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A Kleiner Perkins-inspired lesson in workplace diversity

Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins, but she scored a victory for women in tech. Credit: Justin Sullivan. GettyImages

Last Friday, questions of diversity (not much) and bias (more than you’d think) in the tech industry burst into the national spotlight.

In a much-anticipated decision, a San Francisco jury of six men and six women rejected a gender discrimination suit brought against iconic Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. The plaintiff, Ellen Pao, is a former Kleiner Perkins partner, who claimed she was denied promotion because she was a woman, then punished and eventually fired (in 2012) for complaining about the firm’s alleged culture of gender discrimination.

On Friday, Pao lost her legal battle. But in exposing the offhand chauvinism of the firm’s top management (partner Chi-Hua Chien didn’t want women at a dinner with Al Gore because they “kill the buzz”; senior partner Ray Lane told a junior partner to be “flattered” by a colleague showing up at her hotel room in his bathrobe) Pao may have won the PR war.

“Kleiner Perkins has been significantly tainted by the facts that have come out in this proceedings,” Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode told The New York Times. “Defendants who win in court sometimes lose in the world outside it.”

Whatever happens next for Pao and Kleiner, her experience resonated with women throughout the tech industry, two of whom recently filed their own gender discrimination suits against Silicon Valley giants Twitter and Facebook. It also highlights the huge challenge of diversifying a workplace — any workplace, but especially those in historically homogeneous industries like science, technology and finance, which have been dominated for decades by white men.

“Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems,” wrote Katherine W. Phillips, a Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics and senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, in a 2014 Scientific American article. But … “if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.”

So, if diversity is so good for the bottom line, why is it so rare? And how do we change that?

“Diversity is a process,” says Juan Cotto, Diversity Outreach and Inclusion Manager for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Cotto was speaking to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs at the University of Washington’s Center for Commercialization at a March 13th Innovation Seminar — “Creating Diversity in the Startup World.” He was joined by Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder and executive director of Seattle’s Technology Access Foundation (TAF), and by me, as moderator.

Both Cotto and Dziko agreed: To build a diverse workforce, you have to be deliberate and in it for the long haul.

First, it requires a different approach to recruitment. That means getting the word out about “the work you’re doing to under-represented communities,” said Cotto, so you can create a pipeline of talent.

But that’s just the beginning. You can hire the best talent out there (Ellen Pao was a Princeton engineering grad with a Harvard law degree and plenty of tech industry experience), but plopping that talent down in a hostile or insensitive environment is inviting failure, says Cotto, who helped Sen. Patty Murray and former Gov. Gary Locke cultivate relationships with minority communities before starting at Hutch in August 2006.

“When we attract people to the [Fred Hutch] we look at our own atmosphere,” he says. “Is this a welcoming environment to women, people of color, people with disabilities? Are we taking care of them? You’re not going to improve the numbers until you improve the environment.”

Dziko has been working on and speaking out about diversity since she started helping Microsoft recruit minority candidates in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. She spent her last 18 months at Microsoft as its diversity administrator, as she describes it, “bringing people into the company, and helping to retain them.” Echoing Cotto, she says that retention often involves training employees to think and behave differently.

“It’s not about racism,” she says, “it’s about bias.” The often-unconscious cultural assumption, for example, that someone who is white and male is de facto smarter and more qualified. Or the composition of our personal and professional networks. What hiring manager doesn’t circulate a job description to his or her colleagues? If that network isn’t diverse, the referrals that come back probably won’t be either.

What it comes down to, says Dziko, is that if you want diversity in the workplace “you have to have diversity in your life.” Easier said then done. After all, Seattle is a fairly diverse city, but where do you go to actually encounter, experience, engage that diversity?

That’s why corporate America’s sincere embrace of workplace diversity is so important, especially in industries like science and technology, whose practitioners fancy themselves innovative, iconoclastic risk-takers. Not just because the demographics demand it: “Kids of color are in the majority starting this year,” says Dziko. “As they get older that’s the pool companies will have to choose from. You have to develop them and start to value them now.” But because the office or shop or factory may be the only place in our day-to-day routine where we get to actually meet and mingle with people of other genders, races, creeds. People who are not just like us.

That’s good for business — and the soul.

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