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In 2015, when investor Ellen Pao lost her $16 million gender discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, it seemed like a major defeat for women in tech seeking more inclusion, with some VCs privately deciding to higher fewer women as a result.
On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Pao said the lawsuit nevertheless started a conversation about systemic bias in Silicon Valley, giving others the courage to report their own experiences. Pao recently released a book about the court battle and its aftermath, “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.”
“A lot of things had happened to individuals, and they didn’t know how to process it,” Pao said. “And here was a way of looking at it in context, and having it voiced: ‘This is actually discriminatory, this is actually biased and this is what is systematically preventing you from succeeding, and it’s not your own fault.’”
And behind the scenes, the people who reported being harassed or discriminated against were finding the ears of more people willing to believe them. Privately, Pao said, she and others reached out to support them and keep the ball moving.
“I would write to some of them and tell them, ‘You’re doing a good thing, I believe you,’” she said. “And I think over time, it laid the groundwork for Susan [Fowler] to come out — she did a great job narrating her experience — and for people to say, ‘This is actually happening. Let’s not try to pick apart the story or the person, let’s look at the problem.’ In the last year, I think we’ve seen, people now understand this problem.”
On the new episode, Pao also reflected on why her initial lawsuit failed. Although a big part of the reason was that “people were not ready at that point” to believe Pao’s word over the well-liked team at Kleiner Perkins, she also called into question the ethics of the VC firm’s defense.
“I don’t want to call them unethical, but the way they presented things … There was nothing I could’ve done to be perfect,” she said. “But they did the same thing to the other women at the firm. There was this narrative around how we worked that was very sharpened and presented in a way that was incredibly aggressive at trial.”
In hindsight, Pao acknowledged, there are things she personally blames herself for, as well.
“I could’ve been smarter on the PR front,” Pao said. “I could’ve spent more time with the press. I think they [Kleiner Perkins] had points every day that they were trying to make, and they were handing them out; I was more like, ‘Oh, my lawyers said we shouldn’t say anything, the judge said not to say anything, so I’m going to follow the rules.’ That, obviously, didn’t work so well.”
“Early on, the fact that every juror candidate who believed that tech was a ‘biased industry’ got booted off,” she added. “That seems like a fundamental error. I feel like I should have pushed harder against that.”
If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:
- Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
- Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
- And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.