The Bear’s Lair: The untold story of systemic gender discrimination inside UC Berkeley’s IT Department

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 23, 2018

From The Gender Wars Desk

Vanessa Kaskiris was born in Hollywood and has blond hair, but she’s not what you are probably picturing right now. Hers was a different version of the California dream.

When I first meet her, she tugs at her platinum locks and says, “This is all bleach, I’m 100% Latina.” Her grandparents were Mexican migrant workers, her grandmother working as a seamstress in downtown LA and her grandfather working on the docks, loading and unloading giant steam ships.

Her father grew up in East LA, a hardcore Catholic and ex-Marine who served in Vietnam. Her mother-- also of Mexican descent-- was more of a free-spirit, a dancer, an artist, and an opera singer, always searching for her big break.

Two life-changing things happened when Kaskiris was 11 years old. The first was her parents split up. Her mother had seen in her father the strict Mexican upbringing that part of her was nostalgic for. But ultimately they were just too different.

The second major event was when Kaskiris’s father took her and her younger brother to visit UC Berkeley. Kaskiris looked at her father and said, “I’m gonna go to Berkeley. That’s where I want to go to school.” She would spent the next eleven years working towards that goal.

“It was so messy and busy,” she remembers. “When I stood at Sather Gate, and looked out to Telegraph, I was like, ‘This is really a hub. There’s a lot of stuff going on here and there are all kinds of people and so many different kinds of people. It just feels like there’s an energy here. It’s kind of electric. And it’s school and people look happy that they’re going here.’ At the time, I didn’t even know why, I was just like, ‘I want to go here.’ Just looking out onto the campus, I felt like, ‘Yeah this is where I should be. This is where I belong.’”

It wasn’t easy. Kaskiris’s family lived in a tough neighborhood called Glassell Park. At times, in the last ten years, it’s been called the most dangerous neighborhood in East LA. “People were getting shot all the time,” she says. “We would hear gunshots. You hear pop, pop, pop, pop, pop… you know that’s a drive-by. Someone’s shooting at someone. It was like, ‘Ok, well, you don’t go to parties. You don’t socialize. You sure as hell don’t go to the local high school.’”

She was bused far from home to another school. She hated it.

Still, Kaskiris was lucky. Her younger brother was not. He’d beg to go to parties in the neighborhood, to have fun, make friends, and meet girls. Eleven years ago, he was murdered, unarmed, at a party, shot five times. “He was smarter than me and wanted to move here to go to UC Berkeley too, but he stood out too much,” she says. “You can’t do that there.”

Kaskiris moved out of her mother’s house when she graduated, worked full time, and started going to night school at Los Angeles Community College. At 22, she finally got serious about keeping that promise to her eleven-year-old self. “I’m doing it,” she said. “I’m getting out of here.”

She was accepted at Berkeley and transferred in. Vanessa Kaskiris is-- if nothing else-- a survivor.

“I made it. I’m here. I did it. I can’t believe this. I made it.”

Kaskiris would meet her husband at Berkeley. She would go on to graduate school at Berkeley, getting her Master of Information Management and Systems degree. She was an office manager for a Nobel Laureate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is affiliated with UC Berkeley. And then, later, she would work in Berkeley’s IT department.

It was while working in a group called Endpoint Engineering & Infrastructure (EEI) that UC Berkeley-- once her symbol of salvation-- ultimately broke her heart.

* * * *

“This isn’t a startup where you get treated like shit and that’s part of the equation. This isn’t a private equity firm. This is the university that I love. That I chose to work at. That’s the home of free speech, that’s supposed to be for everyone. They have to have a way to address this.”

When Kaskiris (above) was first hired by Ben Gross, she had high hopes. She’d just become a mother of twins, and wasn’t convinced her current job would offer the best culture for a working mom. EEI was small, but two other women were hired around the same time as she was.

Surely that showed a commitment to diversity?

But the red flags started to pop up almost immediately. Even before she started. Several of her soon-to-be coworkers suggested her mid-day interview be moved to a restaurant where they could get beer. It was a preview of a culture where employees would go out drinking every night, which lead to hostile treatment of women if they went, and ostracization if they didn’t, according to multiple sources, including three of the women who worked at EEI, Sarah Fernandez, Zoey Lin, and Kaskiris.

Other sources who spoke on background told us that these frequent happy hours often lead to binge drinking late into the night, being cut off by bartenders, moving on to other bars, missing the last BART train.

Five different women had worked at EEI since the group was formed. Every single one of them has described it as a toxic environment. Several call it the worst experience of their entire professional careers in tech.

They were belittled, the men rolled their eyes and texted when they talked in meetings, they were criticized for not being “technical” enough, they were kept off the most challenging and high profile projects, stuck with the work that no one else wanted to, saddled with marketing and PR work. There were jokes about periods and childbirth. When Fernandez had made her case that she deserved a raise, the men in the team found out about it and ostracized her, refusing to sit on the same side of table with her in meetings. Men sabotaged these women’s work by refusing to grant them technical permissions, or putting up other roadblocks. They were called names like “little girl” if they were too feminine or criticized for having “too much testosterone” if they tried to be one of the guys.

“I was used to having to prove myself,” Lin said of her 16 year career as a woman in tech. “[My time at EEI] just really opened my eyes to how bad things can be.”

Fernandez was used to male-dominated environments; she’d even thrived in them in the past. “I speak bro,” she told me. After six months at EEI, she was gone. Her experience was so horrible, she says it turned her into an advocate for gender equality in tech.

One of the women, Ellie Cerovski Darriau, appears to have left the tech industry all together. "Great,” Lin thought when she first heard about Cerovski Darriau’s departure. “Another young woman in IT driven out of IT. Good job, guys. Are we going to complain about the pipeline now too?"

Every single one of the women complained to Gross about the dynamic on the team, particularly that of his star performer, Riff Khan, who half a dozen sources told us was the clear ring leader. Gross made the kinds of excuses a lot of women in these situations hear.

“You misunderstood”

“You are being too sensitive”

"You are being too aggressive”

“You are creating so much drama”

“He’s not from this country”

"I can't control someone else's culture."

“[Khan] is just a little ‘aspy’”

Gross called the team a “high performance environment” and a “meritocracy” and said that not everyone could thrive in that kind of place. The women who complained just weren’t a cultural fit.

Perhaps the worst of the endless excuses these women-- and a few of the men who raised concerns-- heard from Gross: “If I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.”

So far this story sounds like a lot of women’s experience in tech right? What happened next, though, is far from typical. Kaskiris decided to fight back.

"Great. Another young woman in IT driven out of IT. Good job, guys. Are we going to complain about the pipeline now too?"

By 2016, four of the women-- Christy Weber, Lin (above), Fernandez and Cerovski Darriau-- had quit the EEI group. When Cerovski Darriau quit, Kaskiris confronted Gross.

"What are we going to do?" Kaskiris says she asked him.

"About what?" she says he replied.

"Ellie is leaving because she didn't get to work on things that she wanted to work on here. Sarah left. There's a problem,” she tells me she said. “Do you not see the problem? Do you not see that there's a problem on the team?"

“I thought if Ben heard the right words he would get it,” she explains.

"There's a problem on the team,” Kaskiris says she told Gross. “You know what I'm talking about. Stop pretending like you don't. This is about sexism, this is about discrimination. It's very clear-cut. You need to address it. When are you going to address it?"

She even added, "What are you going to do when there's a lawsuit?"

His response, she says, was "I can't worry about that right now."

Kaskiris didn’t give up. She contacted the Ombuds office who did a so-called “soft handoff” to the Office for Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), an on-campus investigative entity which reports to the Chancellor to ensure the public university complies with federal anti-discrimination protections.

Even though Kaskiris had lost faith in her manager, and in her division, she still believed in Berkeley. “I really thought hard about… this isn’t a startup where you get treated like shit, and that’s part of the equation. This isn’t a private equity firm. This is the university that I love.That I chose to work at. That’s the home of free speech, that’s supposed to be for everyone. They have to have a way to address this.”

“This is not OK,” she kept thinking. “They’re not going to get away with this. There has to be some entity or some person who’s going to uphold what’s necessary for the greater good.”

She went to OPHD. They agreed to investigate. In the meantime, Kaskiris dipped into her home equity loan to come up with $35,000 of her own money to hire an attorney. She wanted to make sure everything was done right, following the letter of the law. That they took her complaints seriously. “We’re still paying it off,” she says. “We don’t take vacations, we don’t fix our house, we pay our home equity loans.”

The investigation began. I’ve read the full 80-page OPHD report several times over the last few months, along with dozens more emails and other documents that Kaskiris and some of the other women shared with me. I’ve interviewed more than half a dozen people who worked in or close to the division at the time. There is story after story detailing how Khan would marginalize, insult, belittle and sabotage the women who worked there. There is story after story of men and women going to Gross to plead with him to do something about it. There is example after example of him protecting Khan, and explaining it all away.

There are accounts of men who worked in the division or near it, recounting similar conversations with Gross. One male witness described the team as “having a number of long-term male employees as well as a ‘rotating position’ where ‘they try women and the women don’t stay.’” He says he brought it up his concerns to Gross twice. The second time was after Cerovski Darriau left, saying to him, “Wow, another casualty. I can’t believe [Ellie] left. Do you see a pattern here?” It was almost the exact same words Kaskiris had used. Gross told him no, arguing she simply wasn’t a cultural fit, according to the investigation.

Said the same male witness: “I love [Ben]. He is a great guy, but he is blind. . . [Riff and Ben] are inside it and cannot see the discrimination. But they carry the attitude that is an endemic problem across the industry.”

Six months later, Kaskiris received an email summarizing the OPHD findings. She didn’t win every count - for instance she lost on a claim that there was gender-based discrimination in giving raises and promotions, because one of the women had gotten a small raise during her time there. They also ruled that Kaskiris wasn’t retaliated against when Berkeley’s CTO (and Gross’s boss) Bill Allison told her that her position was going to be terminated, after she had gone to Gross with her concerns and gone to Ombuds to launch her initial complaint.

She remembers scanning the summary, seeing “No finding. No finding. No finding.” “I remember, I stopped and I was like, ‘Oh my God. There’s going to be no finding,” she says.

That wouldn’t have been a shock to people familiar with these types of investigations.

Carolyn Wheeler is an attorney at Katz, Marshall & Banks and a member of the National Employment Lawyers Association who has spent more than three decades in the field of employment law. She told Pando that typically in these situations the investigators are like HR departments… there to protect the university first and foremost. “Of course, the university in cases like this would prefer to handle it internally, and make it go away if possible,” she said.

Kaskiris kept reading, and finally saw “Finding.”

She won on a big one: The investigators agreed that Khan and Gross created a hostile work environment, based on gender. This violates the University’s rules and the discrimination protections of the U.S. Department of Education and of the Civil Rights Act.

Yet even on that count, the fact that five women all testified to the same treatment wouldn’t have been enough on its own. When assessing their credibility,the investigator expressed concern that their stories sounded too alike, an indication to her that perhaps they coordinated their stories.  In the eyes of the investigator, the most credible testimony had come from a male co-worker named Alex Kim. (Like Weber and Cerovski Darriau, Kim declined to talk to us on the record. We asked Gross and Khan for comment via their current employers, but neither company made them available. We've relied on each of their extensive testimony in the OPHD report for this story.)

Kim had been in Khan’s inner circle and had seen things the women hadn’t seen, including Khan actively sabotaging the work of Kaskiris and Fernandez (below). He backed up Fernandez’s account of getting bullied, testifying that Khan said she, “was trying to be a man and trying to break into the guys’ locker room [and] that they needed to shut [her] down.” Kim, too, had gone to Gross with his concerns multiple times, and had been told either “not to get involved” or Gross’s go-to, “I didn’t see it, so it didn’t happen.”

“Women were definitely not given equal opportunities for work on the team,” he testified. The investigator couldn’t ignore his testimony since “there was no clear motivation for him to be resentful and undermine [EEI’s] leadership.”

Fernandez was used to male-dominated environments, and said she’d even thrived in them. “I speak bro,” she told me. But within six months at EEI, she was gone.

With the help of every woman who had worked there and one male “ally”, Kaskiris was vindicated. She’d won her case, even with the odds tilted against her.

That was on September 1, 2016. Before she had even gotten the full report, she saw a meeting had been added to her calendar for September 6, labeled “discussion.” It was scheduled by Liz Marsh, the Chief of Staff to Larry Conrad, who ran the entire IT department. She assumed it might be a conversation about the findings, maybe even asking her advice on potential remedies.

According to Wheeler, that is part of the usual best practices in these cases. “Part of the follow-up is asking ‘are you satisfied?’ Schools need to get feedback. Was the investigation effective? Are the complainants worse off than before?” Wheeler said.

None of that happened. Instead, when Kaskiris entered the room, someone from HR handed her an envelope, and she knew then what was happening. They weren't there to talk about how to make things better, they were there to lay Kaskiris off.  "I asked if the EEI team was hiring, and [Marsh] confirmed that they had two open positions. Neither of the open positions were offered to me," Kaskiris says. "I was told that my termination was due to mandatory budget cuts." 

The aftermath of the report was very different for Khan and Gross. The OPHD left it up to Berkeley’s IT department, run by Conrad, to address the problem, and he appears to have done little. Kaskiris asked repeatedly via email to meet with Conrad to discuss the problems in EEI and the investigation. He refused.

Khan and Gross continued in their jobs apparently without any penalty. Sources close to the situation told us that Gross had to complete a supervisory training module that all Berkeley supervisors are required to complete anyway, and that consultants were brought into EEI for several all-hands meetings and side meetings with Gross. The University declined to comment on the investigation, and reiterated its discrimination policies, which give it discretion to assess the severity of a violation and determine the appropriate response.

Even if Berkeley could argue the offenses didn’t rise to the level of termination, Wheeler says that removing the person who brought the complaint and leaving those found responsible isn’t appropriate. “If as a remedy for harassment you disadvantage the people who made the claim, that is not appropriate. That’s what the courts would say. The responsible parties should be moved instead,” she says.

When Khan and Gross left the following year, they were given celebratory going away parties. Bill Allison -- who had also been accused of discrimination in Kaskiris's investigation but was cleared of all counts-- sent an email to everyone inviting them to come to “The Bear’s Lair” to “celebrate the achievement and honor the incredibly hard work and passion Ben has brought to everything he has done here.”

Almost everyone. Lin was working in another division in Allison’s department, when that email was sent out. She wasn't invited, but she saw it. “I was so mad,” she says. “At first I was so happy just to hear that they were leaving. ‘At least I never have to pass by them in the hallways ever again. Fine. I’ll take it.’ But [that email] actually made me more angry, because, it was like this noble thing where he goes, ‘I left of my own volition. I parted on good terms with the company.’ Why does Ben get to say that after he’s done something like this? After it was proven to be a hostile work environment?”

Both men went on to high-profile, lucrative jobs at two of the most highly valued companies in Silicon Valley: Khan went to Palantir and Gross went to Coinbase.

We asked Palantir and Coinbase whether this investigation came up during their due diligence of Khan and Gross, if it would have mattered if it did, and what their policies around hostile work environments based on gender were. Both Palantir and Coinbase declined to comment on the record for this story. Berkeley declined to tell us whether they'd disclosed the investigation and the finding to Khan and Gross's new employers.

* * * *

What’s captivated me for months about Vanessa Kaskiris’s story is what has made it so hard to write. Unlike so many “#metoo” stories, this one doesn’t involve aggressive sexual assault. It doesn’t involve a billionaire investor or a household Silicon Valley name. It’s not about some arrogant high-flying unicorn company.

It isn’t a story about assault; it is a story about bias, of bullying, of intimidation, of giving women lesser assignments, of shutting them out of mentoring opportunities, of employers who constantly said the women were “misinterpreting” things and being too sensitive, of a culture where decision making was done over drinks several nights a week, of women being told they weren’t “technical” enough, of sidelining their confidence and their career progress so much that they finally leave.

But the comparatively everyday nature of the sexism within EEI -- that it is the kind of treatment thousands of women working in tech can related to -- is what makes it so important for our ecosystem to grapple with.

In 2018 those things can’t shock us anymore. If stories of sexual assault no longer lead the news, how can you make people care about gaslighting and bullying?

And yet, as an industry we have to. Otherwise, we are just giving predators a new playbook. “Don’t grab women or proposition them, just bully them, make fun of them, deny them opportunities, sabotage their work, and ostracize them and you’re golden!”

It’s easy for most people to condemn sexual assault, Tweeting your outrage, pointing out that you have daughters, replacing 2016’s “Woke” T Shirt with a "#metoo" T Shirt at conferences. But when it comes to something as dangerously subtle as a hostile work environment, where women are systematically undermined until they quit and even leave the industry, the allies start to fall away. You start to hear phrases like “witch hunt” and “just not a culture fit” and “maybe we can’t even have meetings with women anymore.”

This isn’t just the story of what happened to five women in one department of Berkeley’s IT department. It is the story of what is happening widely all over Silicon Valley right now. This is the story behind that “pipeline problem” that men always point to as the reason they can’t hire senior women for management positions. It’s also a story that illustrates the difference between diversity and inclusion. And it’s a story about the importance of intersectional feminism: Of the five women targeted, three are women of color and another one is a lesbian.

Kaskiris’s story is one of gritty survival: After she was laid off, she took a contract job within another department in the University, and after working hard to prove herself again, got another permanent role elsewhere within the University. 

She is still working to pay off her $35,000 legal debt. Meanwhile, the men that the process found responsible for creating a hostile work environment have seen their careers soar. A confidante and advisor of Kaskiris’s called it just after the investigation wrapped. “They’re not going to do anything. They’re going to make them do training and that’s it. No one’s going to get fired.”

No one is shocked. No one is outraged. No one cares.

And people wonder why more women don’t come forward.

“Sadly it is so common that people learn their harasser got a promotion, and they got bupkis except to be labelled some kind of trouble-maker,” said Wheeler.

Frequently the worst an offender gets is “training.” Nevermind that studies have shown that training has no proven impact other than releasing organizations from legal liability. A study conducted by, ahem, researchers at UC Berkeley focused on the dangers of “symbolic compliance,” or how anti-harassment and diversity policies are focused on covering the company or institution and do not actually work to cut down on harassment and discrimination.

“We really need more research on what works,” said Berkeley’s professor of law and sociology Lauren Edelman to the Guardian about her research. “All we really know about sexual harassment training is that it protects employers from liability. We don’t know whether it protects employees. We don’t know whether it reduces sexual harassment.” That article was written in mid-2016… just as Kaskiris was in the middle of her investigation.

That same article noted Berkeley’s own recent string of scandals, most notably, Sujit Choudhry resigned as dean of Berkeley’s law school after reports of his sexually harassing his executive assistant.

From the Guardian:

“ the University of California, all faculty and supervisors must complete a training every two years. Despite those training policies, UC Berkeley administrators and professors have repeatedly harassed subordinates and students and faced light punishments after the university substantiated allegations. That includes a famous astronomer, a tenure-track professor and the law dean, who was ordered to take a training course after he was found guilty.”

Added Edelman in the piece: “The university should focus more on having a much clearer zero-tolerance policy with very clear sanctions that are very consistently carried out.”

How is this an industry that claims with a straight face that it’s a “meritocracy”? That the problem is girls just not being into science and math? That it’s just too hard to find great female candidates?

Bill Allison, who Gross reported to, was not found guilty of any wrongdoing in the investigation because the investigator determined that he’d proven he had little to do with the day-to-day management of the group. That might seem fair.

In the investigation he indignantly says:

"'If there was a problem, I would have been all over it. If there was a problem and I didn’t know about it, I would have been really upset.' He noted that he facilitated a session about unconscious bias at a conference last year."

But the investigation proved there was a problem, and Allison didn’t fire or sanction the men found guilty of violating the University’s policy. So what did those words mean? Was a going away party and a positive job reference Allison's version of "[being] all over" something? And if there are no repercussions at an institution where the Federal Government requires that women be treated equally, what hope to other women who come forward in Silicon Valley have of getting anyone to care?

“Just them participating was a very brave act,” Kaskiris says of the women. “That helped. I was like, ‘OK, I did this on my own, but now they want to be a part of it and they know it's important.’ It made it more palatable, like, ‘Yeah, I'm spending money but this is about all of us.’”

In reading this report, I kept wondering-- even hoping-- that maybe the end result might have been different if it had been filed in 2017 or 2018.

While Susan Fowler-- for example-- has been lumped in with women speaking out about sexual assault, remember her story too was one of discrimination and hostile work environment. And those allegations were eventually enough to help bring down then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, a far more untouchable bro than Riff Khan or Ben Gross.

In the aftermath of it all, Kaskiris was advised that the best she was going to get if she continued to push the case legally was a settlement. She had a potential case for retaliation, but she had taken another contract job offered to her by the University so she couldn’t point to a substantial enough loss in wages. Any potential settlement would barely repay the amount she’d already invested to bring this to light. And with it would come a gag-order. For Kaskiris, that was a non-starter.

Wheeler backed this advice up: “If there is a lawsuit, most discrimination cases where people are fired or denied promotion have claims for back pay. Absent that you’re much more limited in terms of compensatory damages.”

Think about those options. This was a woman who spent $35,000 of her own money proving a case of subtle but sustained harassment that drove five women out of a department. She did it because she thought it was right; that five women going through this was enough. And she proved it to an investigator who was naturally tilted towards protecting the university.

Nothing happened. And her legal remedies were limited because she didn't suffer more financial damage. 

How is this OK? The men may have gotten fired if they had propositioned or groped any of the women, but systematically sabotaging their work, making demeaning gender-based jokes behind their backs, ostracizing them, and keeping them off projects that could advance their career is just an acceptable cost of being a woman in the tech industry? Even when that is proven, the industry standard is that there is no consequence?

And so Kaskiris-- and the other women I spoke with-- have been in an unsatisfying limbo for the last 18 months. On the one hand, they fought. They won’t ever wonder what might have happened had they spoken out. They did. And they proved there was a hostile work environment, based on gender. And still there was no justice.

After a year spent doing all the things women are told to do: Keep a paper trail, go to HR, band together with other women who can support your story, hire a lawyer, launch an investigation, even prove a hostile work environment, risk becoming a pariah in the name of justice, Kaskiris didn’t have many options left. But she at least had her story. And so she came to me.

The men achieved more by sticking together. Khan and Gross’s LinkedIn pages bullet point their accomplishments during their time at the EEI group. There’s also an endorsement from Khan on Gross’s LinkedIn page. Without irony he refers to Gross as a “critical enabler” to the work he did on the team. That’s one way of putting it.

In tech, when women support other women, it’s a credibility problem. When men support other men, their net worth rises.

If this story has resonated with you, I hope you share it with your organization, I hope you share it with other women idealistically venturing into the world so they know what awaits them and how to fight back when they see it.

When Kaskiris first reached out to Lin to ask if she and Weber had faced the same treatment, Lin didn’t mince words about how terrible her experience was. But her advice to Kaskiris was to just walk away. In her experience, HR wasn’t going to do anything, she knew from experience Gross and Allison weren’t either. “Just get out of there,” she says. “It’s a shithole.”

Two weeks ago, I sat with the three women on campus for a photoshoot for this story. It had been a long journey of the investigation and its unsettling aftermath, in which the very different women had found solidarity and support in one another. Poised just before publication of their story for the first time, Lin looked at Kaskiris and said, “I’m glad you didn’t take my advice.”

“It’s like she’s doing a whole second job,” Lin told me. “They were trying to get rid of her, she was having to look for a new job, and was still doing all of this. She still did all of this work.”

“Just them participating was a very brave act,” Kaskiris says of the women. “That helped. I was like, ‘OK, I did this on my own, but now they want to be a part of it, and they know it's important.’ It made it more palatable, like, ‘Yeah, I'm spending money, but this is about all of us.’”

Fernandez, Lin, and Kaskiris didn’t feel like Gross’s going away party in the Bear’s Lair could be the end of it, so they risked even more retailiation to tell me their stories on the record. “Staying silent has done nothing to help me, but it protects them a lot,” Lin said. “F- this! I am not here to protect them.”

Additional reporting by Dan Raile.

Photography by Ward Long for Pando.