Ellen Pao Says Silicon Valley Isn’t A Meritocracy. It’s Not.

Reddit CEO Ellen Pao took the stage today at the Code Conference in Southern California. Though she is currently the CEO of popular news aggregator Reddit, which has 170 million monthly active users, Pao is perhaps best known for bringing to trial a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins, this spring.

Though Pao lost the case on four counts, she was a key catalyst in discussions around issues that had taken the Valley a long time to come to terms with, namely the lack of female and minority entrepreneurs and VCs.

Kara Swisher opened the conversation with a very blunt “Do you regret doing this?” referring to the lawsuit. No, Ellen replied. “This is the worst thing that can come out of it and I’m fine,” she said, looking more chipper than I’ve seen her in the two months since I sat in the courtroom following the Kleiner Perkins trial.

“Have you become a symbol of something, and what is it?” Kara asked.

“I didn’t plan on becoming a symbol,” Pao said. “It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but I became a symbol for different things.”

“Are you the perfect victim?” Kara entreated. “Did you become somewhat of a cartoon figure?” she asked. (Interesting fact, the speaker portraits at Re/Code were drawn by the same artist who sketched the Pao trial, Vicki Behringer.)

“It’s a complex issue. People come to it with a lot of baggage,” she said, recounting stories of support. “Other people don’t like me because [of] what I represent: Silicon Valley not being a meritocracy.”

I didn’t plan on becoming a symbol. Ellen Pao

Swisher continued a brusque line of questioning, bringing up all the chatter throughout the trial:

She touched on whether or not Pao did her job well; whether or not she was likable; and what she thought of all the micro-aggressions that are the manifestations of sexism in the tech industry.

“So there’s one thing you’re not invited to; is it such a big deal? But it adds up and a lot of people realize it’s not a fair playing field. I’ve had people say, my mom got moved into a broom closet when she got promoted,” Pao said.

Swisher then referred to her former partner Megan Smith’s mansplain episode, where Eric Schmidt, who apparently talks over people, talked over Smith at SXSW. Swisher wanted to know how we, as an industry, can solve “it,” in which “it” presumably is sexism on a macro scale.

“It is hard,” Pao said. “Six months ago no one would have said anything. I’m sure [Schmidt] didn’t do it on purpose. He was just doing what he does. I’m sure he doesn’t aspire to be the guy who talks over women.”

Swisher responded to this with an anecdote where a male VC had told her that the solution was segregated women VC firms and men VC firms. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Swisher exclaimed. “Where is the solution to this?”

“If I knew, I would be telling you,” said Pao. “I’ve had investors say that they see this as an opportunity: ‘I’m going to find more women CEOs because I see it as an advantage.'”

Pao also took issue with the “pipeline issue” excuse for not hiring diversely. “I hate the pipeline issue,” Pao said. “It allows people to say, ‘I’m doing my best, it’s out of my hands. There’s a whole slew of things that can make it more fair.'” Swisher said she felt the same way about unconscious bias: It allows people to absolve themselves of responsibility for bias.

Pao said she did not think Silicon Valley, a place where it’s possible to have all white male meetings all day every day, was a meritocracy. “I think SV aspires to be a true meritocracy … but there is not an even track to success. No. With 6% women in VC, level of funding for women-led startups, it just doesn’t seem that that could possibly be the case.”

We thought the status quo (ten white men in a room, on a board) made sense until people like Sheryl Sandberg and yes Pao started calling it out: “The status quo is uncomfortable for most people,” she held, “If I’m in a room with 10 white men, it doesn’t make sense.”

Perhaps more people willing to admit Silicon Valley is biased will lead to measurable change? It’s encouraging that some numbers are changing: According to CrunchBase, in 2009, 9.5 percent of startups had at least one woman founder, but by 2014 that rate had almost doubled to 18 percent.

When asked whether the trial had impacted her career, she said, “Well, I’m not likable and I’m a poor performer … Yishan Wong took a chance on me. There were people who wouldn’t talk to me. It’s something that I would not recommend for other people. You have to weather through the personal attacks and people judging you.”

If I’m in a room with 10 white men, it doesn’t make sense. Ellen Pao

When asked whether the coverage of her husband’s legal and financial troubles in the context of her trial was fair or more evidence of sexism, she said, “I think it was really unfair. I think it was something that was intentional on the part of some people. And I thought it was something that would not have come up with other people. So I did not like that, no.”

Pao said that she is trying to be the change she wants to see at her company, Reddit, after Swisher said that she was working specifically on racial diversity at Re/code.

Pao’s steps:

  1. Make diversity something that everybody thinks about.
  2. Implement a “no negotiation policy” where you don’t negotiate salary. (She referenced studies that said that women are one-fourth as likely to negotiate for pay.)
  3. Cultivate and cull a diverse candidate pool.

It’s a start. Tech and venture capital has much to learn from industries such as finance and law, which have been proactively working for more diversity for years (albeit, with admittedly mixed results).

It’s inevitable that, as more of us continue to “lean in” to startups, more of us will seek high-powered VC partner roles. It’s up to CEOs like Pao and other hiring managers to make sure we’re met with a supportive environment not just for our own good, but for theirs. As Kleiner Perkins partner Mary Meeker said during her slide presentation at Code this morning, “The best decisions are made by diverse groups of people.”

Pao has until June 8 to appeal her loss, but did not confirm onstage whether she would, “We are still discussing with my legal team.” “I can’t talk about it,” she insisted, as Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr watched the interview from the sixth row.