What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How Ellen Pao realized women ‘cannot succeed’ in Silicon Valley frat boy culture

Ellen Pao sent Silicon Valley a wake-up call about sexism in tech and finance when she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, a powerful venture capital firm. She lost her case and her personal reputation was damaged along the way, but she is still fighting for change. Pao sits down with economics correspondent Paul Solman to discuss her experience and book, "Reset.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And let's turn to a different conversation on questions of sexism, in tech, finance and Silicon Valley.

    Ellen Pao became a kind of cause celebre in 2012 after she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, the powerful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Pao had been a junior partner and claimed that her bosses didn't promote her because of her gender and retaliated against her for complaining.

    She asked for $16 million in damages in a trial, but lost. And her personal reputation was damaged along the way.

    Still, her case served as a wakeup call. She has a new book about it and the aftermath titled "Reset."

    Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, sat down with Ellen Pao, part of his weekly series, Making Sense.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Ellen Pao, welcome.

    ELLEN PAO, Author, "Reset": My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change": Thank you for having me.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    From your biography, you do not seem like the person who would sue Kleiner Perkins or, for that matter, pretty much anyone.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    It's not my nature.

    I think the lawsuit was part of a mission to call attention to this problem. So, I had tried so many other ways beforehand. I'm not doing that much press. I'm an introvert. It's hard for me. But it's like kind of now it's going to go on air and all these people, calling attention, seeing me on the street and recognizing me.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    You don't want that.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    I don't want that. It's not my personality, and it makes me uncomfortable.

    But this is a culture that has pervasive problems. And seeing the extent of it, we need to do a whole reset.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Reset is the title of Pao's book. And with its claim of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, it's become part of an increasingly polarized debate.

    Just in the last few months, charges of sexual discrimination and harassment have brought down the CEOs of Uber and the online lending startup Social Finance, spurring a backlash. A front-page article in this Sunday's New York Times featured Silicon Valley men alleging discrimination.

    Pao is a Princeton grad with degrees from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School, jobs in Silicon Valley since 1998, including a stint at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins that triggered the gender bias lawsuit.

    What was the percentage of women in venture capital when you were there?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    I believe it was about 6 percent.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And what is it now?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    I think it's gone down. I think it's gone down to maybe 5 percent. And less than 1 percent are black or Latinx.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Do you think that you were sort of suppressing feelings you were having at the time, or the sense that you were getting that there was systemic discrimination against you as a woman, perhaps you as a minority

  • ELLEN PAO:

    There are a lot of — like 1,000 cuts in little small things that would make it very hard for a woman to be successful.

    So, women were asked to take notes at meetings, and men were not. Women were asked to baby-sit. Women were asked to do some of the menial tasks of organizing events and planning conferences that the men were not.

    So, when it came time to invest, which was the work that you would get recognized and promoted for…

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And compensated for.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    … and compensated for, it was much harder for a woman to be taken seriously and was harder to get investments through and was harder to be successful.

    And it was also possible for men to take away investments that women were working on if they looked good, and to dump investments that weren't doing so well on the women when they didn't want to work on them anymore.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Now, this sounded strikingly familiar.

    Listen to Maureen Sherry describing Wall Street gender bias when she was a trader.

  • MAUREEN SHERRY, Former Managing Director, Bear Stearns:

    Accounts not being given equitably, that is really one way, or an account being taken away when you felt it wasn't something that you deserved.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And the atmosphere wasn't exactly congenial for a woman.

  • MAUREEN SHERRY:

    When I had come back from my maternity leave, I was still nursing and kept a breast pump under my desk.

    One trader would notice, and he would start making a mooing sound, and sometimes other herd members would join in.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Actually mooing?

  • MAUREEN SHERRY:

    Yes, mooing.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Her problem, Pao claims, is that the young men went West.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    That boy culture came in around 2008, when people stopped going to Wall Street and the people who wanted to make big money fast wanted to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. And they all came out to Silicon Valley instead.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So you are at Kleiner Perkins. You are making a lot of money there, right?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Yes, more than I could spend.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So, what is happening there that is upsetting you?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    I was getting blocked. I wasn't being invited to meetings.

    One of the women at the firm also actually mapped out investments for the women and investments for the men, and showed that the women's investments were doing significantly better. We have more experience. We have more education on average. And we're not getting promoted. And, as a group, most of the men got promoted.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And you weren't getting promoted because?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Because we were women. And there was some kind of belief that the men were better, despite all the results and the record.

    SALLIE KRAWCHECK, CEO and Co-Founder, Ellevest: There is actually research that shows that women are better investors, that they are more risk-aware.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But despite that, says former banker Sallie Krawcheck, who now runs a mutual fund invests in female-focused firms, men are better self-promoters.

  • SALLIE KRAWCHECK:

    If it were just about intelligence or effort, we would have much more diverse teams. My experience has been that the gentlemen are more likely to come and ask for the promotion, and that the women are less likely to do so.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    They were more assertive, and they did things exactly the right way, while we were, you know, too aggressive or not aggressive enough, to loud or too quiet or we were too competitive, we weren't team players.

    And, you know, this was an endless slew of impossible things to fulfill.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    When you confronted that reality, did you think, I am in the wrong place, this is the wrong world for me?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    I actually tried to quit in 2007. I said, this culture is not — you know, it's not my culture. And they told me they wanted to change their culture, that the things that I was bringing up were things that they didn't want to be.

    It wasn't until I really saw, like, I cannot succeed, or any other women in the firm, that was really the catalyst for me litigating.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So, you felt it was your duty to sue?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Yes, I would say that. I felt, if I didn't do it, then who would do it? So, I sued for sexual discrimination and retaliation.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So what happened?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Oh, you're going to take me to the dark days.

    They hired a crisis communications firm that launched a campaign around, you know, that I was a poor performer, that my case had no merit.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    That you don't get along well with other people.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Right.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And the verdict?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    I lost on both counts.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Why?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    I think people weren't ready to believe that tech was this really biased and unfair culture.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Or that Pao, who had turned down a million-dollar settlement offer, had been unfairly treated.

    Taking the role of devil's advocate, I asked if she could have played along, and, if so, how.

    Would you have become more of a sports buff? It sounds ridiculous, and yet…

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Yes, but those were the things that I would have had to do. It was to become one of the guys.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Yes, but if — I'm thinking of myself now as one of these guys, OK?

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Yes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Much younger, sort of not reflective, making a lot of money. And if you are there, and are you not playing along, you are making me a little uncomfortable, maybe.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Well, I think if playing along means participating in sexist and racist jokes, that expectation has to change.

    It can't be on the women to — or, you know, the people of color or the older people to try to make everything better. And I think, now that, you know, this year, with all these people coming out, and with the press and the public being so much more receptive to their stories and being able to take them at face value, instead of going through the same process I went through, where, oh, you are not a perfect victim, oh, you are kind of crazy, oh, you are a fraud, oh, you shouldn't have done this, oh, why did you do that, like, all of that has kind of dissipated, as people see, wow, this is a huge problem.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Ellen Pao, thank you very much.

  • ELLEN PAO:

    Thank you for having me.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest