started a spreadsheet within Google, where people put their salary, level, race, and gender, and it was a very decentralized movement. The spreadsheet just spread like wildfire. Tracy Chou started a GitHub repository for crowdsourced information around gender in engineering, where employees shared the number of women on their engineering teams; almost 300 companies are included now. Cheryl Yeoh and Andy Caravos of #MovingForward built a directory of codes of conduct that VC firms are committing to regarding harassment and discrimination.

We need a complete reset from what we have today. Because the current centralized system isn’t working.”

DP: What might you want to clarify for anyone who’s looking at #metoo — or Project Include — and trying to understand the goal?

EP: The goal is to have the best employees doing their best work. And you do that by getting rid of the systemic barriers and making your company diverse and inclusive.

DP: And what’s not the goal?

EP: Oh, I think this whole thing about getting to 50/50 men/women.  There was a survey where over 10% of young people describe themselves as non-binary. So if you’re trying to get to 50/50, the world has moved beyond that. And it should be about including everyone. And unfortunately this focus of #metoo being predominantly around women kind of pushes us back into that binary focus and ignores other types of underrepresentation.

DP: Where does this all fit in today’s decentralization zeitgeist?

EP: I think there’s a lack of trust in structures now. In this context it means taking a look at existing systems and thinking about what we should do differently. I don’t think our existing social structures are mostly good and we can tweak them. I think there are huge issues and we need a complete reset from what we have today. Because the current centralized system isn’t working.

DP: And decentralized systems should, theoretically, be more open to new entrants since they’re not top-down controlled.

EP: Yes. My worry is we just have a change of actors and it’s the same system. There are a lot of people who have benefited from the existing centralized structure. And even though they may not be white men, they believe in it. And if they’re the people who are rebuilding, it’s not going to look very different. So that’s why bringing in many people in is so important.