Skip to content

Ellen Pao and the Myth of Meritocracy

Ellen Pao may have just slayed a dragon after all.

Although the jury decided in favor of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Pao’s courageous fight has publicly exposed the pervasive culture of bias that suffuses Silicon Valley.

Even before a verdict was announced in the court of law, the court of public opinion had come to its own decision. The real defeat here is the myth that permeates tech: the notion that Silicon Valley operates as a meritocracy.

This idea, that the tech industry is inherently better than other fields, naturally allowing talent to rise to the top regardless of race, gender, class or background, has defined Silicon Valley and its leaders for over a generation. This is not just a wrong-headed perception; it is actively destructive.
The meritocracy myth has been more than simply an excuse to build a regulation-free libertarian Utopia in the Bay — it has become a justification for the jaw-dropping lack of diversity in our field. It tells women and people of color that if their career opportunities are limited, if they are interrupted in meetings or passed over for promotion or otherwise not given the opportunity to succeed, they only have themselves to blame.

When Ellen Pao fought back, she wasn’t just taking on her former employers. She was challenging the identity of our entire industry. It’s a testament to how deep-seated that identity is that it persists at all given the flood of data to the contrary.

Beyond the diversity numbers slowly disclosed over the past year, we’ve been subjected to the violent misogyny of Gamergate, the casual sexism of tech CEOs from Uber to Snapchat, and the rape threats and harassment that hound women who dare to speak up against any of it. Ellen Pao is not the first woman to fight back, but her case arrives at a time when tech leaders can no longer ignore the larger cultural sickness that pervades our field.

In 2007, the Level Playing Field Institute, an organization I founded, conducted a survey of people who had recently left their jobs in a variety of sectors. We found that more than 2 million professionals voluntarily left each year feeling pushed out by what they characterized as “unfairness” on the job. The cumulative effect cost US employers $64 billion dollars annually. Not surprisingly, women were far more likely than men to leave due to issues of fairness on the job, and people of color were more than three times more likely to cite workplace unfairness as the only reason for leaving than white men. Clearly, these problems are not limited to Silicon Valley, but the myth of the meritocracy provides a substantial roadblock to addressing them.

Tech remains a primary driver of our global economy, and what happens in Silicon Valley ultimate impacts everybody. That’s why the public conversation around tech and its overall fairness takes on significance far beyond the Bay. Issues of gender and racial underrepresentation, income inequality and the symbolism of the Google Bus, and the disappearance of jobs as the tech economy supplants traditional careers — these are problems that tech has a responsibility to address and to solve. But for a field that prides itself on finding innovative solutions, we’ve been remarkably unimaginative when it comes to fixing problems of our own making.

This problem won’t be solved by applying the old-style human resource department tactics adopted by Wall Street in the 1990s. Practices like mandatory diversity trainings often chill and strain the work environment rather than promote real conversations, and complaint and investigation systems have proven to be flawed and biased. Indeed, Wall Street today is no more diverse today than when they were first put in place.

Instead, venture firms have got to address the culture of bias, which is centered on their self-serving belief in the meritocracy. When VCs lose women in senior roles, particularly women from underrepresented backgrounds they lose the perspective — the competitive edge — that comes from lived experience and can lead to businesses that solve real problems.

Perhaps the Pao trial will be the beginning of that change. It’s time tear down our origin myth, ground ourselves in reality and get to work.