'You Are Too Bossy': Women in Tech Reveal What It’s Really Like

Ellen Pao became the center of a high-profile gender bias lawsuit against an elite Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Ellen Pao became the center of a high-profile gender bias lawsuit against an elite Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Eric Risberg/AP File Photo

In a new survey, most respondents have been treated differently because of their gender.

In her landmark gender-discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Ellen Pao recalled being left out of company events because of her gender, criticized by colleagues for being too aggressive, and retaliated against after ending an affair with a married partner.

Though Pao lost her trial against her former employer, she succeeded in shining a spotlight on sexism in Silicon Valley. Now, a new survey of more than 200 women in tech is providing another glimpse into Silicon Valley’s boys club. The Elephant in the Valley survey reveals how most respondents—execs, venture capitalists, and others who’ve worked in the industry for at least a decade—have been treated differently because of their gender.

The survey’s findings include:

  • 84% of respondents have been told by colleagues they were too aggressive
  • 66% felt excluded from social and networking opportunities because of their gender
  • 88% have had clients or colleagues address their male peers instead of them
  • 75% were asked about marital status and children in interviews

“What we realized is that while many women shared similar workplace stories, most men were simply shocked and unaware of the issues facing women in the workplace,” wrote the study’s authors, who included Trae Vassallo, a former Kleiner Perkins partner who testified at Pao’s trial.

While the numbers suggest tech suffers from entrenched sexism—both unconscious and intentional—perhaps most striking are the anecdotes shared by the respondents, many of them echoing Pao’s personal experiences at Kleiner Perkins. Women reported being told they were too bossy, being left out of all-male company events, and receiving unwanted sexual advances from superiors.

  • One respondent shared that “at Company X we had a joke that there were only two reviews for women – you are either too reticent or you are too bossy – no middle ground.”
  • A woman said that an invitation to a networking event was rescinded because it was “just for the guys.”
  • Some female venture capitalists report that startup CEOs and founders will address their male colleagues instead of them in pitch meetings. “Despite my background/skill set being clearly the most relevant, the founder didn’t make eye contact, and didn’t really listen to the questions I asked before answering,” said one.
  • “When I am with a male colleague who reports to me the default is [that] people tend to defer to him assuming I work for him,” according to another woman.
  • Male colleagues would make off-hand remarks like “once a woman is pregnant she is irrelevant” or that “having a 2nd child would be a career-limiting move.”

Some women were also put in uncomfortable positions with their bosses, colleagues, or clients:

  • A hiring manager “clearly indicated that if I slept with him, he would make sure I was promoted as his ‘second in command’ as he moved up the ladder in the company.”
  • “Once a client asked me to sit on his lap if he wanted to buy my products.”
  • “Experiences included being groped by my boss while in public at a company event. After learning this had happened to other women in my department, and then reporting the event to HR, I was retaliated against and had to leave the company.”
  • “I had a fellow VC sending me flowers, gifts, even a mix-tape, over the course of several months. Another portfolio CEO asked me to go through a door first so he could ‘watch me walk’ and my superiors at the firm told me to laugh it off. I also had another VC tell me likes married women and put his hand on mine. (I’m married).”
  • Said another: “the repercussions of my rejecting my superior caused him to be very negative towards me and make my work life very difficult.”

Though the women aired their grievances in this survey, many said they regretted keeping instances of harassment quiet instead of reporting them to human services.

“Not complaining was a mistake,” a woman lamented.

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