Men at the top are falling, from Bill O’Reilly to Matt Lauer to Harvey Weinstein to Rep. John Conyers. We can count among them Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, who once nicknamed the ride-hailing company “Boober” because of the attention from women his position apparently attracted. Just as in Hollywood and the media, men in the technology industry who either presided over inappropriate workplace cultures or who themselves have been accused of sexual misconduct are being called to account.
Yet while the media and entertainment industries are producing a flood of remarkable stories about sexual assault, rape, and harassment, the fallout in the tech industry has been markedly slower. Yes, some prominent executives have stepped down for inappropriate behavior, like Dave McClure of 500 Startups and Robert Scoble, the famed Microsoft blogger. Both were accused by women of sexual misconduct or making unwanted advances. But you have to wonder why at the most powerful and monied companies in the world, where men overwhelmingly dominate technical and executive roles and where sexism has long been recognized as an industrywide problem, so few stories have surfaced.
It could be a matter of ironclad nondisclosure agreements. Or maybe, after years of rhetoric about community building and connecting the world buoyed by CEOs who sometimes do the right thing, a kind of blindness has set in. Perhaps when you’re seeped in a culture where your innovative, progressive thinking is supposed to improve the world, it’s hard to see that might be embroiled in a system that’s perpetuating many of the very evils you oppose.
Yes, there have been relatively fewer public oustings of major figures in tech, but that doesn’t mean women aren’t getting hurt. And we’d be hearing a lot less about sexual harassment and gender-based inequities in the industry were it not for Ellen Pao, a former venture capital executive who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, alleging she was passed over for a senior-level promotion due to her gender. Pao lost her $16 million lawsuit in 2015, after turning down a seven-figure offer to settle the case.
Though she lost, Pao’s case captivated Silicon Valley. It showed how Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for women to simply “lean in” doesn’t always work. Pao did lean in—she worked with the men and took a seat at the table. When that didn’t work, Pao sought justice, paving the way for others to do the same. I recently spoke with Pao—also a former interim CEO of Reddit and now an investment partner at Kapor Capital, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, and a co-founder of the nonprofit Project Include—for If Then, Slate’s technology podcast. In our interview, which has been lightly edited for concision and clarity, we talked about whether Silicon Valley’s leadership and culture allow poor behavior in the workplace and on technology platforms to fester and whether she thinks her experience at Kleiner Perkins would have met a different reception in 2017.
April Glaser: We’re in a watershed moment in terms of women speaking up across powerful industries, like media and entertainment, about the harassment, abuse, and discrimination they have endured at the hands of powerful men. Women in tech are also speaking out, but it seems to be at a slower pace. Do you think that’s because there are fewer problems in tech than other industries, or is it something else, like maybe about the culture?
Ellen Pao: It’s a good question. It’s so hard to know. People ask me to compare industries all the time, and it’s hard to know because you really have to be in each of them to compare, and also everybody has had these terrible experiences. Who is to say whose is worse than somebody else’s?
What we’re seeing in tech is that it’s also very hard to solve these problems because they are so entrenched, and the system has beaten it down from people to prevent them from talking, to prevent them from raising these issues, and to prevent people from actually solving and addressing these issues in any ways. There is a set of new startups that are really interested in pushing things forward, and there are companies that are trying, but the traditional ways of solving these problems has been very much to stifle them. Not to say that that is not happening in these other industries, but tech in particular has portrayed itself as this meritocracy where you succeed on your merit, and this idea of it not being a meritocracy has been very hard to shake.
So it might be this culture of positivity, or this meritocracy might be part of the slow pace of tech in terms of how much is coming out?
Yeah, I also think there have been a lot of people who have come out and been punished for it, where you saw people like Kelly Ellis, like Amélie Lamont, like Erica Joy Baker, myself. We spoke about different problems in tech. Many of us spoke about gender discrimination. Many people spoke about being harassed and nothing came out of it. I think this year, as you mentioned, is a watershed moment because we had people speaking up and being listened to and believed, but there hasn’t been a real reckoning when it comes to solutions.
What was different this year, though? Like when Susan Fowler, the ex–Uber engineer, a white woman, who didn’t press charges, came out with her account of Uber’s workplace culture, what made the reception a bit different?
There was a convergence of different things. I think Gretchen Carlson speaking up and being able to take down people at Fox News made a big difference. I think the reputation of Uber as being not trustworthy and being a bad actor made it easier to attack them. I think all of these women who have spoken up time and time again made a difference. And I also think people were starting to have conversations privately as well. So there was a receptivity to the issue and there was an understanding that perhaps tech really isn’t the meritocracy that we have talked about for so long. And Susan did a very good job of writing a very impactful piece.
Since Google started sharing diversity data in 2014, the company’s percentage of black employees in technical roles has not really improved much at all. It was 1 percent in 2014. It’s 1 percent now. The percentage of female technical staff went up from 18 percent in 2015 to 20 percent this year. The dial just has not moved that much, and yet Google has invested well over $200 million in its diversity and unconscious-bias training efforts. Why is this problem so persistent? Are these programs happening in bad faith?
I think they’re happening too late. When you start your company and you haven’t thought about these issues and you have set it up a certain way, it ends up becoming extremely difficult to change. I think, originally, many companies had almost an admissions committee, where they looked at it as if they were people applying to graduate school and they looked at the grades and they looked at schools they went to and it became a very elitist and homogeneous set of people who were accepted. And then because that worked for them, they would bring in more of their friends, or they would bring in more people that looked like them and it became systematic. And when those companies like Facebook, like Google became successful, people thought that that was the pattern and also that their systems were the ones to copy, so you ended up with all these companies following this admissions-committee format and structure and hiring all the same types of people.
Do you think one of the reasons why their diversity initiatives have not worked is because they didn’t want to cede their own power?
I think it must be part of it. I spoke with a CEO recently who told me one of his board members said, “You have four white men on your board. You need to bring some diversity to the board.” And I told the CEO, “Well, is he going to step down, then?” Like what is he saying? Oh. You have too many white people, but he is one of the problems, so I do think that people aren’t thinking about the real problems, which require people to step down or people to make room, or really changing the way decisions are made and how the work happens in order to bring in more voices and more backgrounds.
It seems like you do not think this problem is intractable because of the work that you’re doing now. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I see a lot of people that give me a lot of hope. With Project Include and with the work at the Kapor Center, I get to spend a lot of time with early startups and their founders and their CEOs. What I’m seeing in this next generation of leaders is this understanding—either because they are coming from diverse backgrounds or because they see the writing on the wall—that the world is changing, the workforce is changing, and if I want to be a company that succeeds in the next 20 years, I need to make sure that I am building a company that is welcoming and inclusive of people from all backgrounds because that’s what the workforce is going to look like or because they think that it’s the right thing to do, which it is, or because they understand that if I don’t have these different voices in my company, I can’t hire the best people and I can’t build the best product and I can’t sell to as many consumers. There is this new generation of leaders that has a very different perspective, and I also see that when I talk to students.
When I tell the stories of my experiences and of what has happened to other people, they’re shocked. It is not something that is in their set of experiences. It is not something that they think is normal. One of the stories I told at Berkeley was about interviewing a VP of engineering candidate and during the interview, I asked him “What do you think about diversity? And diversity on your team?” And he said, “I really believe in diversity. I think it is so important and that’s why I’m willing to lower the bar to bring in people from diverse backgrounds.” And the whole room gasped. I mean obviously Berkeley has a much more progressive perspective, but this concept that saying something like that was so shocking when it seemed to this candidate interviewing for a VP role thought that it would have been a positive thing to say.
You left Reddit in part because you were trying to clean up terrible message boards that were saturated with things like revenge porn, and you yourself experienced a torrent of abuse on the platform while you were the CEO. I’m curious what you think about Reddit shuttering more of its message boards as well as the wave of other tech companies following through with their user agreements that prohibit hate speech, like Google kicking off the Daily Stormer, which was the website that organized the deadly Charlottesville white nationalist and neo-Nazi rally in August.* Was this too little too late? Because you saw these hateful communities that were incubating for years online way earlier.
Yeah, I do think it’s too little too late. I think the cultures of these companies are not oriented toward this problem. It’s always been this heavy free-speech rationale for letting anything go on the site, and when you do that you don’t build in the technology to try to track harassment, you don’t build in the teams that you need to develop the experience as the internet evolves to be able to address new ways of harassing people online. So I think, to me, the biggest issue was where do I land in the balance between users being harassed and people being able to say whatever they want, and I came down on “Hey, we can’t let users be harassed.” I think people eventually learn that lesson.
If you see Ev Williams, he recently gave an interview in the New York Times where he said, We didn’t realize the internet could be used in this way and we need to address these issues. And at Reddit, I think when I stepped down, they allowed some subreddits to continue that I would have not allowed and that ended up getting a lot of that negative element back onto the site that we had just spent so much time getting rid of. You have got to be willing to withstand this torrent of negative activity in order to get it out now and that is really hard to do, so you kind of chip away at the edges. But there is work that you need to do to get rid of that core element of harassment and that’s not easy.
It’s interesting when people say they didn’t see it coming. What is the connection between digital platforms that have created homes and safe places for hateful communities and the lack of diversity in tech? Is there a connection there?
If you are part of a core homogeneous set of people in power, you don’t experience harassment the same way that women do, the same way that people of color do, and certainly not the same way that women of color do or people who are LGBTQA or people who have disabilities. All these people who are not part of that traditional establishment experience the internet in ways that are extremely toxic, so I do think these people who started these companies, started these platforms, and hired their friends and created these very homogeneous companies are not seeing everything that is happening on their site or they don’t want to. And now they’re starting to see it because it is such a big problem and it has become really hard to manage.
A question about the hope for the future. If it is in new startups or new founders that have a different set of priorities than the incumbents, it seems like they are entering into a rather anti-competitive market. It’s hard for people to succeed who aren’t already successful. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I see new industries coming up in tech all the time. Like bitcoin didn’t exist several years ago and now you see it’s this huge industry, the value of bitcoin is tremendous right now and you can see that these new companies are going to be successful and they’re all less than a decade old, so there are these new opportunities that come up. How do we fund them today and give people from diverse backgrounds opportunities to participate in the next wave of the new companies and new industries?
I think that, yes, there are these big companies that have taken huge swaths of opportunity out of the realm of possibility of being successful. Starting a search engine today would be a very hard business to overtake Google, but if you are looking at these new areas that are constantly coming up, there are opportunities, and I do see there being this constant change in tech and these cycles in tech that allow people to succeed. We just have to make sure that we give everybody opportunities to succeed and aren’t concentrating the opportunities in specific demographics.
What do you think would have happened if your story occurred just a few years later? Do you think it would have been taken more seriously today?
I think it would have been taken more seriously today, but I do not know that we would be where we are today without it. I think there are just so many people who are talking about things that they wouldn’t have talked about if I and all these other women hadn’t come forward at different times, and also men. So I don’t know. Unfortunately, I sued when I did and we are where we are, but I think the whole experience has been very positive to me because I heard so many people who have been encouraged to tell their own stories and share their own experiences and who continue to push the discussions forward, and I think that if we can’t push these discussions forward, then we can’t learn from them. But I think this next wave is, “What are we actually going to do about it?” Now we understand it’s not a fair environment. There is a lot of harassment. There is a lot of bias. People aren’t getting opportunities. What changes are we going to make to make sure that we do not continue on this path for the next 10 years?
*Correction, Dec. 9, 2017: This article original described CloudFlare as one of the companies that severed ties with the Daily Stormer because it violated the firm's user agreement prohibiting hate speech. Actually, while CloudFlare did kick off the Daily Stormer, its user agreement doesn't prohibit hate speech. (Return.)