Abandon hope all ye women who enter the workplace expecting justice, or just a break. Fifty years after women began agitating, litigating and lobbying to end sexual harassment and gender discrimination, things are a bit better, but the struggle is far from over. If you doubt it, consider the case of Ellen Pao.
She is the Silicon Valley executive who lost a gender- discrimination case against the famed venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Pao had filed her suit in 2012, just after the company declined to make her a senior partner, the kind who makes the real money.
It took three years to come to trial but only hours for jurors to bring back a verdict for the defendant. Looking at the basic facts of the case, one wonders just how much evidence it would take to persuade any jury that a woman has been the victim of workplace discrimination.
Part of what made Pao’s case so riveting may also help explain why the jury turned her down: It turns out the 1 percent have problems, too. Just as it’s hard to sympathize with the travails of movie stars or locked-out football players, it was difficult to feel for Pao, who got a severance package to make a plutocrat blush and is now interim chief executive at a famous start-up, Reddit.
Still, Pao, who studied electrical engineering at Princeton University and holds both a law degree and MBA from Harvard, got a raw deal. The issues in the case are eternal ones usually raised by men: Why can’t a woman just get along by being more like a man? And if a woman is discriminated against, harassed or sexually assaulted, why didn’t she say something sooner?
There are good answers to both, but they are rarely satisfying, especially to men. You might think that at a place where both sexes bring their dogs to work, wear jeans and play foosball, there would be little tolerance for man-terrupting, all male social events or women like Pao told to be the note- keeper at a meeting.
For all the difference the atmospherics made, Pao might as well have been on a a Wall Street trading floor. As evidence would show, there was subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination at Kleiner: a dinner with Al Gore, a ski trip and jaunts on private jets were all male so as not to kill the buzz and so that the men could rate their favorite porn stars.
She worked at the company for six years, and founder John Doerr said he regarded her as a surrogate daughter. But when it came time to advance her into the leadership, Doerr and others only chose men, even when statistics showed that women brought in more deals.
The facts were so damning that Kleiner’s lawyer had to resort to an interesting twist on the insanity defense, saying it “would be crazy” for anyone to think that performance was determinative of promotion and pay. The standard at Kleiner was conveniently fuzzier and subjective: the ability to fit into “team KP” and provide “thought leadership.”
By 2011, and before Kleiner tried to alter its stats to fight Pao’s lawsuit, just one woman had been elevated to the big money-making position of senior investing partner.
Pao’s demeanor wasn’t much discussed until she complained about harassment by a married male colleague, Ajit Nazre, who she said pressured her into having an affair. When it ended, Pao alleged Nazre inflicted serious damage on her career. Nazre paid no price for this until another woman at the firm came forward, bringing up similar behavior including his banging on her hotel room door dressed only in a bathrobe. When she rebuffed him, he retaliated against her, too.
Men aren’t going to give up their power easily and this decision doesn’t help. Most cases don’t get as far as Pao’s — one reason mothers brought their children to an SRO courtroom for the sight of it. Many are settled out of court — for pennies and to discourage other women from filing.
So what’s a woman to do? From Palo Alto to Wall Street, workplaces offer them the same choices as Pao. Professionals are expected to advertise their own achievements, except when they’re women.
A study by Laurie A. Rudman, a psychologist at Rutgers University, found that women who speak directly about their strengths and talents and who credit themselves instead of others for achievements were considered more capable. But they were also thought to be less socially attractive and hirable. Kleiner partners cited their disappointment when Pao did not speak up enough at meetings and was “passive, reticent, and waiting for orders in her relationships with C.E.O.s.” Yet in other e-mails, she was criticized for the exact opposite: speaking up, demanding credit and always positioning herself.
As for speaking up, women have long had to manage the misbehavior of men, be shamed for their own victimization and punished for holding their own. When a woman must confront a problem that results from gender roles — from hiring, pay or promotion inequities, to sexual harassment and outright assault — her first thought will be, “who will believe me and how will the powers that be react?” That there are so many men who don’t understand or acknowledge this is evidence of the power of denial and power itself.
When men speak up and so much more, it’s shrugged off. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are celebrated as geniuses for their peculiar and difficult personalities. When women act like geniuses, it’s met with indignation, defamation of character and banishment.
Even at its most blatant and terrible, sexual discrimination can be hard to prove, as this case shows. Part of the challenge for women is waking the world up to it. Pao stepped up and was torn apart in a California courtroom to sound the alarm. She leaned in for all of us.
© 2015, Bloomberg News