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Struggling For Investments, Silicon Valley Women Reluctant To Speak Out On Harassment

Ellen Pao sued her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, alleging she was discriminated against and sexually harassed. She lost the case but is seen as a leading voice on harassment in Silicon Valley.
Justin Sullivan
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Ellen Pao sued her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, alleging she was discriminated against and sexually harassed. She lost the case but is seen as a leading voice on harassment in Silicon Valley.

This week, another big name in tech was toppled by accusations of sexual harassment — venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, an investor in Tesla and SpaceX who left his prominent Silicon Valley company.

The big-money world of Silicon Valley remains dominated by men and remains a hard place for women to speak out if they want to join the ranks of its richest. And some women think the best way to fight harassment is to tread carefully and get to the top.

It's definitely harder for women to get there. Last year, nearly 6,200 new companies got close to $60 billion in venture capital funding, according to the venture capital database PitchBook.

But the share of funding that went to women was just 2.19 percent. That's less than in any year during the past decade, except for 2008 and 2012.

Among the few firms started by women is Fem Inc. The company, which does research that looks at how technology and media can engage people to make positive choices, raised $5 million in venture funding.

But it wasn't easy to get the funding for the company, co-founder Rachel Payne says.

"It was a surprise to me that it was more challenging to raise money given our stage and level of experience than earlier in our career," she says. "And some of them (the investors) quite frankly offered up the advice that it's because we're women."

One of Fem Inc.'s three founders has a degree from Harvard in mathematics and a Ph.D. from Caltech. Another has a master's in computer science and led engineering teams at Google. Payne has an MBA from Stanford and this wasn't her first startup.

Payne says that in her 20 years in tech she saw and experienced harassment and bullying because she was a woman. Yet she doesn't want to share those stories publicly.

"If there's any hint of something like this — of which many VCs ... could be guilty, then you're definitely going to have problems raising money," she says. "It's hard to imagine a situation where you're being embraced for speaking out."

Yet the choice to stay silent about her own experiences isn't a simple one for Payne, who considers herself a feminist. She wants women to speak out. But she also believes that one of the best ways to stop harassment is for women to succeed in tech.

"We would need more ... women to reach places in power to actually make this difference," she says. "Because then they don't depend on someone else for their power and they won't tolerate it."

Payne is not alone in making the choice to stay silent. NPR spoke with many women who would only talk off the record about verbal and physical harassment by CEOs, venture capitalists and colleagues at big tech companies.

One woman who did speak out is Ellen Pao. In 2012, she brought a lawsuit against the prestigious venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Pao, then a junior partner, says she was discriminated against and experienced sexual harassment. At the time, few believed her.

"There's still a skepticism of ... 'If we haven't heard any of these stories how can they be true?' " she says.

Pao lost her case. And she says it definitely hurt her career. But it began what some in Silicon Valley are calling "the Pao effect." Despite potential career setbacks, more women are telling their stories.

"I think nobody wants to tell these stories," Pao says. "It is like your worst experience and you go out and you share and you hope for change."

Since she came forward, Pao thinks there has been change, although it's slow.

"We do see that there have been people who are getting fired" over harassment, she says. "And people are getting a little bit more transparent about why."

But in the Valley — where so much money is at stake — Pao says it remains hard to push out anyone who has made a lot of money for investors.

"There's a skepticism around, 'Well, are they doing it the right way ... well, I don't know but I benefited from it so I don't want to criticize it.' "

As Pao sees it, it's a two-pronged fight. She is now an investment partner in Kapor Capital, which seeks out companies founded by women and minorities. Meanwhile, she thinks the more stories of harassment that come out, the more likely other women will be to take the risk of speaking up about their own experience.

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Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and