Former Reddit chief now aims to tackle sexism in Silicon Valley

Ellen Pao, who unsuccessfully sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for gender discrimination, joins the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

Eric Risberg/AP Photo/File
Ellen Pao leaves the Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break in her trial in San Francisco against a former employer for gender discrimination in February 2015.

Silicon Valley has been known for its lack of gender diversity but one woman aims to close the gap.

Ellen Pao, whose unsuccessful suit against a former employer for gender discrimination highlighted sexism in Silicon Valley, joined Kapor Center for Social Impact Wednesday to head its diversity and inclusion efforts, Reuters reports. 

In a three-year legal battle that highlighted what many see as a lack of diversity at many technology companies and tech investment firms, Ms. Pao sued her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for gender discrimination and retaliation. The jury ruled in favor of the venture capital firm in 2015. 

In her new role at the Kapor Center, a nonprofit founded by Lotus spreadsheet software founder Mitch Kapor and his wife Freada Kapor Klein, Ms. Pao, who also served as former interim chief executive officer of Reddit, aims to help startups ensure they have a diverse workplace. 

"I see a lot of opportunity in diversity and inclusion," she told USA Today. "Bringing different genders and people of different races and ethnicities onto teams and onto boards has a huge impact on financial performance and improves your product."

She will also serve as a venture partner at Kapor Capital, an Oakland, Calif.-based firm that invests in startups that try to solve problems for underserved people.

Commending on Pao’s experience working in tech and inclusion, Ms. Klein said Pao is in the perfect position to help close the gaps.

"Ellen will be responsible for weaving together all of our efforts to accurately identify the obstacles to creating and sustaining a diverse and inclusive tech ecosystem, and provide a comprehensive practical solution," Klein told Forbes.

Pao's lawsuit also inspired the "Elephant in the Valley" survey, a survey of more than 200 women in the Bay Area-centered tech industry in which 60 percent of the women said they have been sexually harassed, and vast majority said they have witnessed sexism at off-site events, The Christian Science Monitor reported. 

This announcement comes at a time when many major tech companies are filing their annual diversity reports for the past year.

Although many major tech companies set goals around hiring, their diversity reports indicate that they might need to do more. At Apple in 2016, for example, just 32 percent of employees globally are women. At  Microsoft, that figure is 25.8 percent. At both companies, about twice the number of women held nontechnical roles compared to technical ones, and leadership positions are almost exclusively dominated by men. 

In an effort in July to explain the disparity, Facebook argued that the roots of problem lie farther upstream.

"It has become clear that at the most fundamental level, appropriate representation in technology or any other industry will depend upon more people having the opportunity to gain necessary skills through the public education system," Maxine Williams, global director of diversity said in a statement. 

But this "pipeline" argument has its critics come under fire from diversity thinkers, as NPR reported in July: 

"This is a multifaceted problem. ... But when you hear these inane kind of platitudes and then pushing the responsibility off to the pipeline, it's insulting," says Catherine Bracy, co-founder of the Oakland TechEquity Collaborative and former community organizer at Code for America. "The fact that you can't hire people into nontechnical roles, how do you account for that?"

Others have pointed to these companies’ hiring systems. Bloomberg reported Monday that, despite Facebook’s efforts to give priority to engineering candidates from underrepresented groups, the company still sees little change in its department’s demographics.

Joelle Emerson, a diversity consultant, identified Facebook’s hindering hiring process, in which an almost white or Asian male leadership makes final decisions – a practice common in Silicon Valley – as the key.

"Because it's far easier to think about bringing people into the funnel," she told Bloomberg. "It's harder to think about changing a broader process that a company has been using for maybe ten years."

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