Silicon Valley leader Ellen Pao criticizes discrimination in tech industry at UC Berkeley talk

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Aren Saunders-Gonzalez/Staff

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Ellen Pao, the tech leader known for criticizing Silicon Valley workplace practices in tech and finance, spoke Thursday at an event co-hosted by the Berkeley Forum and [email protected] at the Haas School of Business.

Pao, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Kapor Center for Social Impact, discussed her experiences as an investment partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which she sued in 2012 for discrimination and for its retaliation when she reported. She also answered questions about workplace policies to promote inclusivity, including those she implemented as Reddit’s interim CEO before stepping down in 2015.

Pao’s comments come at a time when Silicon Valley businesses such as Uber, Google, Facebook and Twitter have fallen under scrutiny for exclusivity in their hiring and workplace policies.

In the discussion, Pao addressed discrimination as a “systematic problem” she experienced in the tech industry, which she had noticed but brushed off for years. All the women were cognizant of the discrimination but also wanted to pick and choose their battles, Pao said.

“It wasn’t until Kleiner Perkins that I hit a wall, and I saw all the other women hit the same wall,” Pao said in the discussion.

Pao touched on the intersection of females as minorities and females within minority populations, stating that some businesses’ inclusivity practices often involve opening the “boy’s club” to only a few white women. She recalled an instance with a Reddit employee who told her that because he believed in diversity, he was “willing to lower the bar to bring in different people” to his team.

Ekene Anene, a Haas graduate student who attended the event, said she wished Pao had addressed how to fix the issue. 

“I wish she would have expanded on how she sees ways to dismantle a system of racism — including everyone, the way she says she wants to include everyone,” Anene said.

When Pao dropped the lawsuit in 2015, she refused a $7 million settlement that she said would have limited her ability to speak about discrimination in the workplace. In her talk, Pao argued that not everyone had to “go out and sue” the way she did, but everyone could “use their voice” to make change happen.

“She realized she had a very privileged position in terms of where she’d gotten in her career and how she was educated and all of her skills and credentials,” said Nolan Chao, co-president of [email protected] “It would be so difficult for her to try to challenge this systematic behavior if she didn’t have this privilege.”

During her speech, Pao also criticized companies that filled “slots” arbitrarily to reach their diversity numbers for hiring, instead of taking steps to evaluate how effectively they were promoting and supporting their employees.

Pao also answered questions related to her decision as interim CEO of Reddit to ban certain subreddit threads. During her two years with the company, Pao banned a total of five subreddits classified as “harassment,” including one dedicated to revenge porn, saying that she drew a distinction between hate speech and harassment.

“I definitely still have a lot of lingering questions,” said co-president of [email protected] Carolyn Chuong after the talk, referencing her experience as an Amazon intern. “It just seemed like the work ahead of us — it’s very daunting, and the leadership there is almost all white men, and that’s the norm in a tech center.”

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.