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Four years after suing a powerful venture capital firm for gender discrimination, former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao shares her story

American tech investor and gender equality advocate Ellen Pao highlighted the importance of diversity in the workplace before a packed audience in Jordan Hall on Tuesday evening. Pao, who previously served as the CEO of Reddit, detailed her current work as a diversity activist and her past efforts in filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. 

The event was moderated by Sussana Benavidez ’20 and sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Entrepreneurship Society, Stanford Women in Computer Science and Stanford Women in Design. 

Pao made headlines in 2012 when she alleged that Kleiner Perkins had passed her over for a promotion on the basis of gender. During her time at the firm, Pao says she was frequently cut out of emails, meetings and conversations. Jurors eventually handed a sweeping victory to Kleiner Perkins.

Though she lost the lawsuit, Pao channeled her newfound repute toward the founding of Project Include, a non-profit initiative that seeks to expose bias in  Silicon Valley hiring practices. 

She told the audience that her female counterparts working in tech “all [had] the same frustrations with what was going on in tech at that time.” 

These frustrations centered around the lack of representation within the workplace and firms’ passive response, she explained.

“This is a really big problem,” Pao said, addressing the lack of people of color in her former employer’s hiring process.  “It’s not just one person didn’t get promoted, it’s no woman got promoted in this last round [of hiring].”

Pao admitted that the lawsuit was a difficult and isolating experience at times, in part due to the negative way she her opponents characterized her in the press. She recalled that opponents of her gender discrimination lawsuit claimed that she was overreacting.

One audience member asked Pao whether it’s always best to be assertive in the workplace. The member shared her personal experience of facing opposition from seniors at work and said it made her feel as if asserting herself wasn’t worth it. 

Pao acknowledged this by humorously expressing that she does not recommend “everybody to go out and sue your firm,” but to speak up within one’s comfort zone. She encouraged the audience “to share your story with others” and ensure “you are telling your truth and that other people can learn from your experiences, but also that you have an outlet for what you’re experiencing and you have that validation.”

Pao also emphasized the importance of investigating a potential employer’s diversity practices. 

“There are some things that you can do beforehand,” she said. “You can look at their website. I’m amazed at the number of companies that still have all white male boards, right? You just have to go to the website and you look, and some of them are hiding it like they don’t put pictures. Push a little hard. Some just put up the pictures, and they’re fine with it and that, and that’s a red flag.” 

As the crowd erupted in laughter, Pao shared another one of her methods to ensure your personal values align with a firm’s. “Googling [the company], plus racism, plus discrimination, plus lawsuit,” she said.

Pao’s work at Project Include employs data and activism to prompt inclusivity in the tech industry. One way the nonprofit does this is by providing numbers of how many members from a certain community they should employ. The overall aim, Pao said, is to get “companies … to the point where they’re actually getting to parity with the actual U.S. workforce demographics.” 

To this point, an audience member asked how one could differentiate between firms genuinely invested in inclusivity and those that are simply tokenizing it. 

“What I do is I often look [at whether] they are bringing in PR every time they do something right,” Pao said, citing Pinterest as a model firm.“[Pinterest isn’t] touting programs that haven’t been implemented and shown to be successful yet. They’re really just doing the work and looking for the change internally, not promoting the work that they’re doing that might not have been successful yet.” 

Contact Rayouf Alhumedhi at rayouf ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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