How Ellen Pao Lost Her Lawsuit and Found Her Calling as an Inclusivity Advocate

Ellen Pao’s gender-discrimination lawsuit against her employer Kleiner Perkins rocked the bro-cultural foundations of Silicon Valley in 2015. For Pao, the verdict was never about the money; it was about exposing the problem. And it had a huge impact. One might say it paved the way for someone like Susan Fowler to take down Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick with just a blog post. So when Pao dropped by the Commonwealth Club to talk about her new memoir, “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change,” BOCAteers were all in.

Ellen Pao discusses her memoir at the Commonwealth Club
Before Pao’s lawsuit, many discrimination complaints were dismissed as a result of a few “bad actors.” Pao realized she was the victim of a bad system, instead, but not until after she filed suit and heard from other former female colleagues who had similar discrimination experiences.

She talked about discrimination as starting as a nuisance and becoming death by “all the thousand cuts that make someone feel unwelcome.” She’s happy that this issue is now being discussed so that people understand what type of behavior is unacceptable.

Rather than sit on the sidelines, Pao is now dedicating her life’s work to being an employment-inclusivity advocate. She currently serves as an investment partner at Kapor Capital, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, and co-founder of the diversity consulting non-profit organization Project Include. The latter is a group of eight, dedicated volunteers who wanted to design diversity initiatives that do more than lip service at industry conferences. They created this list of 87 recommendations and now provide consulting services to help committed CEOs like Twilio’s Jeff Lawsonchange their cultures from the top down. These CEOs are pioneering new territory rather than taking an existing recruiting and HR model like Google’s and applying it to another company. The new paradigms are designed to address the workforce of today, which must make under-represented populations feel included.

Tech Leaver infographic on workplace discrimination
In conversation with her friend, Code2040’s CEO Laura Weidman Powers, Pao shared several nuggets of advice for navigating sticky workplace situations.

  1. Get into the room. Early in her career, Pao didn’t realize a lot of workplace deals were made over the steak dinners she never wanted to attend. Whether it’s golf, ping-pong or happy hour, make sure you’re in the room. Better yet, change the room to a place and time where everyone can feel included.
  2. Find the “Code of Conduct.” If your company doesn’t have one, now is the time to make one. Kapor Center’s 2017 Tech Leavers Survey revealed the top reason for employee attrition was people feeling like they treated unfairly or having uncomfortable situations at work.
  3. Choose workplaces that offer fair pay, mentorship, opportunities to meet in groups, and built-in metrics that hold management teams accountable for the aforementioned.
  4. One is an opinion, and a group is data. If you’re having trouble, look for others at your organization with similar experiences. Chances are you are not alone, and management will pay attention to a group.
  5. Before you apply for a job, look at the diversity of the management team. A cursory review of the website should indicate if there is an embedded bro culture.

When asked her 60-second idea to change the world, Pao hopes that people feel empowered to speak up for themselves. “The simple act of speaking can make a difference.” During her three-year ordeal with the trial, she had a lot of strangers reach out and share their stories, and it helped her stay motivated to keep going. According to her book, “we all have it in us to be the little Band-Aid that helps heal” all the little cuts.

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