The Pao effect: How Ellen Pao made Silicon Valley face up to gender discrimination

12 May 2017

Image: Ellen Pao

Ellen Pao talks about her journey from reluctant poster child for one of Silicon Valley’s most insidious issues to a powerful advocate for change.

Tech’s diversity problems are now widely recognised and reported on, even internally at many major companies. Gender balance is just one of the failings that has resulted in us being led into the future by a largely homogeneous workforce. We don’t just need more women in tech, we need more people of colour, more working-class people, more people with disabilities, more people speaking minority languages, more people of differing intellectual ability.

There are so many aspects of humanity that need to be included if we want to build a bright technological future, because robots, artificial intelligence and social platforms built from a narrow perspective serve only a limited (if large) user base. A ‘tech for most’ approach will sacrifice minority needs in favour of the majority, reinforcing the boundaries that keep the fringe from ever breaking into the mainstream. If we want a future of ‘tech for all’, everyone must be involved in its development.

‘I’m proud to be part of a group who has shown up, stood up and spoken up’

That’s why Ellen Pao is an exciting figurehead to have at Inspirefest, an event centred on diversity and inclusion in the sci-tech community. This summer, at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin’s Silicon Docks, will be the first time the famed investor, entrepreneur and start-up adviser will speak in Ireland.

Pao is now a founding member of Project Include and a partner at Kapor Capital. Prior to these latest positions, she was interim CEO at Reddit and, before that, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) – and that’s where Pao was thrust into a spotlight she has since used to shine on deeper issues.

Front page news

Following Pao’s story over the last five years or so has felt like a rollercoaster. At KPCB, she spent seven years helping to build start-ups as a venture capitalist and even set up the company’s China office. However, it was the gender discrimination lawsuit she filed against her employer in 2012 that captured the most headlines.

The highly publicised case carried on for three years until, in September 2015, Pao called it a day and decided not to appeal a jury decision in favour of the defendant on all counts.

As the KPCB case unfolded, Pao took up a new role as interim CEO of Reddit in November 2014, following the resignation of Yishan Wong. Pao took the helm at a difficult time for the user-generated ‘front page of the internet’, facing troubling questions on Reddit’s hosting of controversial and sometimes malicious or harmful content.

She was a harbinger of change in a vast, tight-knit community. Most notably, she banned revenge porn, unauthorised nude photos and several subreddits that were contributing to offline harassment. Groups of users rallied against her, which manifested in a barrage of vicious and sexist comments.

By July 2015, Pao had resigned from Reddit, with some observers saying she had been pushed off the notorious glass cliff.

Poster child

Through the KPCB case, the ructions at Reddit and amplification on the tech news beat, the name ‘Ellen Pao’ became shorthand for Silicon Valley’s diversity and discrimination issues. Her story even coined the term, ‘the Pao effect’, when employees at other high-profile Silicon Valley firms followed suit with their own lawsuits.

“It’s a bit disconcerting to be the poster child of such a pervasive and disturbing problem. I do hope that it has made a lasting difference,” said Pao of the unique nature of her fame.

“I’ve heard from so many people – men, women, young, old, in tech, in finance, in law, in accounting, in advertising, and more – that this problem really is pervasive across industries, beyond gender, around the world. I do think having people who speak up is helpful, and I’m proud to be part of a group who has shown up, stood up and spoken up.”

And that she did. Pao took the tumultuous turn of events in her career and turned it into Project Include, a non-profit offering practical, effective diversity and inclusion recommendations for tech start-ups.

‘People sharing their experiences and stories have finally pulled open the curtain on the bias and discrimination in tech’

Project Include’s co-founders include former Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou and Dr Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at Kapor Capital, where Pao has herself returned to the venture capital scene.

“Project Include has three principles for diversity and inclusion: it has to be inclusive of everyone (not just women), it has to be comprehensive across all activities (not just hiring) and it has to be measured (for accountability),” Pao explained.

Slow and painful

Observing from the outside, it looks like diversity has at least made it onto the agenda in Silicon Valley, due in no small part to Pao, Project Include and others’ efforts. But real, significant change will require a dramatic culture shift and, while preaching that diversity is easy, practising takes that bit more effort.

“Change has been slow, and it’s been frustrating and painful,” said Pao, before turning to more hopeful signs.

“It’s been great to see that when people have raised issues recently, the public believed them. To me, it shows that people sharing their experiences and stories have finally pulled open the curtain on the bias and discrimination in tech, and that the public understands what is happening and how prevalent it is.”

At the time of our interview, Susan Fowler’s reflections on a ‘very, very strange year at Uber’ had put gender discrimination in Silicon Valley back in the headlines, showing that the Pao effect’s ripples – and its necessity – continue to this day.

‘The entire industry needs a reset’

In the face of this seemingly reluctant crawl towards inclusive change in her industry, Pao stays positive but measured.

“I’ve spent time with many CEOs who are committed to change and are taking the right steps, so I’m encouraged about the future,” she said. “There are other CEOs, unfortunately, who refuse to acknowledge or address their internal issues or the industry problems, and I don’t know what will change their minds.”

Speak up

Top-down change isn’t always possible. Project Include hosts case studies to outline the steps to a better, more inclusive company culture. One such study centres on two women engineers at Twilio who ushered in change from the bottom up.

When I asked Pao how she would sum up the past five years of her career, she quickly turns her focus to the future and the value of those in the thick of it who continue to speak up to instigate change.

“I learned something really important. It’s crucial for people to speak up. Every single person can make a difference, and it’s been the combination of voices that has been driving change and awareness in tech. And with people sharing their stories and experiences, it’s clear that the entire industry needs a reset.”

Ellen Pao will be speaking this summer at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to get your Early Bird tickets.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.