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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Ellen Pao on What Tech Is Getting Right—and Wrong—About Diversity and Inclusion

Ellen Pao speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

In recent years, “diversity” and “inclusion” have become big buzzwords in the tech industry (and beyond). Tech companies are finally talking more about the problems they have around diversity (many of their own making), and onlookers are closely tracking their words and efforts to do better.

But how is tech actually faring on matters of diversity and inclusion? The Muse turned to Ellen Pao—who is, by now, an expert.

You might have heard of Pao for her headline-making gender discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins; for her stint as interim CEO at Reddit, where she banned revenge porn and updated the anti-harassment policies; or for her memoir Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.

Today, she’s the CEO of Project Include, a nonprofit organization pushing tech startups to do better when it comes to diversity and inclusion. She wants companies to think bigger, aim higher, and do more.

In this Q&A, Pao shares her thoughts on the state of diversity and inclusion in tech—the positive changes she’s seen in recent years as well as the disappointments—and suggests steps we can all take to move things forward.

(For more with Ellen Pao on diversity in tech, subscribe to The New Rules of Work podcast—she’ll be featured on an upcoming episode. You can also find Pao’s tips for job seekers hoping to evaluate a company’s devotion to true diversity and inclusion before accepting an offer here.)

What does diversity really mean to you?

Diversity to me is comprehensive. True diversity involves everyone from every group. If you can make sure you’re thinking about the interrelated nature of identities like gender and race and age and class and disability, you can see that you’ll do a better job of making your culture open, connecting people within your organization, and making your company truly inclusive.

You announced Project Include more than three years ago. Is there anything that’s really surprised you during these first few years?

First the positive. I’ve been excited about the number of people who are working with us and the number of people who have come up to me and said they’re reading our resources—on the website or blog posts or in different publications that we write in—and learning from [them] and implementing the things that we've recommended. That’s been really rewarding and validating.

On the downside, it’s still two steps forward, one step back. I feel like we make a lot of inroads into explaining the issues of intersectionality and then often we see companies still pull back and focus only on binary gender [men vs. women]. That's been disappointing.

From the beginning, intersectionality has been core at Project Include. How do you talk about why it’s so crucial?

A few years ago I was talking to some VCs and they [were] like, “Hey, our partners have daughters.” But basically they don’t have any Black people or Latinx people in their professional lives or in their personal lives that are close to them. So they can’t go out a step and think about racial diversity and racial inclusion. They want to do this in stages, one stage at a time.

My message to them was [that] you can work on binary gender for the next five or 10 years because that’s the time it takes to change out people in your organization. And then, just like you realize today that you’re behind on gender issues, you’ll realize then that you’re super behind on racial issues and nobody from different racial groups wants to work with you. And you’re going to have to do all this work again to deal with race. And maybe that will take you 10 years. And then you’ll start on LGBTQ inclusion and diversity and that will take you another 10 years. So you can make this into a century-long process or you can really start thinking about how you can fundamentally change your process.

True inclusion is, “I am looking at this from a wide lens and I want to include everyone.” And then there’s, “I’m going to open the door a little bit and include a few people I’m comfortable with, but I’m going to exclude everybody else.” When you’re focused on binary gender, you’re continuing your pattern and system of exclusion—and even the people that you open that door a little bit for aren’t going to be fully included because your culture is of exclusion.

What positive changes and improvements have you seen with respect to diversity and inclusion in tech in recent years?

More companies are thinking about diversity and inclusion from a higher level. So the CEOs are thinking about it and the heads of people are thinking about it. They’re also treating it more like a core business imperative. You see startups setting goals—just like we have revenue goals, we’re going to have goals for diversity. There’s much more of a metrics-driven and data-driven look at it. Instead of [an] “it feels okay to me” lazy way of not focusing on the issue.

It used to be that there was a lot more lip service paid to diversity and inclusion and a lot less real attention. It was very much a PR issue. Companies were doing these unconscious bias trainings, and after 45 minutes or an hour, they would put out a press release, they would talk to a journalist about how they are now diverse and inclusive. It was very much “What do I need to tell the press to make myself look good?” Instead of, “Hey, what’s really happening in my organization and what programs do I have to implement?”

People are understanding that it helps their companies, it’s something that’s core to business, and they need to actually focus on [it] over time.

How does diversity and inclusion make the business ultimately better?

There’s a lot of data out there today that talks about how having diverse teams leads to better decisions. How having diverse boards leads to less fraud and better financial performance. There is a strong connection—proven connection—between doing better as a company and having racial and gender diversity in your organization.

If that hasn’t convinced you, then it’s often pointing out all of these companies that are having these horrible consequences to their products. Here we have people not being able to rent temporary homes. Here we have people who can’t find images of people of their race without seeing animals in their results. So you have all of these really terrible products going out because the people who built them, the people who run the companies, are homogeneous. [They] did not test the products, don’t have that internal perspective—or even people who have connections to people with that perspective—to prevent all of these problems from being baked into the products.

Trying to undo it is much harder than a problem that you could have addressed much earlier. So companies are seeing this and realizing, “Hey, if I don’t have diversity on my team and if I don’t have diversity in the feedback on my product early on, I’m going to have a lot of problems. I’m going to have to deal with it later.”

And then also being able to reach out and message to the customer base that you want. Most companies are targeting 100% of the U.S. population. They want every demographic. They want every income level. Because they want to reach as many people as possible. If you don’t have people from those groups, you’re not able to message to them, you’re not able to build products for them, and you’re not able to be as successful as you want to be.

We’ve talked about some of the positive changes. Where is there still a long way to go?

I think the focus on binary gender is really hurting progress. When you do a pay equity analysis, why wouldn’t you look at every group possible? It’s the same process. You’re just looking at everybody’s salary and making sure they fit in a band and that it’s distributed fairly. Why wouldn’t you do that for every employee in every group?

People are still sending out pictures of their teams and their conferences and their events that are all white men or all men. And there’s no embarrassment that their teams are so homogeneous. When you see the state of California mandating diversity on boards, it’s because there’s been a failure. There’s all this information out there, we know there are financial and long-term benefits to diversity on boards and executive teams—and yet some people still can’t make it happen.

The part that is most frustrating for me is that the VC firms don’t seem to be pushing. They’re comfortable with the way that the system is biased, and they’re not really taking meaningful actions to change it. They’re not tracking metrics across their portfolio companies of what the diversity levels are at all different levels and across all different demographics. They’re not looking at satisfaction levels of those groups. They’re not looking at attrition levels by demographic.

And I don’t think they’re really holding people accountable when they do have problems. We see all of these people who’ve harassed members of our community [who are] still in the community. They haven’t been held accountable and they still get funded. If they’re a VC, they’re still being asked to comment in articles and seen as people that we should respect the opinions of. I don’t think we’ve fixed things in the community to welcome them back yet.

What are effective steps someone can take to improve diversity and inclusion in a meaningful way at their own company?

There’s so much material out there. For somebody who's starting from a baseline of not knowing that much, I would read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I would look for some people to follow on Twitter. Ijeoma is good. Erica Joy Baker [and] Tracy Chou are prolific on Twitter and they follow a lot of interesting people and tweet a lot of really interesting things.

If I were at the more senior levels, I would make it a point to hire from different groups and make sure that my process is fair. If my team’s not diverse, really take a look at what’s holding us back. Even if I feel like there’s only one part [of the process] that's a problem, often if there’s one problem, there’s more than one problem. What do the people who are sending in resumes look like or that are coming in through our recruiter? Who was making it through the first funnel? Who was making it into the interview process? Who makes it through from the interview to the final interview process? Who makes it to the offer process? Who is actually accepting the offers or not? Maybe the whole process is not diverse. Really focus on making sure you’re getting great candidates from all groups and they're making it through the process fairly.

If you do have a team that has some diversity, touch base with people to make sure that they are feeling included and that they are comfortable speaking up when there are problems and that there are ways that you can catch the problem without them having to take big risks.

Once you get the basics down, then it’s feeling comfortable speaking up for people. Finding ways within your comfort zone or maybe even pushing your comfort level to speak up when things aren’t fair, when people aren’t being included, when people are being talked over or are overlooked for promotion. Are there ways that you can support people who in our tech culture are not supported and make it easier for them to participate because they’re not the ones always having to look for problems that other people are causing?

Is there anything else you want to add?

Every person can make a difference. No matter how small the contribution, it all adds up. People are starting to do more. I would encourage people to just push themselves a little bit outside of their comfort zones to do even more because it does make a huge difference.