A year ago, in March 2015, many of us were transfixed by the spectacle of Ellen Pao’s discrimination lawsuit against the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. While the jury rejected Pao’s claims, Kleiner Perkins didn’t come out unscathed: Testimony revealed a startling lack of diversity and pervasive sexism, not just in venture capital but throughout Silicon Valley. This wasn’t what we expected from an industry that claimed to be inventing the future. When women started talking, it turned out that many had faced similar problems, and their male colleagues were mostly clueless about it.
So a group led by Trae Vassallo, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins, put together a survey to document the experiences of women in high tech, focusing on those who had been in the business for at least 10 years. Their searing report, “Elephant in the Valley,” was released in January. Vassallo and co-author Michele Madansky spoke at SXSW Interactive on March 13 about their findings.
We had a chance to sit down with the two women who launched the project, Julie Oberweis, a tech entrepreneur and investor, and Monica Leas, a digital media executive, while they were students in the MSx Program at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2015.
How did the Elephant in the Valley project come about?
Leas: It started as an independent study that Julie and I concocted at Stanford. Our advisor, Maggie Neale, is a renowned expert in negotiation, and we were going to look at how women in venture capital negotiate — whether it’s different than for men. But when we started doing interviews with VCs, we realized there was a much bigger story about the position of women in this business.
Oberweis: Basically, there hardly are any. VC partners are like 95% men. It’s ridiculous, even worse than Wall Street, and we wanted to understand why. So we were talking to these women, and they all had tales to tell. It wasn’t always overt discrimination; often it was just a lot of little things, but it added up to a culture that was inhospitable to women.
Leas: In the middle of our project the whole Ellen Pao thing blew up. One of our meetings happened to be with Trae Vassallo [MBA 2000], who was testifying at the trial. She said, “You know, people don’t believe this stuff happens in the tech industry. We should do a survey.” So she pulled in some other people, and we launched this broader survey. Julie and I also published our findings from the VC interviews in a TechCrunch article last June.
The tech world prides itself on being a meritocracy. If women are underrepresented, some say it’s because there aren’t enough women who have the chops.
Leas: Yeah, we heard that a lot from male VCs: “It’s just a pipeline issue. Sure, more women are entering STEM fields now, but it takes time for them to work their way up.” One guy, who meant well, told us that women just need to be patient. Well, yes, there’s a pipeline issue, but we found that there are also big issues with recruiting practices and retention. There’s unconscious bias; there’s blatant bias and harassment. If you’re not looking at all these things, you’re not going to solve the problem.
It sounds like, at least in venture capital, there wasn’t even agreement that a problem exists.
Oberweis: The men we talked to would always say, “The way to become partner is to close deals.” In their view, it was all measurable. But the women, almost across the board, said they’d had to push harder to get in and had to work harder and close more deals than their male counterparts to be recognized. Some also felt they’d lost deals because of their gender. They weren’t whining. It was just, “Yeah, that’s the fact of the matter. But let’s giddyap; we can do this!”
So they didn’t want to get tangled up in fighting the situation?
Oberweis: Right, and I mean, it makes sense. These are women who’ve faced some steep hurdles and succeeded; they’re not going to get bogged down in a victim mentality. And they knew that complaining would be a career-hindering move. That isn’t going to change. Even with egregious things like harassment, women aren’t going to start reporting it. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Leas: Also, it would feed the story line that women aren’t tough enough for this alpha-male business. So it was “Let’s just move on” — brush it aside and keep going. And that’s what it takes! But it means the problems never get reported or addressed. That’s why I think this survey is so important, to put some numbers on the experiences of women in Silicon Valley and start a conversation.
Was there anything in the results that especially surprised you?
Leas: I guess I was surprised by the pervasiveness of the problems throughout the tech industry, not just in venture capital. Remember, these are high-level women, and 47% said they’d been asked to do menial tasks like taking notes because of their gender; 60% had faced unwanted sexual advances; 33% reported having been afraid for their safety at some point. Two-thirds felt they’d been excluded from essential networking opportunities.
Did the findings match your own personal experiences?
Leas: I actually came up through the media industry, where there are a lot more women in positions of leadership, so frankly, a lot of this was new to me. I certainly never faced anything as blatant as what our study found. But then, too, I was in a large corporation with human resource systems in place to prevent these things. In tech startups or in private VC firms, there’s not the same oversight.
Many in the Valley would say those HR structures create red tape that keep companies from moving fast.
Leas: Sure, when you’re scrambling to bring a product to market so you can make payroll, hiring an HR department isn’t at the top of your to-do list. But without those institutional checks and balances, you can get abuses of power. Maybe that’s the flip side of being lean and nimble. Certainly without some procedures, it’s easier for unconscious biases to act themselves out. It’s just human nature to surround yourself with people who are like you.
In your article on venture capital, you said it often wasn’t overt discrimination so much as all the subtle slights and disadvantages and embarrassments that discouraged women.
Oberweis: Right. Individually, none of them seem big enough to make a fuss over, but it’s like death by a thousand cuts. And it’s so often unintentional. I’ll give you an example — I feel like I live this one every day. One VC partner said she wasn’t invited to any meetings that started after 5 o’clock, because her colleagues assumed she wanted to be home with her kids. They were trying to be nice, but meanwhile, she was missing opportunities to get in on important deals.
Leas: Or we had one male VC who liked to throw a football at people when they came in the door. It was a harmless, playful gesture. But he found that he was throwing the ball to male colleagues and not to women, because it didn’t seem right. It’s a little thing, but that’s one little bonding moment lost. Or men who greet each other with a fist bump: They’re not going to do that to a woman. But how do you even raise that as an issue? There’s nothing wrong with it, and it’s not meant to be exclusionary.
Oberweis: But that’s why I believe, in every bone in my body, that we have to talk about it. Because, by the way, it’s probably true that more women than men want to get home to their kids for dinner. But I need the chance to say, “Hey, look, I want to be as much a part of this as anyone else. I’ll take care of my family situation. Let me make those decisions.” Right? We need to have these conversations as a society as we try to create an equal world.
Some of these awkward issues arise because tech has always been such a boys club. Do we just need to increase the number of women in the room for the culture to change?
Leas: I do think there’s a tipping point at which the similarity bias in hiring goes away and diversity becomes self-sustaining. So I think companies who are putting forth some kind of target numbers are on the right track, as controversial as that might be. Pinterest, Salesforce — a lot of these companies have now established hiring goals for women and minorities.
The dreaded “hiring quota?”
Leas: They’re goals, not quotas. My perspective is that even if you don’t hit the numbers on the timeline, you’re making progress, and just setting a target forces managers to think through all the pieces that go into the equation.
How have leaders in the industry received your report? Has it had an impact?
Oberweis: Women’s voices are being heard now, loud and clear, and we’ve been very pleased with the reaction. I think it’s caused a lot of companies to look at themselves and acknowledge that change is needed. We’re still at the beginning of the conversation, but we’re being asked over and over, “What’s the answer?” Just the fact that they’re asking is progress.
Some of the big tech companies have pledged millions of dollars to improve diversity. Are they taking the right steps? Is throwing money at the problem the right approach?
Oberweis: There’s been a lot of chatter and criticism. But look, this is a hard problem, and even people who work on diversity disagree about how to pursue it. We should applaud and encourage companies that are trying, and then we’ll see how they follow through. Do I think the money will make a difference? Absolutely. Thank God they’re doing it. But do I think this problem’s going away tomorrow? No.
Leas: One thing I’m sure of is we won’t get there with lawsuits. The change has to come from people with power in the industry — and that means mainly men at first — who want it to be different. But hey, come on, this is Silicon Valley! These companies are changing the world and reinventing how we live. If they take that awesome creative energy and turn it inward, they can crack this.