What Can Ellen Pao Teach Us?

by francine Hardaway on March 30, 2015

I mentored women this morning. Not a novel activity for me, because I’m often asked to do it and I always say yes. But this morning was different.

I had the Ellen Pao trial on my mind. As you already know if you don’t live in a cave, Ellen Pao was a venture capitalist who sued Kleiner, Perkins Caulfield and Byers, her employer, one of the largest VC firms in California, for gender discrimination. After she sued, she was terminated. She had been at the firm for six years. She was offered a handsome settlement to drop the suit, and she refused.

She lost.

Anyone who read coverage of the trial understood that indeed there was gender bias. The firm scheduled ski trips and didn’t invite her, they had dinners to which they didn’t invite any women, and they made Pao sit at the back of the room instead of at the table at meetings. They also asked her, and another woman, to take notes on a whiteboard.

The male partners had no inkling that what they were doing was discriminatory, and neither did the jury. These slender slights don’t add up to anything taken separately, and the men dismiss them as insignificant. Indeed, each one IS insignificant. But taken together, they undermine a woman’s chances of getting to the top of her industry. Ellen Pao was accused of failing to show “thought leadership.” She was also accused of being too assertive. This happens to women all the time. They absolutely get this conflicting advice, and they end up blaming themselves for their “limitations” and then beating themselves up for their insecurities.

The biggest question I got this morning as I mentored was “how do I get over my insecurities?”   I felt like telling them, “you can’t. They’ve been culturally instilled in your and they’re not yours, they’re the culture’s. Whatever you do, it will never be enough, good enough to get you the recognition the boys get just for appearing on earth. There are reasons primitive cultures killed girl babies.

But instead I told these women what my father taught me when I was a little girl and stood in awe of some of his celebrity clients. I would say “daddy, Frank Sinatra is so awesome,” and he would say “he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like you do.”

That mantra got me through life in a pretty much all-male business community back in the day. A community in which women DID take the notes and make the coffee. But that time is over. Or it should be.

Ellen Pao, whom I do not know, was not content to take the notes and make the coffee. She wanted to ski with the boys and dine with Al Gore like the boys. And they responded to her the way men often tried to respond to me when I was younger — they shut her down.

Fortunately, she wasn’t insecure, and she sued. I understand why she lost the jury trial; instructions to juries are very specific, and cover only things that are illegal, not also things that are demoralizing and discouraging. Firms like KPCB know how to stay within the law while effectively shutting women down, and leaving them confused as to why.

Ellen Pao took a stand for all of us, and despite the fact that is difficult for a jury to identify with a woman who was making $33,000 a month and still sued, I am proud of her. She may have lost the battle, but as they say in the old cliche, she won the war.




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