By NILOFER MERCHANT
Silicon Valley prides itself on being a meritocracy. Yet, women are underrepresented, sidelined, and dismissed so consistently that it’s hard to understand why so many still believe it’s true.
Nowhere do you see that more than in the venture capital community.
That’s why so many eyes are on the Ellen Pao lawsuit. Ellen Pao is accusing Kleiner Perkins — one of the most successful VC firms in Silicon Valley that is at the epicenter of the industry’s power — of gender discrimination and retaliation in 2012. She was fired from the firm five months later and then asked for $16M in damages. But the money isn’t the issue. Not at all.
The issue at stake is whether the old-guard, the white male dominated culture of Silicon Valley, has to acknowledge gender bias exists. Piles of research shows its ferocious power. Right on Stanford’s campus, where these venture capitalist already scout new ideas, is a Gender Research Institute, which Sheryl Sandberg leaned on to write Lean IN. Last year, I wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review summarizing some key facts of that book, and argued 3 reasons why Men Should Read Lean In. Apparently, no one at KP did because the trial coverage reads like Bias 101. For example, judging Pao for not speaking up “enough”, when empirical research shows that speaking up by women is often interpreted as “aggressive and non-team-like”. Which, not surprisingly, was also what she was accused of.
So, will Silicon Valley get a wake up call?
The question is an important one because the barriers that women face every single day — in every business — are on trial in Silicon Valley through Ellen Pao’s case. FTrecently published a Silicon Valley industry joke that once you have at least as many women on your team as there are guys called Dave, then you have achieved a gender balance. I’ve heard that and many other jokes in my 20+ year career in tech which includes companies like Apple, Adobe and Autodesk. My own lived experience matches what has been shared at trial: The bathrobe wearing VC at the hotel door. Being told to sit at the back of the room. Being the ones to take noteswhen you’re there in a professional (equal) capacity. “Adult entertainment” as a course of business. This behavior is, unfortunately not KP specific. The industry’s award event is rife with sexism talking about “hoohas” and calling women “bitches”.
Yet the frustrating reality is it’s tough to prove gender bias – extremely tough. Even when faced with facts, nothing changes. Ted Schlein, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins (who incidentally was the one who managed and fired Pao) spoke at the Platform conference, whose agenda was to identify specific changes to have all aboard the innovation economy. Ted vehemently denied there was a problem. Despite the story the numbers tell — women receive less than three percent of all venture capital funding, and blacks even less than that — Ted said that the venture capital community was “color-blind” and “operates fully on a meritocracy.” This continued argument disregards the astounding facts that essentially 100 percent of funded founders are white or Asian, and 89 percent of founding teams are all-male.
Still, the numbers do not lie. The problem is real. There are many red herrings thrown up to refute the issue, as Rachel Sklar recently wrote. One example is that women are asked to have a technical background, which is not a metric used to qualify men into the Silicon Valley circle. “The problem is not with the pipeline, it’s with the industry that the pipeline is piping into.”
If the countless cases of bias don’t persuade the industry to change, perhaps the cost to the industry and to innovation at large will. The industry keeps signaling “One size fits all”. And, when you accept the traditional definitions – read mostly white, mostly male — of who is able, then you believe only a small % of people have the ability to contribute. Recent research by the University of Illinois asked the question “are leaders born or made?” They found that 30% of the factors were things you were born with, but 70% was based off your life experiences. That said, they made the point to write that “historically leaders have been viewed as being male and white and fit a certain archetype of being tall, articulate, well-schooled.” Which costs us ideas; by any measure, we’re leaving at least 50% of all ideas off the table.
Until that’s fixed, we’re all hurt.
As the trial continues, the question is whether Silicon Valley and the tech industry as a whole will get a much-needed wake up call to acknowledge sexism exists. That’s why this case matters.
Nilofer Merchant has personally launched more than 100 products that netted $18 billion dollars. She is an author and speaker based in Silicon Valley, California. She’s also a fellow at The Martin Prosperity Institute on “New Power.”