Ellen Pao Is Not Done Fighting
Ms. Pao lost. But in the process she gave many women in corporate America a crash course in gender discrimination (the subtle kind). “I think in many ways it was an affirmation: that these aren’t outliers, this is a very real problem,” said the law professor Anita Hill, whose testimony against Clarence Thomas taught an early-1990s world what “sexual harassment” meant — in turn prompting a flood of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“I called it at the time a ‘gender-bias training for the nation,’” said Joan C. Williams, who is a legal scholar and professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the founder of the center for WorkLife Law there. “But I’m not sure the nation was paying that much attention, unfortunately.”
Ms. Pao hopes they’re paying attention now. This month, she is releasing a book, “Reset,” chronicling the details of her lawsuit and its aftermath, which, she writes, “almost ended my career in tech, cost me half a million dollars, and launched a thousand hit pieces on me and on my family.”
It follows her time at Kleiner Perkins, from early days as chief of staff to John Doerr, a partner; the tangled affair with a married colleague she said harassed and retaliated against her; to the trial and what happened after, including the Reddit stint and her time now as an evangelist for corporate diversity and the co-founder and C.E.O. of a nonprofit called Project Include.
It is also the story of what led her, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to New Jersey, to this particular place.
Ms. Pao is the middle of three girls, an introverted high achiever who got perfect scores on almost all her tests. Her mother, one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania, taught her to code: a skill Ms. Pao is now passing down to her own daughter, who is in elementary school.
She majored in electrical engineering at Princeton, where her father, a math professor, had received his Ph.D., and then got degrees in law and business from Harvard. “My family, except for my younger sister who was the indulged baby of the family, is generally very stoic,” she writes.
Ms. Pao today may speak of social justice, intersectional feminism, the difference between “equality” and “equity,” and the moral responsibility she felt to speak up (“I had the money and the conviction,” she said). But she was a belated activist. In the book, she describes declining to join a sit-in at law school protesting professors’ claims that African-Americans and women were not qualified to teach, because she didn’t feel comfortable “taking a side publicly.”
Then came her first job out of law school: the male partner who’d brush up against female employees in the hallway, whom she tried to ignore; a female lawyer sent home for wearing pants; after-work trips to the strip club Scores.
“At the time, I tried not to think much about those incidents, hoping that just working hard and keeping my head down would help me push past and ignore them,” she writes.
By her own account, Ms. Pao was a rule follower. She chose not to hire a publicist during the trial and willingly turned over hundreds of thousands of emails to the opposing counsel, which she now regrets. She goes to church on Sundays, doesn’t drink, and is extremely hesitant to talk about her personal life.
Believing in meritocracy, she thought she could power through any inequity by working twice as hard. “I had faith in the system,” she writes.
But Ms. Pao told of being excluded from meetings, undermined in front of clients, and among a group of women not invited to a company ski trip and a dinner with Al Gore because, as a senior partner put it, they would “kill the buzz.” On another trip, trying valiantly to “lean in,” she joined a group of senior staffers at the front of a private jet, only to be subjected to talk about pornography and preferences in type of “girls.” (Kleiner Perkins “vigorously” denied that any discrimination had occurred.)
In written evaluations and performance reviews Ms. Pao was given high ratings, yet she was passed over for a senior-level promotion. She was criticized both for being too passive but also too pushy; for not speaking up enough but also being too opinionated.
“Everything was conflicting: You talk too much/not enough. You’re too data-oriented/you don’t bring enough information,” Ms. Pao said, sitting in the shade of a roof deck at the Kapor Center, a social-impact fund where she is an investor and head of inclusion and diversity. She was sipping a glass of hot water. “There was no consistency, and it was just baffling to me. How do I improve?”
Much of the behavior she experienced was inappropriate. But could it be proven illegal in court? Unclear. This wasn’t overt pay discrimination or being barred from certain jobs because of her gender, the stuff of Title VII lawsuits of the 1970s or episodes of “Mad Men.” This was a subtler sexism, the kind that “day by day, water cooler comment by water cooler comment, microaggression by microaggression” ate away at you, she writes.
It was harder to document, to explain and ultimately to prove, but, she argues, just as damaging. “Taken all together, these seemingly minor moments, these 1,000 paper cuts, create an unwelcome, subtly hostile culture,” she writes.
She sent a letter to her bosses outlining her complaints. They brought in a private investigator, who found no wrongdoing by the company. And so Ms. Pao sued, retaining the services of a lawyer who had won a $7 million sexual harassment case against a powerful Silicon Valley law firm in the 1990s. For five months, she also continued going to work.
“People can argue and do about the merits of the trial, but nobody can argue with her unflappable mental strength,” said Ms. Wang, the founder and C.E.O. of Evertoon.
Public support was sparse at first. At least one female founder told Newsweek the case was “ridiculous” and that she hoped Ms. Pao didn’t “get a dime,” while in The New York Times, David Kaplan, the author of a book called “The Silicon Boys,” was quoted saying he was “skeptical” of the claims. Some worried the case would have a chilling effect on companies hiring women at all.
“I was toxic to people for a long time,” Ms. Pao said.
No court case is simple. But for those who hoped hers would serve as a watershed moment for Silicon Valley, Ms. Pao’s was viewed as particularly complex.
She was not particularly well-known. She declined to speak to the press.
Female representation at Kleiner Perkins was bad (women made up 20 percent of investors, Mr. Doerr testified), but it was still better than the industry average of 6 percent. And then there was the matter of her private life, deemed irrelevant by the judge but nevertheless a subject of national news: specifically her marriage, to the hedge fund manager Alphonse Fletcher Jr., known as Buddy, who had previously been in a long-term relationship with a man, had sued two companies for racial discrimination and twice been accused of sexual harassment. He had recently filed a claim for bankruptcy.
“This is the right issue and the right time, but the wrong case,” the defense would say repeatedly, led by a female lawyer, Lynn Hermle.
But at the crux may have been the fact that her claims, to many women, almost seemed ordinary. The kind of stuff they put up with every day.
Sarah Lacy, the founder and editor in chief of the tech website Pando, said: “This wasn’t a clear smoking gun — and for this to be the big Silicon Valley trial over gender, she was hard to rally around.”
Ms. Lacy said she remembered thinking at the time that if Ms. Pao had a case, then so did every woman in America. “I think ultimately the same thing that hurt her made women all look at their own lives very differently, and say, ‘O.K., this is not acceptable. This should not be a part of doing business.’”
Before the verdict came in, the Yahoo president, Sue Decker, would write about how she had obsessively followed the case, even taking her daughters out of school for the closing arguments. A group of tech workers pooled their money to place a full-page ad in a Palo Alto newspaper that read, “Thanks Ellen.”
Ms. Pao may not be a natural leader. “It’s not my personality,” she said, recounting going to see Steve Jobs speak and watching him be swarmed by people afterward. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I don’t ever want that job.’”
Yet to a certain cohort she has become one, or at least a kind of mentor.
Earlier this year, she appeared on stage with Anita Hill at a sold-out event in San Francisco. The Uber C.E.O. Travis Kalanick had not yet been fired, but he would be soon after; that week, the University of California, -Berkeley had announced it would pay $1.7 million to a woman who accused its former law school dean of sexual harassment and Bill O’Reilly had been fired from Fox News.
Since then, dozens of women in Silicon Valley have come forward, speaking out about discrimination and harassment. Men have apologized, shot back, stepped down, created “decency pledges,” written manifestoes, been fired for manifestoes.
The outcomes are different, but what founder after founder, lawyer after lawyer, academic after academic, keeps saying is the same: None of that would have been possible without Ellen Pao.
“I’ve been here since 1999,” said Ms. Lacy. “There is no one — man, woman, founder, V.C., the most aggressive feminist, no one — who would have thought a male V.C. would get fired for propositioning a woman. It’s just a radical change.”
Near Ms. Pao’s office in Oakland, the street sign on the corner — Broadway — has been spray painted to read “Bro Way.” On her way back from lunch, Ms. Pao laughed and snapped a photo.
Later, she pulled up an email from a woman named Gesche Haas, an entrepreneur who had spoken publicly about being propositioned by an investor and emailed Ms. Pao to offer her support during the trial.
“There is this saying that all positive comments we receive we deflect like Teflon while negative comments we hang on to like Velcro,” Ms. Haas wrote. “Realizing that we do this helped me focus on the people that deserved my energy.”
Ms. Pao has thought about these words more than once.
“It takes a village,” she said. “It really took dozens of women speaking up to make anyone listen.”
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