Women Tech Leaders Are Constantly Being Told They're Too Aggressive

A new survey inspired by Ellen Pao's gender-discrimination lawsuit touches on harassment, exclusion, and sexism.
Ellen Pao arrives at San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco on March 3, 2015. (Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Jan 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

When Ellen Pao's gender-discrimination case went to trial last year in San Francisco, former colleagues who testified against her offered harsh and sometimes inconsistent criticism: The former junior investing partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was either too aggressive or not aggressive enough, or spoke up too often or at times was too quiet, they said.

Pao lost the lawsuit, but many women championed the case for exposing the subtle ways bias and discrimination can play out in the workplace. The legal battle also catalyzed a survey released this week about the challenges facing senior-level women in Silicon Valley. Organized by seven women who work in the industry, the informal poll, dubbed "Elephant in the Valley," collected more than 200 responses from women whose careers span at least a decade. It's unclear how the survey was disseminated and during what time period, but the report's authors said the majority of respondents are over 40, live in the Bay Area, and have families.

The results reveal that Pao is far from the only female executive in Silicon Valley to receive feedback about being either too harsh or too meek in the workplace. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they were told they were too aggressive, with half hearing it on more than one occasion.

Pao's lawsuit alleged that she was not invited to company dinners because a male colleague thought she would "kill the buzz." Similarly, 66 percent of the women surveyed—most of whom are founders, investors, and chief officers—said they felt excluded from key social and networking events because of their gender. When asked to provide examples of their exclusion or marginalization, the women shared stories of being taken to Hooters for company lunches, being asked to participate in physical off-site activities while pregnant, or watching male coworkers bond over shaving their heads to resemble the boss.

One of the organizers of the survey is Trae Vassallo, a former Kleiner Perkins partner and an ex-colleague of Pao's. During the gender-discrimination trial, Vassallo lent her support by testifying that she had been harassed by the same partner who Pao alleged had discriminated against her. "What we realized [after the trial] is that while many women shared similar workplace stories, most men were simply shocked and unaware of the issues facing women in the workplace," she and her coauthors wrote in the survey.

Ninety percent of respondents said they witnessed sexist behavior at industry conferences or company outings. But sexual harassment wasn't limited to off-site meetings. Sixty percent of respondents reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, and more than half of those women received advances from a superior.

The stories they shared involved clients who asked a female executive to sit on their lap before purchasing a product, CEOs who suggested their female colleague walk ahead of them so they could check out their bodies, and hiring managers who were straightforward about suggesting that sex could advance a female employee's position in the company.

Those statistics aren't unique to Silicon Valley. One in three women 18 to 34 has been sexually harassed at work, regardless of her industry or experience level, according to a survey of more than 2,000 full-time and part-time workers published last year by Cosmopolitan magazine. Of the women who said they'd experienced sexual harassment on the job, 71 percent did not report it to authorities. A survey conducted by Elle magazine and the Center for American Progress in 2013 suggests that the higher women rise through the corporate ranks, the more likely they are to face discrimination.

Pao, who resigned as interim CEO of Reddit last July following user protests over a controversial firing decision, shared her post-lawsuit advice in a November issue of Lenny Letter. "For now, what I'd tell any woman struggling in a male-dominated work culture is: 'Do not give up. You are not alone,' " she wrote. "There are millions of women and men who are supporting you and want you to succeed."