Why Talking Isn’t Enough: Thoughts on Ellen Pao’s Optimism About Progress Against Sexism in Silicon Valley

When I opened this week’s edition of Lenny, I was intrigued by Ellen Pao’s reflections on progress against sexism in Silicon Valley. I’ve followed the stories that have pushed Ms. Pao into the public spotlight over the last year, and have been impressed by her incredible grace, resilience and strength through what I can only imagine are painful and challenging situations. She, and others like her, have helped give a voice to the experiences of so many women and people of color in the tech industry. Ms. Pao argues that we’ve made progress against sexism because we’re willing to discuss and acknowledge that there is a problem.

However, Ms. Pao and I may disagree on what meaningful progress actually means.

Like Ms. Pao, I grew up believing that the United States was a meritocracy. I am the adopted daughter of an Indian immigrant and first-generation Jewish New Yorker from the Bronx. An architect and a lawyer, my parents believed education and hard work were the tickets to opportunity, and I believed this wholeheartedly as a kid — so much so that, as a high school senior, my sense of difference felt more like an asset than a liability. My diverse group of hard working, high-achieving friends was as comfortable and uninhibited about our identities as we were about our abilities to ace an AP exam. We even took out a full-page ad in our high school yearbook entitled, “we are all different shades of brown.”

But as a college student, when I was often the only person in my group of friends that wasn’t white, I became acutely aware of my difference. Around a new group of people who had very little context for my family and background, I struggled (at times to the point of defensiveness) with assumptions that were made about my identity because of my name and skin color. I wanted the privilege of being able to be seen the way I see myself.

After working as an elementary school teacher in inner city Baltimore, where I quickly became frustrated with a broken system that appeared to perpetuate inequality, I found my way to the tech world. I was drawn to Silicon Valley because of my unwavering belief in technology as a great equalizer and perhaps naïve impression that it was a place where an unconventional point of view was valued and celebrated.

Unfortunately, over the last few years as the co-founder of my own tech startup, my wide-eyed idealism has been replaced with frustration and disappointment. I’ve witnessed and experienced many situations similar to those that Ms. Pao describes. I, too, have been in rooms where racist and sexist jokes are casually dropped in conversation. I, too, have had my ability questioned because I don’t fit the mold of a startup founder. And I, too, have felt ignored and marginalized. My experiences are not uncommon for women and people of color in tech. A day rarely goes by without a news story or blog post about such instances, so I have to believe that as a society we are more aware that these challenges exist. Thus, while I agree with Ms. Pao that acknowledgement of a problem is an important step forward, I don’t believe that awareness alone can drive meaningful change.

Multiple bodies of research have demonstrated the importance of diverse teams in improving a company’s bottom line. First Round Capital published data collected from 300 of their portfolio companies earlier this year that revealed that companies with at least one female founder outperformed companies with all male teams by 63% when looking at how company values have changed over time, and a 2015 McKinsey report on diversity examined the data of 366 public companies and found that companies with gender and ethnic diversity outperformed those with less diverse workforces. But, the tech companies that have released their demographic data have shown at best marginal improvements in the diversity of their workforces over the last few years. And in the VC world, the number of female partners has actually declined since the 1990s.

The tech industry shapes our daily lives in a perhaps more profound and distinct way than any other through the devices we use, the information we consume and the people with whom we connect, but as an industry, we’ve been unable to lead the way in changing an unequal system.
We believe we can change the world from our computers, but we should ask ourselves: whose world are we actually changing? It’s a tough question without an easy answer. Real progress is uncomfortable and messy and requires that those in positions of privilege and power acknowledge that there is a problem and make an active and public choice to change outcomes by becoming allies and advocates for those in marginalized groups, and real change will have to come in many forms.

Change is a manager or executive coming to terms with the failings of a system he or she has, perhaps, even passively perpetuated, deciding to devote financial resources to equipping employees with the skills and awareness needed to recruit, hire, train and manage diverse teams that include men and women from multiple racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

Change is a group of startup founders prioritizing recruiting and hiring diverse teams from day one — even if it takes longer and proves more difficult — not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it improves the odds of success and will deliver a bigger return for investors.

Change is a venture capitalist becoming a fierce advocate for female founders and founders of color and encouraging his or her peers to do the same, making a conscious and deliberate effort to find these entrepreneurs and give them equal access to networks, capital, and mentorship.

Toward the end of her letter, Ellen Pao predicts that twenty years from now, her daughter’s experiences will be even better than Pao’s (and mine). I want that to be true but doing so will require pushing our industry and society to do more than acknowledge our broken system. It will require individuals and companies to take concrete steps to identify problems; devote time and resources to figuring out how to effectively create change; and talk publicly about their efforts, acknowledging both successes and failures.

The process won’t be easy or carefree but the impact will be lasting. And, it could truly change the world.