Irin Carmon, an Outlook contributing writer, is a co-author of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
For most of her life, Ellen Pao did what you’re supposed to do to succeed. In her new book, “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change,” Pao describes herself as a “dutiful daughter” of immigrants who excelled at Princeton and Harvard, where she picked up law and business degrees, and then headed west for the tech gold rush. Sure, she encountered some creeps along the way, and at times she felt underappreciated. But as she tells it, it wasn’t until landing at blue-chip venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — which she famously, and unsuccessfully, sued for gender discrimination and retaliation — that she began to question whether she had been set up to fail.
“The culture, I began to realize, is designed to keep out people who aren’t white men,” she writes early on in “Reset.” That sort of systemic critique is heretical in Silicon Valley, where wealthy men talk a big game about a meritocracy and transforming the world through technology. Never mind that a 2015 survey of 200 women at tech companies found that 60 percent had experienced sexual harassment, twice the rate of a separate study across industries. As Pao’s book persuasively shows, men in the tech industry love to exalt the notion of “disruption,” but those at her venture capital firm chafed at a woman disturbing their comfort. She paid the price.
Pao unravels the slow accumulation of slights and outrages she endured at Kleiner. No crusader at heart, she demonstrated remarkable determination, even going through with the bruising trial, when settling would have protected her privacy and perhaps her career prospects. She has since refused to sign a non-disparagement clause with Kleiner. “I was one of the only people who had the resources and the position to bring suit,” she writes. “I believed I had an obligation to speak out about what I’d seen as one of the few women and people of color in that world.”
What she saw included, by her account, boorish, obvious sexism. Pao recalls trying to implement Sheryl Sandberg’s advice about leaning in and demanding a seat at the table. But following Sandberg’s prescriptions proved difficult. One time, she found herself on a private plane with male executives where the conversation included discussing their preferred sex workers and name-dropping porn stars. When the plane landed, Pao realized that “the group couldn’t wait to ditch me.” She thought, “Taking your seat at the table doesn’t work so well . . . when no one wants you there and you are vastly outnumbered.” Later, she notes wryly that after Sandberg’s book came out, “that porn-obsessed tech CEO was all over it as a spokesperson and advocate.”
Pao’s book is most astute when it portrays a subtler form of discrimination. Pao writes, “When venture capitalists say — and they do say — ‘We think it’s young white men, ideally Ivy League dropouts, who are the safest bets,’ and then only invest in young white men with Ivy League backgrounds, of course young white men with Ivy League backgrounds are the only ones who make money for them (they are also the only ones who lose money for them, but who’s keeping track of that?)”
Pao suggests she suffered in Silicon Valley simply because of her gender. She was considered not bold enough when she expressed her skepticism of pitches promoted by her colleagues. “This is a problem with pushing boldness for its own sake onto introverted, analytical women,” Pao writes. “What if our inclination to assess and avoid the outsized risk of certain ventures could be an asset to our teams? Why does it never seem to occur to anyone that it’s an option, say, half the time, for the men to actually listen to us?” That sort of coolheadedness, though, is contrary to the cowboy risk-taking for which tech culture constantly congratulates itself.
All this leaves women and people of color with an unappealing set of choices. Whether complaining about sexism or wondering if an investment is a smart bet, Pao and women like her are stuck with the unfun roles of ballbuster and buzzkiller. She was excoriated by her colleagues for complaining all the time — and also for not complaining early and often enough, including about the incident on the plane.
Men, including those at Kleiner, are permitted to be prickly and unlikable if they are perceived to deliver, whereas women are required to be likable. And as long as a trial (or an election, for that matter) turns into a referendum on likability, ambitious women are likely to lose.
Her likability, or lack of it, seems to be at the heart of why Pao lost her case against Kleiner. After the trial, several jurors explained their vote for Kleiner by citing largely subjective performance reviews for Pao. One juror, Steve Sammut, told the tech website Recode that the jury noticed that the phrase “sharp elbows” recurred in Pao’s reviews. “For one of the guys, you might have seen that phrase but it changed the next year,” Sammut said. “But for her, it seemed to be her personality, and you really do have to fit into the firm.” When the culture of the firm is determined by the same old group of guys, can you blame Pao for believing that the system is rigged?
“Reset” would have benefited from a more direct and nuanced discussion of the criticisms of Pao’s case. Much of the case centered on Pao’s relationship with another partner, which she says began with his harassment of her, evolved into a consensual affair and wound up with his retaliation against her professionally. Pao doesn’t delve into her perspective on an email she sent to the firm’s leadership urging that the partner not be fired. Juror Sammut later said that that request undermined her credibility in arguing that the firm was unresponsive to her claims of unfair treatment. The company’s defense attorney, Lynn Hermle, told the press, “This is the right issue and the right time but the wrong case.” (To this reviewer, it immediately echoed the refrain heard during the 2016 campaign that a given voter didn’t have any problem voting for a woman — just not this one.) Kleiner was lucky, as many companies are, that the trial turned on Pao herself rather than on the male-dominated system. The jury was entrusted to decide a single case between a woman and a company and did not have to rule on conduct throughout Silicon Valley.
Like Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton before her, Pao was humiliated and defeated. But not all was lost: “I’ve become a kind of confessor for people who have faced workplace injustices,” she writes, a belated vindication that would be familiar to Hill and Clinton. It seemed to take losing for people to embrace Pao, to thank her for raising awareness. At the end of the book, Pao notes that she has formed Project Include to fight underrepresentation of women and people of color in tech. It’s better than nothing, but meanwhile, those in power look pretty much the same — or worse.
By Ellen Pao
Spiegel & Grau. 274 pp. $28