Learnings from the Ellen Pao Case: Preventing Gender Inequality

Company culture can be a thoughtfully cultivated source of competitive advantage or a breeding ground for the rise of inequality and the breakdown of meritocracy. The difference between the two ultimately comes down to one core principle: awareness. In the Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins case, the web of interactions became evidence for the dangers of missing the signs of gender inequality in the workplace. From meeting invites to sexual harassment, it is difficult to fully understand the complexities of how the situation unraveled. However, one thing from the case is crystal clear: companies need a more modern approach to gender dynamics in the workplace.

As noted by The New York Times, the same agile, rebellious culture of Silicon Valley that breeds the creation of world-changing ideas can have a cultural byproduct of more negative behaviors, such as disregarding more traditional processes that are put in place to ensure employees are treated fairly. Without promoting self and group awareness within a culture, it becomes dangerously easy to become oblivious to nuanced interactions, attitudes, and beliefs that can undermine company performance and culture. In 1973 the President and Chancellor at MIT, Mary Rowe, coined the notion of micro-inequities, defined to be: “Apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’”

Standalone, these specific incidences may not necessarily seem to be acts of bias or discrimination. However, as noted in Rowe’s research, “Micro-inequities have serious cumulative, harmful effects, resulting in hostile work environments and continued minority discrimination in public and private workplaces and organizations. What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they consist in micro-messages that are hard to recognize for victims, bystanders and perpetrators alike. When victims of micro-inequities do recognize the micro-messages it is exceedingly hard to explain to others why these small behaviors can be a huge problem.”


A leader in crafting company culture, Google promotes a popular Unconscious Bias classdedicated to helping employees become more self-aware and able to recognize these micro inequities, or subtle signs of discrimination and bias that is inevitably embedded in any workplace. 26,000 Googlers and counting have taken the course, which provides overviews of attitudes to be aware of, such as in-group bias and the halo effect. In fact, Google said that of its 36 executives and top-ranking managers, just three are women, showing that even in a culture that actively promotes awareness, unconscious biases can still present major management and organizational challenges.

When team diversity has been proven time and again to lead to greater company success, focusing on building a culture that actively promotes gender equality leads to long-term benefits for all organizations. Here are some ways to promote greater gender equality in the workplace:

Build your culture around the principles of a meritocracy

Ensure that your culture clearly outlines which values are important to your company and what those values look like in action. By focusing on specific skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are important to the company culture and growth, managers can prevent discrimination from occurring from gender and racial biases. Over time, bias poisons culture and becomes a strong disincentive to working hard. Furthermore, bias can severely damage a company’s brand and reputation, which hurts recruiting.

Build a culture around awareness for unconscious biases 

Not all companies can provide the same level of training as Google when it comes to thoughtfully constructed courses about Unconscious Biases. However, by simply having a conversation around about it and providing training materials, companies can begin fostering a culture of awareness for unconscious biases. By baking it into company culture, it becomes acceptable, even applauded, when unconscious biases are called out. In a recent SXSW panel, formerGoogler Judith Williams brought to the thordience’s attention that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt had interrupted White House CTO Megan Smith several times to a round of cheers from the audience. As Smith observed, “It’s an interesting thing, unconscious bias. It’s something we all have and it’s something we have to really debug.”

Build a culture promoting ongoing performance feedback

As illustrated in the Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins case, performance reviews and feedback from peers were present; however the process still led to discrepancies and inconsistencies in compensation and promotion. Much of this has been attributed to offhand, unstructured feedback that is more likely to be provided to male venture capital associates than female. By creating an open culture that actively promotes and tracks constant feedback, these biased situations can be reduced.

A major problem with performance reviews tends to be that scores are often not directly tied to actual achievements and goals in a way that clearly assesses performance in a fair way, leaving room for unconscious bias and discrimination. Feedback that is actually given in real-time based on specific actions and events should be directly taken into the review. By taking a fact-driven approach where concrete achievements can be cited, better benchmarks can be developed to ensure performance reviews are more objective and everyone is scored equally based on a standardized set of specific criteria.

New tools that modernize performance reviews also capture real-time feedback directly tied to work activities, such as Reflektive. By integrating tools directly into existing employee workflows, Reflektive empowers employees and managers to make feedback a daily habit, ensuring the performance review process is based on data collected througout the year. Come calibration time, it is important to prepare management by training them how to analyze and interpret feedback to detect if indirect biases or discrimination is present the process, promoting a stronger culture of meritocracy.

With research showing that team diversity is crucial to a company’s success and growth, building a culture that promotes gender equality is integral to generating sustainably high company performance, better collaboration, and a bias-free, meritocratic culture.