Thoughts on the Ellen Pao Case, and the Gender/Silicon Valley Interaction

The Pao v. Kleiner Perkins trial, decided completely in the defendant’s favor last Friday, had all the ingredients of a gripping movie: sex, gender, money and power.  What a plot! An Ivy League-educated Asian-American woman (“daughter of Chinese immigrants,” the press loved to say, as if Pao’s father had been a Chinatown dishwasher rather than an NYU math professor) sues her uber-powerful venture capitalist employer for sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.

Titillating as all this is, I’ve found the press coverage on the central issue — gender discrimination in the tech industry — to be rather misleading.  For instance, all those headlines like “Pao Case Roils Silicon Valley” are greatly exaggerated.  On the contrary, I believe that at least among engineers, most people are barely aware of the case, and more than a few are not aware of it at all.

In this post I’ll comment a bit on the case, and then discuss the gender issue in Silicon Valley as I see it.

If nothing else, Pao had courage to lay out her entire life for the world’s salacious viewing, as she pointed out somewhat defensively but quite reasonably in response to a juror query.  But as the headline “Pao vs. Pao” in one article noted, she probably was her own worst enemy.

Putting aside her personal actions that presumably put her at a disadvantage in the case right from the start, she was portrayed in company records and by numerous witnesses as having a sense of entitlement, apparently because she felt her Princeton and Harvard degrees gave her an imprimatur of top talent. Whether this charge was accurate or not in Ms. Pao’s case, my own observation is that it rings true for many in the Valley who attended the Ivies. One lesson to be drawn is that mastering the art of gaining admission to Ivy League schools does not automatically imply that one has the chops to do well in business and industry. (This lesson, of course, needs to be learned particularly by all those “Tiger Moms.”)

On the other hand, certain claims made by Pao ring true too. Based on my interaction with Valley types, Pao’s claim that a colleague said that the presence of women in meetings “kills the buzz” sounds just like what some men I know in tech would say.  (The colleague denied using the phrase.)

Another Pao claim that sounds plausible to me concerns seating arrangements at meetings.  Pao discussed her not being seated at the “main” table, and took her exclusion to be gender-based. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this, but an incident that occurred in my class last week seemed to bolster Pao’s claim, as follows.

In any undergraduate course I teach, I have students work on programming assignments in teams of three or four. On the last day of class, I also give a team quiz, in which students work in their teams, on their laptops. Usually the students arrange the desks in circles so that team members can interact well with each other, but in the classroom last week the desks are bolted to the floor.

During that team quiz, I noticed that one team consisting of three men and one woman had the men seated in one row, and the woman seated in the row behind them.  She was constantly craning her neck to try to participate, and I never saw any of the men turn toward her or say anything to her during the entire 75 minutes of the quiz.  A second three-males, one female group was similar. (The other female students in the class formed their own all-woman team.)

My wife believes she was the subject of little or no gender discrimination during her many years as a software engineer in the Valley. Indeed, she was approached a couple of times to move into management. But not all women are as assertive and articulate as she, and though many men lack these traits too, I do believe that women are penalized more heavily for those “deficits.”

I place the latter word in quotation marks because I believe a good case can be made that the typical hiring procedures at Silicon Valley firms are misguided, placing too much emphasis during interviews on quickness and talk like, say

The next version of the gcc compiler will enable OpenACC directives, and wow, that will be SWEET! I’ve got a high-end NVIDIA card on my Linux box, and now it will be easy to port the awesome games I plan to write.

Startups, especially those in the SoMa district of San Francisco, are particularly prone to value this kind of behavior in interviews. And here is the gender aspect: I’ve only rarely seen women who talk like that. Most men don’t either, but the ones who do are almost all male. While it is understandable the employers want to hire workers who have enthusiasm for their field (though much less justified to value quickness), I believe that this view of hiring is wrongly disadvantaging the women, and is causing employers to overlook many top-notch talents who happen to be female.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to meet with a Department of Labor attorney to discuss whether the H-1B work visa program is exacerbating the gender imbalance in the tech industry. Given my criticism of the program, she was quite surprised when I answered her question in the negative. Actually, I told her that although I had not yet done a formal analysis of the data, my impression over the years has been that, at least among the foreign students, the percentage of women in that group is higher than that among their American peers.

I should mention that one does need to distinguish between Silicon Valley proper (Santa Clara County) and San Francisco.  The former is heavily immigrant — Indians of course, with a significant Chinese minority — and married with family.  The latter group has some immigrants, but more often from Europe and the like, and is typically single. And though both Indian and Chinese cultures are putatively sexist, I believe on the other hand they are less prone to insist on hiring someone because he said, “Version 4.9 of gcc will be SWEET!”

In short, I contend that there is in fact serious, albeit subtle, gender discrimination in the tech field. I’m much less sure that Pao’s case helped to bring this out.


19 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Ellen Pao Case, and the Gender/Silicon Valley Interaction

  1. @matloff: ‘I told [a Department of Labor attorney] that although I had not yet done a formal analysis of the data, my impression over the years has been that, at least among the foreign students, the percentage of women in that group is higher than that among their American peers.’

    I’m finding that sentence hard to parse. Do you mean that

    1. the ratio of female foreign students (in some school/major, presumably UCD computer science) to all foreign students (in same school/major) is higher than the ratio of female citizen students (in same school/major) to all citizen students (in same school/major)

    2. the ratio of female H-1Bs to all H-1Bs is higher than the ratio of female citizen tech workers to all citizen tech workers

    3. Something Completely Different?


    • Look at Master’s and PhD students in computer science, not just at UCD but nationwide. (I do get reasonably good exposure to those from other schools, e.g. at research conferences.) The percentage of women among the foreign students is higher than the percentage of women among the domestic students (U.S. citizens and permanent residents), I believe. Maybe I’ll some data analysis this evening.


  2. Here’s my take on the Pao matter: I have never seen rampant sexism as she charges where it was not largely deserved – and yet, under what are largely “de facto” regulations, such sexism would be largely illegal, and finally I’m sure Pao understands this thoroughly. IOW, a pox on both their houses.

    But then I don’t know what to make of the story from your classrooms.

    But then (absent further details) I am appalled that you would have students working in teams on programming assignments … topic for another time and probably another place.

    I would also agree with you regarding H-1B *not* aggravating sexism, if only because most (Asian) H-1Bs do come from highly sexist cultures and are thus super-conscious of our laws and required behaviors. On the one hand they also let it “slip” now and then, at least in offhand comments. On the other hand Chinese women in particular seem to pop up as solid technical contributors often enough to bend the stats.


    • Many, if not most faculty in my department, have assignments done in teams. This is not ideal, but it is simply a response to having increasingly tight resource limitations.

      However, in the grading of my assignments, the TA grills each student individually. What alternatives did you consider to your design? If the requirements had instead been such-and-such, how would your code have changed? Etc. The TA gives me a written narrative for each student.

      Note that even if each student did the assignments individually, most of them would still get plenty of help — from the professors, from the TAs, from their fellow students. So, under a policy under which each student nominally works individually and then has the work graded by software, the student is really held to no accountability at all. Given that, I think my approach is better.

      In addition, I give weekly quizzes, and these are done individually. Students who haven’t given careful thought to the material do very poorly.


      • JRStern March 29, 2015 at 11:19 pm: ‘I am appalled that you would have students working in teams on programming assignments’

        FWIW, my impression is that employers (who seem increasingly well-represented in curriculum-determining bodies) very much like “team projects.”

        matloff March 30, 2015 at 6:27 am: ‘even if each student did the assignments individually, most of them would still get plenty of help — from the professors, from the TAs, from their fellow students.’

        My experience may be dated (2003 BSCS), and obviously n=1, but I did my undergrad at a large public university (NCSU) that I suspect is fairly representative of US computer-science education: middle-rank dept, midsize metropolitan area (RTP), mix of local employers (e.g., IBM Software Group, Cisco, banks, state government, but also a “fat tail” of consultancies). I noticed that most students, especially “traditional students” (age < 25, long resident in the area, going to college directly after high school or nearly so), formed informal "study groups" in which they did all their work, as well as study for tests (and, of course, socialize 🙂 Study groups were especially popular for courses where assignments were all or mostly "objective" or "closed-ended" (e.g., multiple-choice) but were also judged useful for other assignments: a single "good" essay or working piece of code can be pseudo-individuated in many ways (e.g., change variable names, change format) relatively quickly (relative to actually solving the problem oneself 🙂 FWIW, I never joined any study groups, but mostly because I was never invited, which may be due to my not being "from the area" and always (IIRC) being the oldest student in class (but *that's* another topic).

        Towards the end of my undergrad (done part-time while working), I worked on automated assessment for a large project then run by the physics department (WebAssign, later spunoff). (Interesting factoid (IIUC) about academic physics: while secondary teachers in most disciplines get their tertiary training from an education dept, physics education as a subdiscipline has long been associated with physics depts.) Being part of an academic dept, the project had faculty and graduate students using it for their related research projects. IIRC, several worked on plagiarism, and one particularly worked on cracking study groups 🙂

        matloff March 30, 2015 at 6:27 am: 'in the grading of my assignments, the TA grills each student individually'

        Your resource limitations may not be as tight as you believe, relative to other CS depts!

        matloff March 30, 2015 at 6:27 am: "Students who haven’t given careful thought to the material do very poorly [on tests]."

        I noticed this at the time, and my impression was, most of the kids in study groups believed they would do less well on tests. They do it anyway, for various reasons, some of which seem rational–e.g., relative importance of tests to other work, grade inflation, the desire to rapidly credentialize and start earning.


        • Working in groups well is a good skill to learn, but I’m not sure all the students do learn it. Some groups really click and have a great group experience, while some others degenerate into a mode in which they stay away from each other. In any case, I’d rather they work individually, with the TA still grilling them, but that is not possible.


      • While I’m dying to follow up on all that it seems OT to the Pao case, whether it’s resources, or content, or methodology.


  3. While there are more foreign female graduate students (at least since the 1990s),
    my experience is that H1-Bs are 80-90% male, and that when you look at only
    those H1-Bs from India, it goes well above 90%. (H1-B workers from Ireland,
    the EU, and and Eastern Europe have more females than the US work force,
    in my limited experience).

    The real problem is that we are importing very large numbers of people whose
    cultural norms are to totally devalue women. Many of the South Asian cultures
    have explicit laws saying, for example, that a woman’s testimony is worth half
    as much as a man’s testimony in a court-room.

    Only half of the problem is caused by the fact that Corporate Criminals are
    importing half-priced slaves. The other half of the problem is that they are
    importing half-educated slaves from half-civilized countries.

    I don’t care how much money NASSCOM and the Indian spy agencies
    have given to Hillary: South Asian attitudes towards women are primitive,
    and the presence of large numbers of immigrants from these countries
    is a social problem per se.


    • There have been a number of highly disturbing reports of sexual violence in India in the last year or so, and then there is this equally troubling survey. However, it’s not clear to what extent, if any, such attitudes prevail in the educated classes. Note that India has already had two female prime ministers, compared to our 0 presidents and vice presidents.


      • I was shocked when I first read this in the NYT in 2001, so unlike their usual happy, wonderful immigrant stories. Then I realized that NYT is also a bastion of feminism, and this practice would really upset feminists. Of course the wish for boys has been part of Western culture too, and still is with some. These ‘sex selection’ ads, found in American papers aimed at Indian immigrants, are illegal in India, though sex selection is still common there, and in China and other traditional cultures.

        ‘…They are procedures to preselect the sex of a child or, in the case of one advertiser, to identify the sex of the fetus as early as five weeks into a pregnancy. And the target market is immigrants from India, where sex-determination tests were outlawed seven years ago in a still unsuccessful effort to thwart the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses…

        In many cultures, a boy is particularly valued as a breadwinner who will support his parents in their old age; often only a son can inherit property. A girl is seen as a burden who requires a costly dowry when she marries…

        The desire for boys, experts said, cuts across lines of wealth and class and may have intensified with a trend in India, and among immigrants to the United States, toward having smaller families…’


  4. I posted some version of the following comment at several sites in response to Ellen Pau stories:

    Sexism and racism exist in the high technology industry, and have received a lot of coverage in the last year, and there’s been a lot of focus this one unclear case. By contrast there’s been almost no mention of age discrimination, especially the common practice of firing experienced American programmers and replacing them with younger, cheaper foreign programmers on H-1B visas. That’s because the whole American establishment is highly supportive of H-1B, and the wealthy global corporations who constantly demand more visas, even as they fire American workers.

    Politicians in ‘This Town’ are prospering from those corporations, and the whole policy establishment is benefiting from their generosity. Nothing would be damaging to a reporter or pundit’s ‘personal brand’ than to stand up against H1-B.

    The recent firing of 400 programmers at Southern California Edison, and their replacement by younger H-1Bs making $40,000 a year less on the average, drew little media attention, particularly before Senators Sessions and Grassley, rare in caring about American techs, held hearings on it. The media could say it’s not news, and they didn’t cover it the thousand other times it happened, so why now?


    • Yes, the age issue is at the heart of H-1B, but I have never been able to get much traction there, largely because the industry PR people have done such as a good job of portraying the older workers as being out of touch.

      The press in particular accepts outrageous statements about older workers that they would never make about racial minorities or women.


  5. A few comments:

    Concerning titillating cases: in rape cases, how often does the woman end up being blamed for causing the rape? For whatever reason, in cases involving sex, women seem to be at a disadvantage. The implication is that good women, moral women, wouldn’t be involved in such a situation in the first place. The effect seems to be that women in these cases are assumed to be guilty whatever the evidence.

    Concerning media coverage: I’ve gotten so cynical about the media I don’t even want to comment.

    Concerning hiring practices in Silicon Valley and the Bay area in general: geek-boys have the advantage, hands down. There’s sort of a quality of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies about the whole thing, sort of an adolescent group-think leading to bad behavior and bad decisions. Women and old people (over the age of 35 or so) are seen as outsiders.

    Concerning sexism in China and India: Yeah, right…but we’re no better. We have laws against all kinds of discrimination, including sex and age, and we occasionally prosecute egregious cases. But discrimination is normal practice, business as usual. And sadly the discriminators are blind to their own hypocrisy. Let’s say I’m developing a software product and I might need some technical help at some point. What would happen if I put an ad in the Chronicle for a lady software techie with at least 30 years of software development experience? Think I’d get away with it for long?

    Ellen should have hired OJ’s lawyer. That doesn’t say much for justice, but it does address the reality.


    • @Rob: ‘Concerning sexism in China and India: Yeah, right…but we’re no better.’

      Ummm … you should talk with some women from China and India.


  6. Norm, am I right in assuming that we don’t discriminate against foreign students in admission to PhD programs? That seems wrong to me, since US taxpayers and donors will pay a lot for their education [and we have too many PhDs.] I certainly wish there was more discrimination in the following case.

    The U.S. has a law that says Iranians should not study subjects like nuclear engineering here. The NYT is relieved that most universities will follow don’t ask – don’t tell policies. If the student can get by DHS by saying they will be enrolled in ethnic studies, eg, the school won’t spill the beans, and the Iranian can get his doctorate in nuclear engineering.

    ‘“We do not restrict admitted students from classes,” said Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which had 46 Iranian students this year…

    10,194 students from Iran were at American universities during the 2013-14 school year, a number that has more than quadrupled over the past decade. Nearly 80 percent of them studied science, technology, engineering or math.’


    • Many years ago, there was a University of California policy that no graduate program could have more than 20% foreign students. As far as I know, this rule was never rescinded, but it was forgotten (or possible “forgotten”).

      On the contrary, foreign students are preferred by many faculty, because as Stephen Seideman, Dean of the College of Computing Science, New Jersey Institute of Technology, once put it, “Foreign grad students] will do everything they can to stay here,” i.e. they are very obedient. This is similar to the preference of employers to hire foreign students over Americans, as the foreign students are immobile if they are being sponsored for a green card.


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