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Ellen Pao remembers shock of watching Anita Hill hearings

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SAN FRANCISCO — Ellen Pao and Anita Hill waged battles against powerful interests over workplace bias decades apart. For the first time this week, the two will meet.

Pao, the woman who unsuccessfully sued one of the world’s most famous venture capital firms for gender discrimination, still remembers how she felt watching Hill on television during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas a quarter century ago.

“I was at a law firm at the time, and we watched her testimony, and it was just shocking for people who could see she was telling the truth,” Pao recalled. “It was just shocking that this was actually happening to somebody who was clearly trying to do the right thing and was getting attacked.”

Now with the headlines once again filled with allegations of sexual harassment and gender bias from Donald Trump to Bill O’Reilly, Pao will sit down with Hill for a public conversation about their experiences and their perspective. The public trials of both women triggered national debate of one of the most serious issues facing women in the workplace.

Little thought was given to the gender imbalance in the mostly white male world of venture capital until Pao filed her case in May 2012. But for Silicon Valley, this would become its Anita Hill moment.

The tech industry had promoted itself as a young meritocracy where the best ideas win. But in focusing on more subtle forms of sexism and harassment (men-only dinners, frat-house conversations on private planes and women being relegated to the role of taking notes in meetings), Pao revealed an industry like many others, where overt and unconscious bias systematically excludes women and people of color. With the more recent first-person account from Susan Fowler about rampant sexism at ride-hailing company Uber, it became even clearer that Silicon Valley has a problem with how it treats women.

“Tech has kind of hit its peak in positive PR. People are now seeing a little bit what’s going on under the surface,” Pao told USA TODAY. “Not all of these unicorns are going to succeed. Not all of these founders are boy wonders who are going to save the universe. I think people have become more realistic about tech.”

Today Pao is chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and a venture partner at Kapor Capital, as well as co-founder of Project Include, which is trying to accelerate the pace of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. Pao and Hill are headlining an event Thursday evening organized by the Kapor Center and moderated by journalist Michele Norris. She spoke with USA TODAY earlier this week. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Have things improved in the tech sector since you filed your lawsuit?

A: I think things have improved. Especially in the last five years, people understand it more. I think in the beginning, people were very skeptical. There wasn’t anybody who had heard of it because no one was talking about it. But as people shared their stories and people shared their experiences, there’s less of a ‘doubt the victim’ and there’s a little more of, here’s another example of the problems in the tech ecosystem today.

Q: Are the tools available today helping get these stories into the public sphere and raising awareness?

A: The ability to share on social networks and the virality of these stories has been a big change from 25 years ago. You can now share your story anonymously much more easily than you could earlier and you can watch people have conversations about it. And when people come out and say negative things about you, there will be other people who have had similar experiences or who know people who have had similar experiences who will defend you. And that’s a very different environment today than it was even five years ago. And that’s been productive. You do get this openness, this transparency, this visibility into what is actually happening that we didn’t have before.

Q:  Did you think about the personal toll her testimony took on Anita Hill when you were deciding whether to move forward with your lawsuit?

A: I did understand what the personal toll would be but I think at the end you have to do what your conscience tells you to do and for me it was very clear that I had this opportunity to sue. I wanted share my story.

Q: Why was Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer who described rampant sexism at the ride-hailing company, believed?

A: I think there were enough stories about Uber. There were enough stories about what happens to women and people of color at tech companies. People are talking more. People are seeing more. And she told her story in a way that was very clear cut. It was very matter of fact. It was very persistent. It didn’t seem she had an ax to grind. She was at another job.

Q: Where are you seeing change in the tech world?

A: I am seeing change at earlier stage start-up companies. For a lot of big companies, the ship has sailed. They are trying to bolt on diversity and inclusion and we’ve seen from the numbers at Google, it’s hard to change.

I think when I talk to the CEOs and founders of early stage start-ups with fewer than 100 people or even 50 people, they are aware of all of the reasons for making diversity and inclusion part of their company from the early days. When you think about how they’re hiring, how they’re promoting people, how they’re incorporating people onto teams, how they’re designing their teams, it’s much different than when I started in tech.

Q: Did intersectionality (a term that describes overlapping forms of discrimination, such as gender and race) play a role during your case and in the outcome?

A: It was interesting. We made a conscious choice to focus on gender because it simplifies it for a jury. The law requires you to prove that it was slightly more than 50% due to the reason you are stating for discrimination, and we focused on gender. There are definitely examples of racism, examples of ageism, in my experiences. And that combination is hard to unravel because all of it is tied together.

Q: Did being an Asian woman play a role in the trial and the outcome?

A: I’m sure it did. I didn’t have a chance to talk with many of the jurors, so it’s hard to know. I think there’s an expected set of behaviors and a lot of stereotypes around being diligent, around working hard, around not complaining. I think that plays into both the workplace and juror perception.

Q: What role should white women play in helping push the conversation around intersectionality?

A: I think this is a question that we are still figuring out. But one of the key things has always been: Bring other people on board with you. So when you get asked to do that project, can you bring somebody else on board with you? When you get asked to do that panel, can you bring somebody else on board with you? And the answer isn’t always going to be yes, but the fact that you ask and the fact that you point out the problem with the all-white team or the all-white panel is something that raises awareness.

Q: You are going to be interviewed with Anita Hill. What would you like to ask her?

A: I think it’s how you stay positive going through all of that. For me, it was hard and it was definitely a struggle. I’d be curious to see how she made it through all of that and then continued on this positive track to instituting change and continuing to fight the battle in other ways. I’d be curious to hear what were the things that kept her going in such a public fight with such powerful people staring her down day in day out.

Q: What were the things that kept you going?

A: I knew I was right and, at the end of the day, that’s what drove me through the whole thing.

More:

Sexual harassment still a reality in the workplace

Silicon Valley gender gap is widening

Silicon Valley’s dirty little secret: The way it treats women

Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynnMore USA TODAY coverage on inclusion and diversity in tech.

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