I grew up believing the world is a meritocracy. It's how I was raised, and it made sense for a long time. My parents grew up in China, and they studied hard to get scholarships to graduate schools in the United States, where they got solid, stable jobs, worked with smart people, and started the cycle again with us kids. We studied hard, got into good schools, studied harder, got into graduate schools, worked hard, did a great job, and expected to be valued for it eventually.
This belief sustained me, mostly, through my early 20s. That was 20 years ago, when I saw my prospects as awesome and full of possibilities. I was fresh out of Harvard Law School, and my classmates and I thought we could do anything we set our minds to do. I believed in the system, because it seemed to work, and frankly it was just so easy to believe — it was so much easier than the alternative. I was doing well, and I saw other women, including women of color, succeeding. Great law schools were admitting us, top law firms were recruiting us, and we were earning substantial salaries. The most likely person to be promoted to partner at my law firm was an African-American woman. Senior partners told us we were on track for fantastic careers.
As the system's problems started revealing themselves, crack by crack, we worked around them. Yes, some professors had made it clear that they did not believe women or minorities were qualified to teach at HLS. But students protested, and people eventually seemed to listen. When one of the women lawyers at my law firm was sent home for wearing pants, many of us made a point to wear pants more often. All major law firms seemed to be organizing all-male events: steak dinners, professional sports games, strip-club outings, and probably more. We didn't complain about it, because it seemed an unchangeable part of law. Instead, we organized our own co-ed steak dinners, I persuaded my office neighbor to get me an invite to the Rangers games — and we just worked even harder.
Some things were harder to rationalize. One woman a few years ahead of me warned me about certain partners when she left, including the creepy senior partner who stood outside her office every day at 1 p.m., staring at her while eating ice cream until she started closing her office door (which, ironically, gave her the reputation of being distant). I considered these events anomalies and tried to avoid them.
But after a while, we were all treading water, just trying to get by as our ranks thinned and progress got harder. We were wondering, Is it just me? Am I really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikable? Are my elbows too sharp? Am I not promoting myself enough? Am I not funny enough? Am I not working hard enough? Do I belong?
Eventually, there comes a point where you can't just rally and explain away all the behavior as creepy exceptions or pin the blame on yourself. And the glimmers of achievement are too few and far between. You see patterns, systemic problems, and it doesn't matter where you are or what industry you pursue. After a few years at the law firm, I switched to tech. I've seen the same issues over the past 17 years, first in companies, then as a venture capitalist, and most recently as the CEO of Reddit.
I had a harder time rationalizing discrimination in tech than I had in law. The tech industry had even fewer people who looked like me; several start-ups had no women or minorities in management and engineering. I was older and starting to recognize more problems — problems that couldn't be worked around or rationalized. It was hard to be a chill girl and bypass the obstacles facing the few women working in venture capital. Most VC firms had, at most, one woman on the investing team, and she sat at the bottom of the hierarchy. Key industry events had all-male or mostly male teams — and I soon realized these institutions were using the same methods to build management teams and boards of directors and to invest in co-founders who are the next generation of wealth, power, and leadership. Unfortunately, some people just don't treat men and women, whites and minorities, heterosexuals and LGBTQs as equals. We could all work harder and better than everyone else, but we weren't getting a fair shot to rise to the top.