Wednesday, April 01, 2015

So what ARE we to make of Ellen Pao’s failed lawsuit?

I didn’t keep an especially close eye on Ellen Pao’s sex discrimination suit against primo VC Kleiner Perkins.

If I gave it any thought at all it was something along the lines of, gee, sexism and boys-being-boys at a venture capital firm? Shocked, I’m shocked that VC guys act like a-holes and give women that work there a hard time. I didn’t spend all those years in high tech and walk away without learning a few things.

For those who have been following this story even more lightly than I have, here’s a faint outline.

Ellen Pao - whip-smart, hyper-achiever - was passed over for a senior partner position at Kleiner Perkins – the level at rich things get really interesting – and was shown the door. She was, apparently, mad as hell, so she took her $200K severance package and the list of grievances she’d compiled over the years there, and decided to take Kleiner to court.

Her suit, filed in Superior Court here, claimed that Kleiner did not promote her because of her gender, that it retaliated against her for complaining, that it failed to prevent gender discrimination and that it fired her in 2012 for complaining.

The suit asked $16 million in compensatory damages plus punitive damages. (Source: NY Times)

Pao lost the suit, but is claiming something of a moral victory:

“If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” she said in a brief news conference.

Many are suggesting that, even with the loss of the suit, Kleiner Perkins in particular, and Silicon Valley (VC and tech firms alike) in general, are on notice that they need to make their worlds a better place for women to work.

As I’ve said, there’s no doubt in my mind that Pao had to put up with plenty of crap during her time at Kleiner. The VC boys may not be quite in the same league as the BSD’s of Wall Street. But, although they’re probably more brainy and analytical than the average BSD, they’re probably not that far off. (For those who have forgotten their Liar’s Poker, which was based on Michael Lewis’ experience working at Salomon Brothers, BSD = Big Swinging Dick.)

And I’m sure there were many ways in which women weren’t brought along in the firm the same way men were: being mentored, getting invited to the right lunches, being part of those oh-so-critical urinal-side conversations. The buddy system.

But it’s also possible that Pao didn’t make senior partner because she just wasn’t good enough to make senior partner. It could actually be that, much as she might want to be a venture capitalist - hey, if you’re not the prime mover Zuckerberg behind some tech firm, or a mega-successful hedgie, it’s the best way to make the big bucks – she was, as they say, the wrong horse for the coure.

Yes, she has an amazing résumé.

She was an electrical engineering major at Princeton. She had a law degree from Harvard. After she got that, she spent a couple of years at one of the whitest of white shoe law firms: Cravath Swain. Apparently deciding she wasn’t cut out for cut-throat law, Pao decided on cut-throat business and went to Harvard Business School

Can you say high powered?

And then she found herself at Kleiner.

I’m sure they thought they were getting a gem when they brought her on.

There aren’t a ton of STEM women to begin with, and that combo of an EE degree with the HBL and HBS credentials. Yowza!

But maybe, when it came to backing the right horses, she just couldn’t pick ‘em.

Oh, I’m sure she could run the numbers, suss out the markets, figure out when a company was blowing smoke up her skirt. But maybe she didn’t have that special something that makes the difference between backing the next Google and backing a belly-upper.

Maybe that difference is nothing more than shit luck.

Maybe it’s the ability to pick up on subtle cues that she just plain didn’t have the antenna for. (It came out in court that she went out with a colleague, without ever realizing that he was still living with his wife. Huh?)

And speaking of relationships, Pao is now married to a hedgie whose fund is in bankruptcy:

Pension funds are suing to recover their money amid accusations of fraud.

Maybe she’s something of a smart-dumb person. Or a dumb-smart person. (I never remember which is which.)

And just maybe Pao is someone who, in not making partner at Kleiner, failed for the first time in her life. And just couldn’t believe that something so inconceivable had actually happened to her.

Anyhow, if there’s any upshot to all this, it’s that the upshot is not all that clear.

Some are saying that Kleiner will have to reform. Some say that the entire Valley’s now on notice that they’ve got a fundamental female problem. Some are grateful to Pao – a group of Valley girls and boys chipped in on a Thank You, Ellen ad that ran in a Palo Alto paper. Some (at Kleiner, at least) are happy that they were, ahem, vindicated, and won’t be out $16M. (Not that $16M is anything much more than chump change.)

Don’t expect things to improve for women in tech overnight. There are still pathetically few women choosing STEM majors, which remains the best point of entry into being taken seriously in the  tech world (as opposed to working in tech/tech VC  in a more female-populated lesser position like HR or marketing). The fact that even women with STEM backgrounds are bailing on tech is certainly disheartening.

But Ellen Pao’s failed lawsuit, I’m afraid, isn’t really going to do all that much to improve things for women in tech. Maybe if she’d won…

Sure, Kleiner Perkins doesn’t come off looking all that great.

But I’m not holding my breath that Kleiner, any other VC’s, or the tech world, are about to become better places for women any time soon.

1 comment:

Rick said...

"Maybe she’s something of a smart-dumb person. Or a dumb-smart person. (I never remember which is which.)"

When I use that concept to describe anyone, I just copy how someone (can't recall who) described Larry Summers, former head of Harvard with foot in mouth disease, and economist who IMO has yet to be right about anything in that field: "A high IQ moron."