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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Pao drew attention to inequality in STEM

It comes as no surprise that the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industry largely remains a boys club. In fact, according to Jill Williams, director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program, the machismo culture is even expanding.

“The overall number of female partners in venture capital firms has decreased to just 6 percent,” Williams said, “down from 10 percent in 1999.”

No matter a woman’s skills or aptitude, it is exceedingly difficult for her to permeate the male-dominated field and attain the success she deserves.

Everyone loves the story of the underdog. We secretly crave their success in overcoming whatever adversity has been working against them. The story is a little different for women, though; when the female underdog speaks out, she often receives an unprecedented backlash.

It appeared the trial of Ellen Pao, an underdog venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, couldn’t have been timelier. Pao decided to speak out about the discrimination she allegedly faced at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — one of the largest venture capitalist firms in Silicon Valley — through a high-profile lawsuit. When Pao explained her grievances, Silicon Valley and the rest of the country was eager to listen.

The experiences Pao detailed in court — being excluded from all-male excursions, suffering through talk of porn stars during business trips and being invited to a partner’s home for dinner when his wife was out of town — resonated a little too well with women in tech throughout the country.

So, when Pao alleged that these subtle, cumulative forms of discrimination led to her lack of promotion to partner and eventual termination at Kleiner Perkins, it seemed reasonable that a jury could put two and two together.

Unfortunately, this was not the case: The jury sided with Kleiner Perkins on all counts.

To those who say Pao simply wasn’t the right spokeswoman to get the gender equity movement off the ground, to say this is to imply there is a one-size-fits-all formula for a woman to ascend the ranks in STEM. To say this completely contradicts the movement for workplace diversity in the first place.

To those who speculate that this simply wasn’t the right time for a case like this to succeed, this is true. The right time for women to attain equity in tech fields was decades ago.

While unfortunate, the case’s outcome is not as important as the number of eyes that were on it. Thanks to Pao, women in tech are rallying to keep the conversation going, while other Silicon Valley tech firms are racing to amend their recruitment and discrimination policies, thankful it wasn’t them in the hot seat for perpetuating similar hostilities.

This may be the case that demands employers address gender discrimination at a deeper level than that of boasting about their binders full of women. Hopefully, this case will call tech firms not only to re-evaluate their recruitment of women but to enact policies that make the workplace an environment free of discrimination or harassment.

Williams elucidates the importance of this.

“Things like unwelcoming office environments and a lack of mentorship have been shown to compel women to leave fields in which they are under-represented,” she said.

San Jose Mercury News reported that Christine Tsai, founder of the seed fund and accelerator 500 Startups, thinks the wheels are already in motion. Since the Pao case, she “has seen startups with just 10 to 20 employees asking about how to create a harassment policy — considerably earlier in their development than they would have in the past.”

Though change can’t be expected to happen overnight, hopefully, as perceived barriers to entry in tech are chiseled away, young women will be more comfortable embracing their passions for tech at an undergraduate level and beyond.

“Even if there are not any formal barriers to a woman in STEM, it can still be very intimidating to look around you and realize there isn’t anyone else like you there,” said Jeannie Wilkening, treasurer of the UA Society of Women Engineers.

With continued dialogue and collaboration, tech fields won’t appear so homogenous to innovative young women who dream of finding their niche in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Ideally, tech firms will embrace the gender equity movement for reasons beyond checking a box or covering their corporate backsides. This is a huge opportunity for STEM companies to act in accordance with the spirit of innovation they are founded upon.


Hailey Dickson is a freshman studying public health and molecular & cellular biology. Follow her on Twitter.

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