Ellen Pao says it's time for a tech industry reset

Jessica Guynn
Ellen Pao, center, walks to Civic Center Courthouse in San Francisco March 27. A jury ruled against Ellen Pao in her sex discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

SAN FRANCISCO — The gender discrimination trial that rocked Silicon Valley may be long over but her fight is not. And Ellen Pao has a message for the white male-dominated tech industry: It's time for a "reset."

"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.

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change is Pao's defiant post-mortem on her tenure at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and the stormy courtroom battle that followed.

The 47-year-old tech investor turned diversity advocate lost the case but brought international attention to the many ways, both overt and subtle, that Silicon Valley excludes women and people of color. 

Very 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, high-achieving daughter of Chinese immigrants with a prodigious work ethic and multiple Ivy League degrees, Pao clung to this notion of meritocracy even as she confronted bias and harassment. At the law firm where she worked as an associate, a male partner routinely brushed up against women in the hall and a female lawyer was sent home for wearing pants. At Kleiner Perkins, where she was chief of staff and then a junior partner, 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 says she figured hard work and her "super power" (sleeping remarkably few hours a night) could overcome the inequities thrown in her path.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 11:  Ellen Pao leaves the Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break from her trial on March 11, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Pao, the former CEO of Reddit, sued her former employer, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, for $16 million alleging she was sexually discriminated against by male officials. She lost her suit.

"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 wasn't the only one being denied opportunities that came easily to men.

"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."

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Kleiner Perkins declined to comment.

In a statement, the firm said it supports Pao's efforts to improve workplace culture for women and other underrepresented groups. "However, Pao's claims against Kleiner Perkins were examined thoroughly during a five-week trial in 2015 and were rejected by the jury which decided against her on every claim," the statement says.

The lengthy legal battle "almost ended my career in tech, cost me half a million dollars and launched a thousand hit pieces on me and on my family," Pao writes in her book.

But as one person remarked: "You broke a lot of glass." And that broken glass emboldened other women to come forward.  AJ Vandermeyden, a former Tesla engineer, is suing for gender discrimination. Susan Fowler's blog post about sexism and sexual harassment at Uber helped oust its CEO. And accounts of sexual harassment from women entrepreneurs led to the resignation of two prominent tech investors.

That influence set the stage for Pao's own reset. As chief diversity officer for Kapor Center for Social Impact, a venture partner at Kapor Capital and co-founder of the nonprofit Project Include, which helps companies foster diversity and inclusion, Pao's days are spent prying open the doors of the tech industry for underrepresented groups.

Now that voices like James Damore are ringing out, the effort to bring greater diversity and inclusion to tech is even more important, Pao says. The ex-Google engineer was fired for questioning the Internet giant's diversity efforts and for arguing that the low numbers of women in technical roles was a result of biological differences, not discrimination.

Ever since her trial, women all over the world regularly reach out to Pao for advice. She encourages them to speak up (though not necessarily to sue). With Reset, she takes her own advice. She says she wrote in such detail about her experiences at Kleiner Perkins, not 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," she said. "There are so many attitudes that are problematic. Until you understand the depth of them and the extent of them, only then will you understand why there is such a problem and how deep the problem really is."

The 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. Right now I don't see the big companies doing that, and I'd love to try to push to make that happen.

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. 

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change is Pao's defiant post-mortem on her tenure at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and the stormy courtroom battle that followed.

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. I wanted to take people into that experience so they could see what it was like and hopefully empathize with other people who have had similar experiences. 

On how far the tech industry has come since Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In:

Four years ago Lean In was just starting to surface that there are these issues but it was oriented toward women changing their behavior. 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.

When I sued there was very little receptiveness to the idea that maybe I was telling the truth. There were people who really did not want to believe, and it was widely thought that there were not these broad problems of bias and discrimination. 

Susan Fowler was the first person who really was heard and believed from the outset. That has been ground shifting.

On resistance to diversity efforts:

There is a belief in tech that not everybody is equal. You hear that when you hear people talk about women being biologically less oriented or less skilled at engineering. You hear that when you hear people talking about lowering the bar to bring in women and people of color. It's a view that now has become less popular because people are seeing the research. They are seeing the studies that show that diversity on teams improves performance. They are seeing the problems with products that are built by a small homogenous group of people in failing to address a wider audience.

On whether she thinks the tech industry can reset:

I know the industry can change. We've see 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? 

On how long she thinks it will take:

Is it going to happen in the next 5 years or 10 years or 15 years? I hope sooner rather than later, but I just don't know. Some of the things that I learn about what goes on in tech still surprises me. The willingness for people to say publicly that they believe women and people of color are inferior, to talk about lowering the bar, to talk about biological differences. I'm shocked that these antiquated ideas continue to persist.

More USA TODAY coverage of inclusion and diversity in tech.