Ellen Pao’s Advice for Women in Tech: Toughen Up and Speak Out

November 10, 2015, 5:42 PM UTC
Closing Arguments Made In The Discrimination Case Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLC
Ellen Pao, former junior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, exits state court in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. After two days of closing arguments, a month of finger-pointing testimony from both sides, the day of reckoning for the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has finally come in the sex-bias trial that has gripped Silicon Valley. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ellen Pao, the ex-VC and former interim CEO of Reddit, is back with a new essay about sexism in Silicon Valley. The piece appeared Tuesday morning in Lenny Letter, the newsletter created by Girls’ Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.

Pao, who has become the most recognizable face of tech’s diversity problem, has been keeping a low profile since September, when she announced that she would not appeal the verdict in her unsuccessful discrimination suit against her former employer, VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In July, she stepped down as interim CEO of Reddit, after sparking a firestorm by firing a well-liked employee of the social media company.

In the Lenny essay, Pao writes about the discrimination she’s seen and experienced, first in the world of law…

But after a while, we were all treading water, just trying to get by as our ranks thinned and progress got harder. We were wondering, Is it just me? Am I really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikable? Are my elbows too sharp? Am I not promoting myself enough? Am I not funny enough? Am I not working hard enough? Do I belong?

…then working as venture capitalist in Silicon Valley:

It was hard to be a chill girl and bypass the obstacles facing the few women working in venture capital. Most VC firms had, at most, one woman on the investing team, and she sat at the bottom of the hierarchy. Key industry events had all-male or mostly male teams — and I soon realized these institutions were using the same methods to build management teams and boards of directors and to invest in co-founders who are the next generation of wealth, power, and leadership.

Nevertheless, Pao concludes that women and minorities have made “meaningful progress” over the past 20 or so years. She credits those advances to the increase in available data—such as companies employee diversity reports—as well as people’s willingness to share their experiences and to hold others publicly accountable for their thoughtless remarks.

Her advice to women toughing it out in male dominated fields? Have a thick skin and speak out about discrimination and harassment.

For now, what I’d tell any woman struggling in a male-dominated work culture is: do not give up. You are not alone. There are millions of women and men who are supporting you and want you to succeed. Many people will try to blame you — for some, it’s just too hard to acknowledge their own failings and the failings of our system. That’s on them, not on you.

For those who are curious about Pao’s next act, the final line of her Lenny bio holds a tantalizing clue: “She is contemplating writing a book.”


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