Silicon Valley pretends to love mavericky types but really it’s numbingly conformist in some very obvious ways…such as in being ridiculously absent-minded about the existence of women.
Ellen Pao sued a venture capital firm for gender discrimination and lost, but the trial spilled a lot of crappy beans.
Not only have weeks of testimony revealed a collection of boorish, unsavory and at times unwittingly misogynist attitudes at one of the tech industry’s most storied financial institutions, the case has also come to stand for something bigger than itself. It has blown open a conversation about the status of women in an industry that, for all its talk of transparency and progress, has always been buttoned up about its shortcomings.
Thanks to Ms. Pao, and notwithstanding the jury’s verdict, the secrets are suddenly out in the open. In tweets, in text messages and at tech gatherings like TED and South by Southwest, the case has been virtually all that anyone could talk about during the last few weeks.
We keep rediscovering sexism as if it were a brand new thing. “Ohhh will you look at that, we don’t treat women as equals. Who knew??”
Sexist?? Facebook and Twitter??? Inconceivable!
Anita Hill’s testimony didn’t keep Clarence Thomas off the bench, tragically, but it did put sexual harassment in the public spotlight. (And that rapidly brought it to an end! Oh wait, no it didn’t.)
The Kleiner-Pao trial has prompted a similar discussion because the series of large and small slights that Ms. Pao contends she suffered at the hands of her male colleagues and bosses at Kleiner has resonated with women across the industry, and it has turned a light on problems that many men around here have long kept under wraps.
Listen. Can you hear it? That murmur in the distance? A billion Dear Muslimas stir and yawn and pull their socks on.
“What usually happens when you have something like this happen to you at work is that you negotiate a settlement with a gag order,” said Melinda Byerley, a marketing consultant who has worked in the tech industry for more than a decade. “They pay you to be quiet. This happens all over Silicon Valley — they will write you a severance agreement outlining X number of months’ salary, X number of shares, and along with that is a gag order.”
She added: “This is how women have been doing this for more than a decade. This is tribal knowledge. It’s shared from one woman to the next.” What made Ms. Pao’s story unusual, Ms. Byerley said, was her refusal to take the quiet settlement, despite the risks to her reputation and her career.
Risks? You surely don’t mean anyone would punish her for speaking up.
Documents in the case showed that one Kleiner partner, Chi-Hua Chien, arranged a ski trip for entrepreneurs from which women were excluded. When he was asked if a female entrepreneur from one of the companies Kleiner had invested in could come along, Mr. Chien responded in an email that because the trip involved shared accommodations, women probably wouldn’t feel comfortable.
“Why don’t we punt on her and find 2 guys who are awesome,” he wrote. “We can add 4-8 women next year.” There was no ski trip the next year.
Jam tomorrow. We can add 4-8 women next year.
To several women in the industry, the most salient note in Ms. Pao’s complaint was her claim that there was a narrow band of behavior she was expected to adhere to at Kleiner. She was criticized both for being too timid and for being too aggressive, for speaking up too much and for not speaking up enough.
Is that a narrow band, or is it a zero band? Was there actually a sweet spot between talking too much and not talking enough, or did the one slam right into the other leaving no space in between? Curious minds want to know.
Worse, criticisms of her performance were vague and unspecific. In written evaluations by her peers and executives at Kleiner’s portfolio companies, Ms. Pao was often given high marks, but Kleiner partners testified that her failings were a more subtle failure of “chemistry.”
Oh, oh, call on me, I know this one! The subtle failure of chemistry was the emanations of estrogen that wafted around when she was present. Her peers and the executives just didn’t like those emanations. They found them oooooky.
“Many men in the Valley genuinely believe that their company is a meritocracy,” said Karen Catlin, a former software engineer and a former vice president of Adobe Systems. “They think that the gender problem is something that happens somewhere else.”
There’s a name for that. It’s “cognitive dissonance.” They know they’re good guys, and their company is a company of good guys, so the gender problem is something that happens somewhere else, where the guys aren’t so good.
I don’t see that changing any time soon.