The Discrimination Double Standard

Posted by in Commentary, Rights

By Liz Gannes, Re/code

This week in Silicon Valley, it’s trendy to speak out against discrimination.

But last week, many of the same people weren’t quite so forthcoming.

Led by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Apple CEO Tim Cook, Silicon Valley is loudly complaining about homophobic laws passed in Indiana and Arkansas in recent days that allow businesses to refuse service to customers based on religious beliefs.

A who’s who of leaders from companies such as Yelp, Square, Twitter, Lyft, Airbnb, eBay, PayPal and others signed their names to a petition today urging legislatures to forbid discrimination or denial of services to anyone, saying, “Discrimination is bad for business.” Petition leader Max Levchin, a PayPal co-founder and currently CEO of finance startup Affirm, told Re/code: “I am asking all CEOs to evaluate their relationships and investments in states that do not specifically protect LGBT people from discrimination.”

That’s great and even admirable, except that here on the home front, Silicon Valley has its own very obvious discrimination problems. Gender is a big one. Race is another. The numbers are so incredibly skewed for the majority — the published diversity numbers in technology are something like 70 percent men, 90 percent white and Asian — that the situation is very often unhealthy for people who don’t or can’t fit in.

While these are not twin causes, there are obvious parallels, and the inconsistencies between them became all the more evident this week.

It’s hard to take a meaningful stand against something that’s subtle. Discrimination in the technology industry is not often overt — in fact, there’s even a word for it: Unconscious bias. And the particulars of any one situation aren’t simple, especially when personal loyalties are at stake.

For the last five weeks as we wrote daily trial coverage about the gender discrimination lawsuit brought against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers by former employee Ellen Pao, Nellie Bowles and I received daily emails and messages. It was the most feedback we’ve ever gotten on any Re/code story.

People told us about conversations they’d had with men in venture capital about why they don’t hire more women. “They say ‘We’ve tried!’ They say ‘They’re just not in tech.’ It’s horseshit,” one woman who works in VC said. She didn’t want her name used. “The vast majority of partners, they’re MBAs, or guys out of finance. There are tons of women with those backgrounds. They hire men who look like that, why can’t they hire women who look like that? They say, ‘Oh, they all have jobs.’ Who are you kidding, the men [candidates] all have jobs too!”

Many people, especially women, told us the issues strongly resonated with them. They told us they felt they were treated differently and had fewer networking opportunities in the industry because of their gender. But they were largely unwilling to go on the record.

There are good reasons for that. Most prominently, Ellen Pao’s case was far from perfect — a jury of her peers ultimately disagreed with every count of it. For another thing, Pao has a complicated personal life, and many people don’t believe what she says because of her husband’s bankruptcy problems and history of litigation. Plus, the protracted five-week-long trial wasn’t over until it was over, so people told us they were waiting to pass judgment in public. Others reminded us that Kleiner Perkins continues to be a big, respected, established venture firm, and picking sides could be bad for business.

Former Yahoo president Sue Decker was a rare woman willing to wade into the public discussion after she sat through a day of the trial with her daughters. She wrote in a guest column for Re/code:

“I, and most women I know, have been a party to at least some sexist or discriminatory behavior in the workplace. Many of the examples raised in this trial are behaviors I have personally witnessed along the way. At the same time, the men who may be promulgating it are often very unaware of the slights, and did not intend the outcome. And for the women, it happens in incremental steps that often seem so small in isolation that any individual act seems silly to complain about. So we move on. But in aggregate, and with the perspective of hindsight, they are real.”

Listen to that — she’s saying she recognizes Pao’s story in her own. She’s not saying that Ellen Pao is a martyr. She’s not saying Ellen Pao should have won. She’s saying there’s a problem here, and the trial created an opportunity to talk about it.

In a CNBC interview on Monday, Levchin said of the Indiana law: “I think every person that has their moral fibers pointing the right way should ask themselves what does this mean for them. It’s a big important issue. Discrimination is something we’ve had in the past in the country — Jim Crow laws and such — let’s not forget about this, let’s treat it very seriously.”

But then when asked in the same segment about the Ellen Pao trial, Levchin turned less clear:

“It’s one of these issues where I’m not sure there’s a huge victory for anyone on either side. It’s just an awful thing to watch, to be completely honest. I haven’t thought too carefully through what it meant. I don’t know if it impacts my world immediately. I think at my companies, anywhere I’m involved, we take great care of our employees, we welcome diversity, we try to hire and open up opportunities for everyone, so I don’t feel that we need to change anything at all independent of this verdict. But I think the fact it came to a courtroom is sad to see.”

Look over there, Levchin is saying. Over here? There’s nothing to see.

Perhaps it’s easier to speak out when it comes to some bigots in flyover country who passed an actual law. And it’s harder to come up with solutions for your own institutional problem. Will better bias training work? Better efforts toward the years of support that help generate new women leaders? Better shaming of companies that persist in keeping only men at the top?

It’s more convenient to pivot to another new issue so you can regain your sense of moral superiority.

In praising the industry’s stand against discrimination based on sexual orientation, Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein of the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, Calif., told the New York Times just that. “We would like to see the same level of steadfast commitment and action with respect to the hidden biases that permeate the Valley,” they said.

They’re spot on. In Silicon Valley, fighting homophobia is an easy issue. Instant alliances can pop up — as long as the villain is outside of ourselves. But when it comes to the harder topics here at home, and it turns out the enemy is us? That’s a problem that all these genius techies can’t seem to grok quite as easily.