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Ellen Pao says diversity will improve in Silicon Valley when more people tell their stories

Ellen Pao says diversity will improve in Silicon Valley when more people tell their stories


It's not just about the pipeline

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This year, former venture capitalist Ellen Pao captivated Silicon Valley by suing her former firm, Kleiner Perkins, alleging gender discrimination. Pao lost the case, and hasn't yet said whether she would appeal. In some of her first extended comments since the trial, Pao appeared at the Code Conference today calling on other people who have experienced discrimination to share their own stories — and said doing so may help improve diversity in Silicon Valley as much as anything.

Pao left the trial with no regrets, she said. "I connected with so many people," she told Kara Swisher of Recode at the conference, which as of yesterday is part of The Verge's parent company, Vox Media. "They connected with a story that I told. And that was important to me." It isn't just women who have approached her, Pao said. She recalled one man approaching her telling her that he supported her because his mother had been relegated to working in a closet after she was grudgingly promoted.

"I connected with so many people."

Pao's case hinged on why Pao hadn't been promoted at Kleiner after years of clashing with her superiors. The jury didn't find evidence of discrimination based on the evidence presented, even though some expressed serious misgivings about Kleiner Perkins' culture in interviews afterward.

Pao said that the conversations generated during and after the case have made people more comfortable calling out instances of sexism when they see it. She noted that Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, was pilloried after continually interrupting former colleague (and current United States CTO) Megan Smith at South by Southwest. "Six months ago I don't think they would have said anything," Pao said. "Now people are speaking up, calling attention to it." As for Schmidt, she said, "he's now more aware of the things that he does. I'm sure he doesn't aspire to be the guy who talks over women."

"God I hate the pipeline issue."

What else can be done to improve diversity in Silicon Valley? Pao was critical of those who say nothing can be done until America fixes its "pipeline" of women and minority candidates coming out of colleges. "God I hate the pipeline issue," she said. More pressing, she said, is the fact that women and minorities are often treated poorly once they begin working at tech companies. "When you talk about the pipeline, it's an excuse not to do anything," she said.

Pao is now interim CEO at Reddit, and hinted that she may become permanent CEO if her first full year on the job goes well. She has already implemented new hiring practices designed to ensure women and minorities are paid as well as men, who are typically able to negotiate for higher salaries without being penalized for it.

Asked about the biggest misconception about her, Pao said that people often wrongly assume her motives are complex. "That's the most untrue thing that's out there about me — I'm actually not that complicated," she said. Pao said she grew up in a small town in New Jersey, taught that America was a meritocracy and that hard work would be rewarded. "When I felt that wasn't the case," she said, "I said something."