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Ellen Pao: VC firms hire women to do 'menial tasks' and 'clean up all the problems'

Ellen Pao has seen sexism in Silicon Valley firsthand.

Pao, a longtime venture capitalist and former CEO of Reddit, grabbed headlines in 2015 when a gender discrimination suit she filed against VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers went to trial.

The case — in which Pao alleged workplace retaliation by a male employee following a brief affair — was decided in Kleiner Perkins' favor. But it resulted in what has been termed "the Pao effect": a perceived uptick in female employees at some of Silicon Valley's biggest companies coming forward to report mistreatment.

Ellen Pao leaves the California Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break from her trial on March 10, 2015 in San Francisco, California.
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Ellen Pao leaves the California Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break from her trial on March 10, 2015 in San Francisco, California.

In a lengthy essay published this week by New York Magazine's The Cut, Pao reflects on her decision to bring the suit and its effect on her career and personal life.

She also parses an unsettling paradox: Why do venture capital firms hire female employees, only to prevent them from advancing professionally?

When Pao described the types of discrimination she had witnessed and experienced at Kleiner Perkins to an outside independent investigator, the investigator asked her, "Well, if they look down on women so much, if they block you from opportunities, they don't include you at their events, why do they even keep you around in the first place?"

Pao considered the question carefully. She writes:

The answer crystallized in my mind. If you had the opportunity to have workers who were overeducated, underpaid and highly experienced, whom you could dump all the menial tasks you didn't want to do on, whom you could get to clean up all the problems, and whom you could create a second class out of, wouldn't you want them to stay?

Senior partners at venture capital firms — and Silicon Valley managers more broadly — profit from keeping women around but on the sidelines, she explains. In her time at the firm, Pao writes that she found that "the women had twice as many years at Kleiner, but only the men got promoted."

She cites the example of a discrimination lawsuit filed by a female employee of Facebook, who says she was "given menial tasks like serving drinks to the men on the team."

Similarly, she recalls how her former boss John Doerr employed two chiefs of staff, one male and one female. The male employee primarily oversaw investing responsibilities and the female employee "did more of the grunt work." Pao recalls how Doerr once told her, "There are certain things I am just more comfortable asking a woman to do."

When she filed her lawsuit against Kleiner in 2012, Pao writes that "only one woman in the firm's 40-year history had ever been promoted to senior partner."

And yet, she is optimistic that things will improve for women in the Valley. Pao writes, "Over the past year, despite the ongoing public exposure of the ways both the president and tech companies like Uber discourage diversity and inclusion, we've seen results that give us hope."

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