A Year After the Ellen Pao Verdict, Tech Still Gets Diversity Wrong
Just over a year ago, I was peering through a window into a San Francisco courtroom, waiting to be allowed inside. I’d been covering the Ellen Pao sex bias trial for five weeks, filing from the courtroom daily. Now the trial was over, and the world was awaiting the verdict. My thoughts on what I felt the outcome should be remained muddled, but time didn’t wait for me. By mid-afternoon, the verdict was out.
A jury of six men and six women denied each of the four claims Pao brought against her former employer, the storied Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Pao, who had been a junior partner there, sued in 2012, claiming she was denied promotions because of her gender and was terminated for complaining. She also alleged that a fellow junior partner persuaded her to have an affair with him, then retaliated against her after they broke up.
Kleiner Perkins denied the accusations and claimed Pao simply lacked the skills to succeed. Gender, the firm said, was never an issue.
The trial became an obsession in Silicon Valley. Some of the fascination was prurient. The testimony offered a rare glimpse into the secretive and buttoned-up world of venture capital, the pinnacle of Silicon Valley high life. The evidence jurors had to parse for bias included suggestive conversations in a private jet, text messages from an illicit affair, and offer letters detailing salaries well into six-figures. Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, Al Gore and Gwenyth Paltrow, “hot” female executives, and the Playboy mansion figured into tales told from the stand.
But the case also riveted people because it prompted a conversation about the complicated dynamics of the workplace—who is privileged, how those people wield power, and who loses in such situations. Some of the testimony described situations and interactions all too familiar to women: a senior male colleague calling a female coworker “a bit too opinionated.” Women being asked to do administrative tasks like note-taking during a meeting, or being asked to sit in the back row. The trial shed light on the double standards women consistently face at work, including assertions that Pao “raised her voice” yet “could not own a room.”
As the trial unfolded, it became impossible to avoid these issues. Most people in the VC community hesitated to take sides—Kleiner Perkins clearly wasn’t blameless, but it wasn’t clear that Pao deserved compensatory damages, either. But people did, I remember, have the energy and the eagerness to engage in nuanced conversations about workplace diversity. Those conversations went well beyond demographics into the subtle ways bias afflicts everyday interactions.
In the year since the verdict came down, those discussions have quieted. Though tech companies have trumpeted sweeping policy announcements to show they’ve made progress, what seems to be missing are the harder conversations about bias—the day to day, on the ground stuff at work that involves real people. That’s a problem. The end of the Pao trial shouldn’t have marked an end to those conversations. It should have marked a beginning.
The Very Short History of Diversity in Silicon Valley
For years, Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies stonewalled questions about the diversity of their workforces, even as the press and activists urged them to be more transparent. Some companies actively blocked Freedom of Information requests, arguing that releasing workforce data—even data provided to the government by law—could cause “competitive harm.” To be fair, some quietly worked behind the scenes to improve diversity, organizing workshops, hosting hackathons to attract women and minorities, and extending maternity leave. But publicly, companies didn’t seem to want anyone to know just how deep their diversity problems ran.
Then in 2013, a Pinterest coder named Tracy Chou uploaded a spreadsheet revealing the number of female engineers there—just 11 out of 89, or 12 percent. A few months later, in May 2014, Rev. Jesse Jackson attended Google’s annual shareholder meeting and asked the company to release its diversity statistics. It did. Other companies, including Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple, followed suit. The numbers were not encouraging: Women comprised an average of about 30 percent of the workforce. Nationwide, women comprise 47 percent of the workforce, 51 percent of the population, and 55 percent of all college students.
But that launched a new era of transparency. One year later, the companies released updated reports that showed the demographics had barely budged. Companies began hiring heads of diversity with an eye toward improving the situation. They got vocal about enhanced parental leave benefits. And they instituted bias-mitigating programs like the Rooney Rule, which comes from the NFL and requires that at least one member of a minority background be interviewed for an open executive-level position.
Companies proudly hailed most of these developments. Some critics argued this did little more than let companies enjoy the best of two worlds: scoring points for appearing to embrace change without actually changing the white, male-dominated power structure. Companies responded that diversity takes time.
All the while, these highly publicized measures obscured the conversation about everyday bias in the workplace. If these conversations were happening, they were behind closed doors or whispered among colleagues in more casual settings—after you knew you could trust your coworker.
This was the landscape upon which the Pao trial erupted. At the time, many predicted it would be a landmark, a catalyst. After losing the case, Pao remained hopeful that it would help change the conversation. But women in the business of finding and funding startups—the people closest to the very issues the Pao trial raised—aren’t necessarily sure it did.
“I don’t think you can really point to that particular trial and say, ‘Wow, there’s been a trajectory in a completely different direction,’” says angel investor Joanne Wilson. But Pao still deserves tremendous credit, she says. “[Filing that lawsuit] took a lot of balls. There’s no doubt there’s a long-tail reaction to what she did.”
Maha Ibrahim, a general partner at the Silicon Valley VC firm Canaan, agrees that the trial contributed to increased awareness about diversity issues at the time, but says it was merely part of a broader trend that has since tapered off. “It was such a subject of conversation, and it just has died,” Ibrahim says.
Nowadays, she says, conversations revolve around getting more women into professional investing positions, and encouraging more women to become CEOs and founders of tech companies. “There are more female founders, female VCs, female angels, and female-focused investing groups that have popped up in the past 24 months than I remember there ever being before.” Empowering, yes, but it also risks segregating women.
Meanwhile, Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at VC firm Kapor Capital, says the trial marked a “seismic shift” in the diversity conversation. “People were more riveted in terms of following the trial on a daily basis in a way I have not seen since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings,” she says, referring to the Supreme Court nominee hearings of 1991. “I think what happened is that many powerful, Caucasian, male people in tech who considered themselves liberal and enlightened thought, ‘Holy crap, I could have been that guy [on the stand].’”
Klein, who in 1976 cofounded the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, the nation’s first organization focused on addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, says that in the year since the Pao trial, she’s seen a scramble to appear to be on the right side of the issue. “There’s been a kind of pop-up, overnight, diversity expert industry. It’s quite stunning,” she says. “I’m getting so many inquiries from people on a weekly basis … and while some may be well-intentioned, they may not be equipped to take on a very deep and nuanced and long-standing set of issues.”
The Way Forward
So how should people remember the Pao-Kleiner trial? I don’t think there’s one clear, correct answer. But as someone who covered the case closely, I can attest that not many people talk about it anymore. It doesn’t feel like an omission, or an oversight. It feels like people are almost actively trying not to talk about it, actively trying to put it behind them.
Frankly, I can relate. The trial was one of my first big assignments for WIRED, and an intense experience. But after the trial, I was concerned I’d be pigeonholed as WIRED’s “diversity reporter,” a label I worried might stick given that I am a member of an underrepresented group myself. I’m a woman, Asian, and an immigrant—and clearly in the minority looking at the composition of WIRED’s staff.
Research shows I’m not alone in thinking I should distance myself from diversity-related issues in order to appear more capable at my job. I imagine it’s a feeling shared by the dozens of women in venture capital and in tech I’ve interviewed when writing about diversity. Some seem to fear retribution. Others don’t want to become a go-to “diversity expert” for the media, or worry that speaking out might distract from their entrepreneurial work. A handful denied ever experiencing sexism at all, and said it wasn’t an issue. But there’s an unfortunate flip side to that reaction: The research also shows that those same people may align themselves with those in power at the expense of those who are facing discrimination. That distancing could actually be hindering progress.
Of course, it’s incredibly important to keep diversity issues at the forefront of everyone’s awareness, especially in an election year driven largely by divisiveness. It’s not just women’s issues that matter either; there’s race, intersectionality, and income inequality to consider, among other matters. These are all important issues.
But something that may be worth returning to is what happened during the Pao trial one year ago: all those conversations about the subtle biases that seep into people’s behaviors in the workplace. After all, those are the day-to-day injuries that, in aggregate, cause women and minorities to leave. And this isn’t confined to the tech sector. It happens everywhere traditional power structures are firmly in place—so much of America.