Silicon Valley and undoing the normalization of sexism as corporate culture

Much of the attention on Silicon Valley in recent months has been not for new technological innovations or advances in the markets. Unfortunately, the public discussion surrounding the high-tech and start-up world, and the individuals and companies that finance that industry, has been focused on worst practices for corporate cultures. As society at large grapples with gender equity, racial and ethnic representation, generational workstyles, politics in the workplace, and many other diversity challenges, the most frequent conclusion seems to be that the state of things in 2017 is not as progressive or integrated as may have been assumed.

Many high-profile Silicon Valley organizations have coped with this revelation of corporate intolerance very publicly. Among them is Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, a high-profile venture capital firm. Managing partner John Doerr was an investor in some of the highest profile first generation technology companies to come to market: Intuit, Netscape, Amazon, Google. When he hired Ellen Pao in 2005 as his chief of staff, it seemed like he was assertively signalling that Kleiner Perkins wanted to take the lead on elevating qualified women to visible leadership roles in Silicon Valley, where men have overrepresented women in management, and within the even more traditionally male-focused venture capital domain.

Pao’s experiences throughout her tenure at Kleiner Perkins, capped off with her 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit and her firing before that lawsuit came to trial, indicate a different environment. Rather than being valued for her contributions and promoted on her merits, Pao alleges that she was harassed after a workplace romance went bad and that she was often marginalized in her role, expected to take on essentially personal assistant type duties while investing or higher level tasks went to male colleagues. Instead of contributing to a gender-integrated workplace where individuals were elevated for their accomplishments, insights, and commitment to their jobs, Pao paints the picture of a dysfunctional and increasingly hostile environment.

Kleiner Perkins did not have policies or training against sexual harassment at the time Pao worked there. A control framework to identify, prevent, and address these corporate culture issues is imperative. Any company that does not set a tone on these matters and take the time to thoughtfully and proactively set expectations for an integrated, balanced organizational culture demonstrates no credible commitment to workplace equality and the merits of the diversity of viewpoints this brings with it.

Many cultural changes have been underway for so long that they are taken for granted or even pushed against by now as creating an undue burden in the other direction. The truth, however, is that these movements toward a more balanced, integrated workplace are still stymied by a lack of genuine commitment. Ideally the office would looks much more the best version of the world, where people are elevated for their merits and not their demographic traits, and are not kept from even getting on the road to success because of someone else’s decisions about their right to work because of a trait like gender. In order for this to really develop, though, leaders in business (both established ones like Kleiner Perkins and start-ups who are defining their corporate values for the first time) need to take ethical stock of where they stand and if they can commit to creating a culture where all people are accepted and utilized for their merits, then they need to do so visibly and meaningfully. The time of tokenism or promises without true intention needs to be past so that people of all kinds can get into legitimate leadership positions and then pay it forward to the next generation behind them.

Pao did not prevail in her lawsuit, but perhaps it will endure anyway as a test case. While it did not result in a guilty verdict, cases like this one can be a cultural watershed for policy and enforcement standards in companies to mitigate legal risk. Perhaps also other women working in, or fired from, Silicon Valley under similar circumstances can see where Pao succeeded and failed in her legal strategy and take up the cause on their own behalves. Bringing these issues into the public light can certainly drive change in creating a cultural imperative for women in tech to speak up and out.

For more insight on Pao’s experiences in Silicon Valley and happened with her lawsuit against her former employer, see this excerpt from her book on The Cut, originally from New York Magazine.

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