After dropping her appeal and agreeing to pay legal costs in her gender discrimination case against venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Ellen Pao wrote in an essay on Re/Code that she was “moving on” and that her “experience shows how difficult it is to address discrimination through the court system.”
But it’s clear now Pao didn’t mean she’s giving up the fight against workplace discrimination. She’s just taking another approach.
In an essay for feminist newsletter Lenny Letter, Pao slams the tech industry for its discrimination problems and talks candidly about how women can help improve the situation by speaking out.
After sparking a major discussion about sexism in the tech industry and going on to anger Redditors by changing harassment policies during her brief interim as CEO, Pao arguably became one of the most hated people on the tech scene.
Regardless, she encourages women struggling in a male-dominated work culture to never give up.
“You are not alone,” Pao writes. “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.”
After seeing discriminatory practices as a corporate attorney like women lawyers getting sent home for wearing pants, all-male outings to strip clubs, leering male partners, and thinning ranks of female lawyers, Pao says that she began to wonder, “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?”
“Eventually, there comes a point where you can’t just rally and explain away all the behaviour as creepy exceptions or pin the blame on yourself,” Pao writes. She says you begin to see patterns and systemic problems, regardless of what industry you pursue.
After moving to the tech sector, Pao says she’s seen “the same issues over the past 17 years, first in companies, then as a venture capitalist, and most recently as the CEO of Reddit.”
During her tenure, Pao says she’s encountered several startups with no women or minorities in management and engineering, VC firms that talk meritocracy but ignore opportunities women bring in or that give men credit for them, and women founders getting pushed out as a condition for investment.
“I saw the bar for promotion move as soon as a woman crossed it. I saw inconsistencies in how aggressiveness and strong opinions were rewarded across genders,” she writes.
This isn’t to say there hasn’t been some progress, she notes.
“The biggest positive difference over the past 20 years is how women and minorities are sharing others’ bad behaviour, data, and their own experiences publicly,” Pao writes.
With public data like diversity numbers and academic studies, discrimination deniers can no longer claim ignorance.
“Tech and VC leaders argue that they aren’t doing it on purpose — it’s ‘unconscious’ bias. Well, now that you are talking about it, it’s not unconscious,” Pao writes.
“At this point, we’ve heard enough excuses,” she says. “Know that when people use dog whistles like ‘the pipeline problem,’ they are saying: we haven’t done anything wrong, and we don’t care to fix it.”
It’s crucial for women to continue to speak up, Pao says. After she told her story, she says other women and men approached her with their own experiences of discrimination and harassment.
“Strangers shared their woes and thanked me for publicly announcing what they found too painful or risky to share themselves,” she writes. As the stories and data continue to flow, she added, “people will continue calling out those in power on their excuses and inertia.”
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