What We Can Learn from Ellen Pao
This past Friday, March 27th, Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the top venture capital firms in California’s Silicon Valley. Needless to say, a great deal of controversy has emerged as a result of both the workplace discrimination suit itself and the verdict.
In case you’re a little fuzzy on the details, here’s a brief overview of what went down:
- Pao filed a suit against Kleiner Perkins on the grounds that the firm was punishing her for being a woman by passing her up for promotions and holding her back professionally.
- Pao first filed a suit against her employer in 2012, citing workplace retaliation from a colleague whom she had previously had a personal relationship with.
- This current suit was filed against Kleiner Perkins for her subsequent termination, which she claims was a result of the original lawsuit.
- Pao’s attorney cited various incidents of exclusion and inappropriate behavior from male colleagues as evidence of a sexist culture at the firm.
- There was talk about a ski trip that only male employees were invited to and a plane ride that included a discussion of strippers.
- Kleiner Perkins referenced Pao’s poor performance reviews as evidence that she was, simply, not an ideal employee (see: “sharp elbows”)
- Her consistently negative reviews seemed to indicate that her personality did not mesh with the firm’s culture.
- The jury sided with Kleiner Perkins
Obviously, this case was nuanced in various ways – and messy because of it. But the point of this post is not to argue this way or that; instead, I wanted to take a step back and evaluate what we can learn from this lawsuit, regardless of outcome.
When exploring some follow-up articles, I found a fairly even split (pro-Pao vs. anti-Pao) in the commentary. But even more notably, I found that this split existed among female writers only. In fact, it seemed that no men even dared to write an opinion piece on the suit (likely a wise choice).
Every article I read had a valid and strong argument – so much so that I found myself truly unable to “pick a side”. On the one hand, every woman knows that, despite the leaps and bounds of progress in gender equality that has taken place over the last 50-ish years, we are still living in a man’s world. I’ve felt this first-hand in the classroom, and countless women feel it at work. I’ve never worked in a male-dominated office so I cannot yet attest. This Harvard Literature Review, however, can. Women are still experiencing objectification in the work place, and it is directly inhibiting their performance. So there’s that. But on the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that culture matters, especially at work. And if an employee does not fit the culture of their work place, so much so that he/she is disrupting the general “flow” of productivity, maybe it’s just not meant to be.
Recognizing workplace discrimination
So how do we tell the difference between a woman who is being discriminated against and a woman who simply is not a good employee? This is a question that will likely go unanswered for a long time. But what matters is that, because of this controversial case, the eyes and ears of the public are open. We have this kind of stuff on our radar, and we would do best to keep it there. Despite the fact that Pao’s lawsuit did not exactly accomplish any positive PR for herself or for Kleiner Perkins, it did open another door to the ongoing conversation about gender discrimination in the work place. Sometimes, and especially in instances like these, PR need not be “good” in order to accomplish something – sometimes, it need only to be pertinent and prevalent.