Advice From the Woman Who Fought Silicon Valley’s Boys’ Club
Oscar-winning actor Jennifer Lawrence and Harvard-trained lawyer and venture capitalist Ellen Pao might seem to have little in common, but both women have struggled to be taken seriously in male-dominated industries.
In the past month, each has turned to Lenny Letter, Lena Dunham’s feminist digital newsletter, to share personal insight about her experiences battling sexism—one in the studios of Hollywood, the other in the offices of Silicon Valley. Lawrence drew international headlines in October when she wrote about what she called her failure to negotiate fair pay in an attempt to be more likable, and on Tuesday, Pao wrote an essay urging women to use their voices to protest against injustice.
“For now, what I’d tell any woman struggling in a male-dominated work culture is: do not give up. You are not alone,” Pao wrote, after outlining two key pieces of advice: Be resilient and speak up. “There are millions of women and men who are supporting you and want you to succeed,” she wrote.
Her wisdom comes nearly eight months after she lost a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. While the jury ruled against Pao on all counts, the trial ignited an ongoing dialogue about women’s underrepresentation in Silicon Valley, fueling media coverage and making Pao something of a feminist hero for many women in the industry.
The lawsuit also brought to light a number of allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination—from all-male dinners and ski trips to open discussion of trips to the Playboy mansion—in an industry where business interactions are often intensely guarded. During the trial, Pao was characterized by her former colleagues as cold and dismissive. A senior partner said Pao, a junior investing partner up until she was terminated in 2012, had a “female chip on her shoulder.”
But Pao says social media and public data are helping to expose and hold people and companies accountable for instances of bias, discrimination, and harassment. In her essay, she pointed to the Pinterest software engineer who published statistics showing her company’s lack of women engineers; the Twitter executive who wrote about an experience at a tech award show that prompted her never to return; and the investor who faced a backlash after defending the lack of women in Silicon Valley by reasoning that men and women have different brains and skill sets.
“The biggest positive difference over the past 20 years is how women and minorities are sharing others’ bad behavior, data, and their own experiences publicly,” Pao wrote, cautioning that while many of the statistics may sound discouraging, progress is slowly being made—and much of it starts with people speaking out on the Internet. “Twenty years from now, when my daughter is in her 20s, I know her experiences will be even better than mine and than yours,” she wrote. Despite the high levels of harassment she faced online during the monthlong trial, Pao said the risk she took in publicly sharing her story “was totally worth it.”