Ellen Pao, Susan Fowler, Tracy Chou and reasons to hope
I’ve borderline obsessed about the Ellen Pao trial as I’ve watched the bloody bro summer of 2017 unfurl.
What seemed so unsatisfying as the great gender lawsuit in Silicon Valley history years ago, now seems like a tectonic shift in hindsight. The “Anita Hill moment” as so many have said. The time that women were first challenged to think they didn’t have to accept all the things that we think of as an ordinary part of our working lives.
I didn’t cover the Ellen Pao trial personally - although Pando's Dan Raile did - so I can’t say how much of her full account played out in that courtroom. She acknowledges her lawyers even advised she not rebut clear factual inaccuracies lest she look like the argumentative woman they were trying to portray to the jury. I read the excerpt last night— particularly the part where she had a miscarriage in the midst of the intense stress and organized smear campaign— and wept in the middle of the San Francisco airport.
As told in her words, and as we read them in 2017, in a Trump-era, in a summer where venture capitalists are losing their careers for doing things that Ajit Nazre apparently did to Pao and Trae Vassallo, these simply can no longer be seen as “micro-indignities.” And that’s to say nothing of the jaw-dropping enablement by the other partners at the firm, and tightrope women had to walk at that firm.
Which leads me to a piece I’ve been wanting to write for a few weeks: Why I have tremendous hope for the future of inclusion in the Valley, despite the daily drum beat of depressing news and revelations that we all know are barely scratching the surface of what’s out there.
Don’t think I’m some Pollyanna: No one has decried the toxic masculinity of the unicorn bro culture more than me. The fact that the same people who called me different synonyms for “hysterical” years ago or even banned me from events for my criticism are completely in lock-step agreement now, shows how much more egregiously bro and toxic the tech world has become.
Whether it’s Aaron Persky hiring Trump operatives to get him out of that pesky recall; James Damore coming up with the latest tone deaf, brain dead and inaccurate comparison between himself as a well-paid white man at Google and an oppressed people; Uber stealing a rape victim’s health records to discredit her, Justin Caldbeck serially sexually harassing women and Lightspeed giving him a positive recommendation when he went to raise his fund nonetheless, white men in power aren’t having a great summer.
And trust me: For every woman coming forward, there are hundreds (if not more) examples of the same toxicity lurking in the shadows. The support for Travis Kalanick inside Uber and support for James Damore inside Google (and at Y-Combinator) has clearly showed us that.
And yet, compared to a lot of women in the Valley, I’m optimistic about the future. While only 10% of folks in the industry polled by CB Insights believe this summer has changed anything in tech when it comes to diversity, I’m firmly in that group. It never looks like dramatic social change has happened when it actually has.
Consider how the excerpt in New York Magazine opens: With Ellen Pao emboldened by Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to change her future by taking a seat at the table. Pao details — via an embarrassing discussion about porn stars and comments about whether or not to add Marissa Mayer to the board because she’s “hot”— that seating arrangements alone aren’t the answer.
This seems so obvious today with all we know about sexual harassment in the venture industry and how it uncomfortably seems to be mostly women of color who are the ones brave enough to come forward. Even Sandberg herself has said that "Lean In" underestimated the plight of single mothers and women who didn’t have quite as comfortable of a life as she did.
And yet, it’s worth noting: At the time Sandberg’s book was revolutionary. I read it while pregnant with my daughter. It was the first time in decades of covering this industry I had read a woman on top of her game — on top of the tech industry— talking about thinks like pumping milk during meetings, the mundanity of laundry, and openly acknowledging that she was a woman and that sexism existed.
My daughter is only four now. In that scant time, Sandberg now looks like she’s from another era. The idea that all you do is sit at a table and you can eradicate the unfair boundaries that hold you back? The idea that simply marrying a guy who is ok doing laundry is the solution to the serious gender divisions in this country? The idea that gender and race can be tackled separately, not together as one issue with greater numbers and all too many common threads?
So-called “careerism feminism” seems old-fashioned. Like something from the 1950s.
What gives me hope is that the “Lean In” philosophy— radical by Valley standards a few years ago— is not acceptable today, not only for women like Pao, but also for a world of millennial women. We’ve read a million articles about how millennials don’t get having to “pay their dues” the way our generation did. They want flex time, great salaries, great vacations, social meaning for every dollar they spend, and all the avocado toast and they want it in their 20s.
When it comes to gender, that so-called “millennial entitlement” is the entire nation’s gain.
Consider 29-year-old Tracy Chou, one of MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators under 35.”
While a software engineer at Pinterest, Chou wrote a Medium post demanding data, that played a large part in the largest of the large tech companies being forced to disclose diversity data. She went to a talk by Sandberg. She wondered about the data. She wrote a Medium post. And this happened:
Within a few weeks, Chou had data on more than 50 companies (the repository now has numbers for hundreds), and by the summer of 2014, a host of the Valley’s most powerful companies had released demographic reports on their workforces. The numbers were dismal—in general, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of workers in technology positions were women, and one study found that 45 percent of Silicon Valley companies didn’t have a single female executive. But at least the data now existed.
Meanwhile she was still doing her job at Pinterest, and suddenly becoming a must-get at speaking gigs and panels throughout the industry. She helped start Project Include with Ellen Pao and is a hero to a lot of young women, gracing magazine covers for her activism which she considers only a side-hobby to her main job writing software.
Consider Susan Fowler, who last week graced Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list, also in her 20s. Going farther than just asking for the data, Fowler exposed from the inside just how toxic Uber was. The way she wrote her post, the unassuming name given to it, the details and paper trail she had before writing it… the fact that her piece tied together so many things women had experienced in the Valley and so seemed relatable, but also seemed like a jaw-dropping amount of bias to experience at one company in one year.
For many months, it looked like she would get no justice. Fortunately, Uber was just as reckless in other aspects of its business as it was in how it treated women, and the mounting pressure of collective scandals along with an investigation sparked by Fowler’s post eventually brought down Travis Kalanick— the single most untouchable person at that moment in Silicon Valley.
Fowler suffered for her choice to come forward— as Pao did too. There is a reason more women don’t do this. Per her Twitter account, Fowler has detailed ugly oppo-research attempts she believes are from Uber, which the company has denied, but it’s been found in court to have done these things before, and threatened them against me. As someone who has been in that company’s crosshairs, I can tell you it isn’t glamorous or fun. It’s horrific.
But what’s so heartening about the acclaim that women like Pao are getting for being “our Anita Hill” and seeing how coming forward to tell the truth about gender and ask the hard questions has accelerated the careers of people like Fowler and Chou and so many other women who have come forward this summer, is that it hopefully encourages more women to do the same. Susan Fowler was mentioned in an Inc headline along with Taylor Swift last week for her courage to speak up. You don’t get that recognition paying your dues and accepting micro-indignities as your reality. The millennial entitlement is catching.
For the first time since I’ve covered the industry and presumably longer, men are mentally dredging through their own past, terrified that they may have exploited a power imbalance and there may be a paper trail. A dozen women I know have had the awkward, “Uh…. just checking in to see if you are OK….” calls. None of them -- and none of the women they’ve harassed-- thought even for a moment that a male VC could get fired, let alone a fund be shuttered, for propositioning women. And now, as a result of women like Susan Ho, Sarah Kunst, Niniane Wang, Leiti Hsu, Susan Wu, Gesche Haas, Wendy Dent, Cheryl Yeoh, and more who’ve come forward this summer to tell their stories, there is a proposed bill in the California Senate that would explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the venture industry.
Winning matters too, so it’s also important that Stitch Fix— a company that Lightspeed had to give up ownership in because of Justin Caldbeck’s harassment of its founder— is poised to become one of the largest commerce IPOs in recent history.
This radically new reality-- in an industry with an individualistic, cowboy mentality-- will have a slow burn effect of change. As I’ve said a few times, reams of data showing that gender and racial inclusion benefits investments and companies hasn’t appealed to people’s greed. Perhaps, this summer will appeal to their fear. And it takes the courage of women to create that fear. That hurdle of coming forward is a lot easier when the women who do are getting more opportunities as a result, are being lauded as heros, not being treated as Pao was by much of the Valley establishment during her trial.
It is unfathomable to me still that she had the courage to do this in an era where even senior women in tech were so trapped in a cycle of benevolent sexism that they didn’t support her, they were annoyed she was rocking the boat. Suing a venture firm was a thing not even powerful men did. Even this summer, we haven’t seen lawsuits, in part because some women are bound by arbitration rules and can’t sue.
Pao acknowledges this in her piece when she writes:
Kleiner’s managing partners flouted hiring rules, too, asking inappropriate questions in interviews like: Are you married? Do you have kids? How old are you? Are you thinking about having kids? What does your husband do? What did your ex-husband do? It was noted at some point that such questions created a giant legal risk, and the response was, effectively, Well, who’s going to sue us?
Indeed, that is what has obsessed me about this trial. How did she get to that point? The point of doing something that Kleiner didn’t even worry about, because it was so unthinkable that anyone— especially a woman given a golden ticket to work there— do.
Reading her piece, I felt like I got the answer for the first time.