Ellen Pao Discusses Sex Discrimination, Silicon Valley's Culture In New Memoir : All Tech Considered The tech investor dives into the lawsuit that thrust her into the national spotlight and the workplace conditions that prompted it. She says firms are largely applying "tepid diversity solutions."
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Silicon Valley's Ellen Pao Tackles Sex Discrimination, Workplace Diversity In Memoir

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Silicon Valley's Ellen Pao Tackles Sex Discrimination, Workplace Diversity In Memoir

Silicon Valley's Ellen Pao Tackles Sex Discrimination, Workplace Diversity In Memoir

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When three former employees filed a class-action lawsuit last week against Google alleging discrimination against women, it opened the latest chapter in what's become a running story featuring accusations of sexism in the tech industry. Uber is still reeling from a sexual harassment scandal that helped force out its CEO, and it is into this climate that Ellen Pao launches her new memoir. Pao, you may recall, was the central character in a 2015 trial that riveted Silicon Valley. For years she'd worked at the venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins, except she found it hard to get her work done because...

ELLEN PAO: I wasn't being invited to meetings. I wasn't being included on email threads. I wasn't invited to the all-male ski trip, and eventually I realized that was happening to other women in terms of opportunities. It made me realize that there was a much bigger problem, and the problem wasn't with me.

KELLY: So Pao sued. She accused her bosses of sex discrimination. She lost, but the case continues to reverberate in Silicon Valley and beyond. Her book about the experience is called "Reset," and I asked Pao to tell me about one particular episode.

You were on a corporate jet with clients, and there's this whole etiquette to who sits where and you decided, what the heck, I'm going to take the power seat. What happened?

PAO: I didn't - I took, like, the fourth-most powerful seat. So I wasn't taking the most powerful seat. But there was a conversation, and it was very inappropriate for the workplace and made me uncomfortable. They talked about porn stars, they talked about, you know, women in a way that was very objectifying, and, you know, shows that were about people competing in sex acts to get a movie. It was a very male conversation.

KELLY: It was all men other than you on this plane?

PAO: It was all men other than me, all white men, other than me.

KELLY: Did it go through your mind I should say something, I should speak up?

PAO: I was just wondering, like, how much longer on this flight?

KELLY: How do I get out of here?

PAO: There's nothing I can say to stop this, and let me just try to get out of here as soon as possible.

KELLY: What was the tipping point that led you to decide not only am I not putting up with this anymore but I'm going to sue?

PAO: I got to a point where I had tried every internal avenue. Like, I had written a formal complaint that I had given to all the managing partners and the chief operating officer. I had brought up these issues one on one with each of the people that I thought could have an impact. I had, you know, tried to rally some other women to raise issues, and it was a dead end at every point. And not only that, but people didn't seem to really feel like that was a problem. They didn't seem to be listening at all. And when I saw what was happening to other women within the firm, I thought, this behavior is really not fair and it's not appropriate and it's got to end.

KELLY: So let me fast-forward to your decision to sue. You sought $16 million in lost wages. It went to trial. Did you get support from colleagues, female or otherwise?

PAO: At one point it became too hard for anybody to support me. They really closed ranks. And, yeah, I understand, like, this is your job, this is your career and this is a very powerful firm. What is the upside to trying to help?

KELLY: If you were treated so badly in the job, why stay there so long? You were at Kleiner Perkins for seven years.

PAO: I felt really lucky to be able to work with entrepreneurs. In tech there's been such a change in the last 10, 15 years in all the technology that brings you, you know, all of these apps on the phone. That's all new, and that all started, you know, while I was at Kleiner Perkins.

KELLY: So you loved the work.

PAO: Yeah. I love the work. I love working with entrepreneurs. I loved helping bring companies and products and services to market and watching, you know, entrepreneurs develop into these amazing CEOs who are running these bigger and better teams and building these amazing products that were changing people's lives. I mean, it was, you know, it's that - that 50 percent of the job made up for the other 50 percent.

KELLY: Well, let me ask you how you measure what has changed. Do you think starting a tech company, running one, funding one is - is that any less of a man's game than it was, say, five years ago?

PAO: That's a really good question because I don't think it is. I think the same people are still running things. The same people are still making the same decisions. I think they're starting to understand that that is not working for the majority of people. But when I look at what companies are doing today, most of them have these tepid diversity solutions. It's PR-oriented, and it's not really changing how they're actually operating whether their culture is inclusive or not.

KELLY: Barring discrimination that would be outright illegal, of course, if - if venture capital firms, if tech companies are making money, which is their goal, why should they change? And they're making plenty of money, as you know.

PAO: Yeah. And I think the most important reason is that you have this moral obligation to take these huge opportunities you have of making millionaires and billionaires and allocating them fairly across the population to the people who are qualified and equally willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears to help your company succeed. I think the other reasons are we've seen that companies that don't have diverse teams end up building products that aren't great for the whole population, and there's bias built into the product. And finally, we've seen that there's, like, research upon research upon research that shows that when you have a diverse team you actually have better financial performance, you make better decisions, you're able to attract a more diverse team going forward. People aren't going to come to companies now that have a completely homogenous team.

KELLY: You describe yourself in the book as a total introvert, as someone who freely likes to keep your private life private. What have you learned from being out there in the middle of this circus the last five years?

PAO: I still don't like it. (Laughter). I think I've learned that I am very much an introvert, and it's really not comfortable.

KELLY: Post-book tour, you're - that's it. You're done.

PAO: Yeah. All the reasons that I have never wanted to be a CEO and all the reasons I've never wanted the spotlight remain true. And for me this is kind of an indication of how important I think this issue is, how important it is to change this industry, that I'm out here and talking about it and, you know, putting myself out there.

KELLY: Ellen Pao, thank you.

PAO: Thank you.

KELLY: Ellen Pao, who sued for gender discrimination and writes about it in her new memoir, "Reset: My Fight For Inclusion And Lasting Change."

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