Big questions to ponder post Ellen Pao trial

by Erin Malone

I just finished up a five weeks sitting on the jury of the Ellen Pao — Kleiner Perkins trial as an alternate juror. A month full of testimony, dodging reporters, commuting every day to the courthouse and getting an inside look into the machinations of how the venture capital world works.

The case brings into the spotlight, the VC world and in turn to the tech world, the inherent inequalities for women in the workplace in these closely intertwined industries.

Regardless of how the jury decides (it came back with verdicts that were in Kleiner Perkins’ favor), pandora’s box is opened. The details are out there. The overarching numbers show the inequalities, and despite how well Kleiner Perkins has done in terms of hiring women and promoting women and lauding their women’s success, the industry as a whole is abysmal, if not downright appalling.

And the numbers in tech are as bad.

So it got me thinking about how we are doing in the UX (User experience) and Design field in this regard. Are we influenced by the fact that so many of us work in tech, work for startups, work with entrepreneurs?

I know a ton of amazingly talented and successful women in UX/Design/IA, (User experience, Design, Information Architecture) but only a handful of them have been elevated to the same levels of leadership in companies as the men I know.

I don’t want to disparage the successes and hard work of the men, but I have to wonder how difficult it was for them to reach their highest positions? Did they struggle with the double standard of character traits that are applauded and rewarded for men, but criticized in women? Did they have to make choices between family or career or even skipping the family altogether to give 150% into a career that at the end of the day didn’t really give a shit about them?

The questions raised in the trial around the specific events and outcomes, are not unique to this case and can be seen played out all over the country.

We are hearing about more and more cases where the playing field isn’t level to begin with and the career achievements of the most successful women can be traced back to their working many times harder than men to get slightly ahead. Making major sacrifices; being tough and called a bitch; being direct and being called cold; being focused and single minded and being called arrogant or selfish; being a leader and being called bossy. I’ve heard it my whole career.

And the numbers show that the number of women in tech is going down. Down! How is this possible? Why isn’t this an amazing and exciting field to be a part of for women?

I have to wonder how people running these companies can justify this given the buying power of women? How can you build products for 50% of the audience without having those kinds of insights and sensitivities as part of the team. Outsourcing that knowledge only works for so long and is superficial at best.

As a job provider it makes sense to have a diverse workforce. Different perspectives, opinions and experiences bring a richer set of ideas and solutions to the table. People want to join companies and teams that have people like them there. If a company has no women, the ability to atttract women is much harder. Who wants to fight that battle of being the only woman. Sometimes, it isn’t ok to be one of the guys.

When I went to my first startup, I was the first woman in the engineering department. I was also their first designer. The only other females in the company were admins or in Marketing.

It took awhile and eventually the numbers got better, but I had to be “one of the guys” for a long time — hearing about the bachelor party at the local strip club and being called Queenie (aka Queen bee). I trust the Queenie label was always said with affection and respect, but why did I have a label if no one else did? I was having fun learning, building something incredible and enjoying working with my coworkers, so what might have easily been perceived as a very uncomfortable and inappropriate workplace, for me, was casually blown off as the guys just being guys. Looking back with the perspective of time, it probably was inappropriate but I never spoke up about it.

So how are we doing in User Experience design?

If you look at the conferences and the agencies, and even the design departments in large tech companies, there are a lot of women in leadership positions. But are they in positions of strategic leadership for the company or just leading the design department or managing the design team? Are the female design leaders moving into larger corporate roles? Are they being encouraged and mentored in the same way as their male counterparts?

What are we , the female leaders in the field — experienced folks with tenure — doing to mentor and grow our younger sisters who coming into the field into an environment that is even less welcoming than it was when we started out?

There are a lot of questions to ponder. We have a lot of soul searching to do in the tech landscape which cascades into UX design. It seems to me that there are a lot of things that each of us — male and female — can do and should do to make the playing field level.

This includes educating yourself on what is acceptable and not acceptable in the workplace. If it would offend your mother, then it probably shouldn’t be said or done. If you wouldn’t treat your sister like that, then you probably shouldn’t treat a coworker like that. If you wouldn’t want your daughter to experience that, then maybe it shouldn’t be happening in your workplace.

I recently curated a ux design conference — RE:Design UXD —and over 50% of the speakers were women. It was on purpose and it was also really difficult to pull off. It shouldn’t be so hard.

Groups like XXUX and Ladies that UX provide great opportunities for more senior women to mentor junior female UX designers. But there needs to more visible opportunities for women to be mentored by successful men — as Ellen Pao was by John Doerr throughout her career — and more evenly weighted male/female events and conferences.