I have a new hero, or rather heroine. You may be familiar with her. Her name is Ellen Pao, a Chinese American woman from New Jersey, former technical chief of staff at Kleiner Perkins who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer.
Her problems purportedly began when she ended an affair with her colleague and fellow partner, Ajit Nazare. To cut a long story short, she began receiving negative reviews from her seniors, was passed over for promotions, was sidelined when it came to important deals and wasn’t included in the regular wheeling and dealing lunches and dinners associated with the job.
Things began getting worse when she was elbowed out of important projects and the firm turned a blind eye and deaf ear to her complaints. She finally filed a lawsuit against the organisation after spending seven years there.
She eventually lost in a widely publicised trial against Kleiner Perkins. You can read about it here .
But I still think that in the long run she emerged a winner. Here’s why I think she is a winner all the way :
She had the gumption to singlehandedly take on the biggest venture capital firm in the world.
She rattled the ‘big boys’ club of Silicon Valley when she decided to take a stand.
She was the voice of thousands of women the world over who felt slighted and blighted in relation to their male colleagues, but didn’t quite have the guts to retaliate.
She is educated, smart and took a big risk doing what she did publicly, when she could just as easily have chosen to lick her wounds in private and move on to another big firm.
Inspite of filing the lawsuit, she continued to work at the firm, until she was fired, on account of claims that her performance hadn’t improved after her last review.
She could have received millions if she had signed a non-disparagement contract but chose the hard way to share her story.
Every woman reading her article would relate to some aspect of the story. The glass ceiling exists. It’s there. It’s real. And it is yet to be broken.
We feel it every time we get paid one third the salary of male colleagues, despite doing thrice the work. Every time a snide sexist remark is passed within earshot. When a firm is full of women, but has only men in meaningful managerial positions. When nepotism prevails over merit and gender prevails over talent. Also, let’s not forget the boss who has an affair with his subordinate, and then passes over more deserving women for rewards and recognition.
These days, gender discrimination is hidden. It cannot exist on the surface lest it be exposed for what it is. It’s hiding places are sweet talk, mothers being seen as less dedicated to their work, reluctance to hire newly-wed women for fear of upcoming pregnancies, secretly labelling women who outperform men as “bitchy” and “manly.” But, a thorn by whatever name called is still a thorn.
That’s why we need the Ellen Paos and Sheryl Sandbergs of the world to call it for what it is and expose it. Because not all of us have the courage to do it ourselves.
I remember a casual conversation with a male colleague who was at odds with a female co-worker. After raving and ranting for a good fifteen minutes, he then let it be known that she was such a ‘grouch’, because she was unmarried and therefore frustrated. The implication being that her performance was inversely proportional to her sex life.
Evidence suggests that when men and women work together on a project, men get more credit (New York University study, 2005); women are promoted on performance, men on promise (McKinsey & Co., 2011); mothers are seen as less committed to work than childless women, while fathers are more likely to be promoted than childless men (Cornell University, 2005).
In the same vein, I remember a superior once telling me that he would only interview women for a marketing position that came up. That’s gender bias on a whole different level. It also brings to mind the time when another partner was insistent on seeking only women candidates. His reasoning was that the two other important positions were already filled by men. So he did not want an ego clash by hiring a third man. Implying automatically that women are less likely to compete and clash with male colleagues. A back-handed compliment at best.
As for Ellen Pao, she has now co-founded Project Include, a non-profit that aims to give everyone a fair shot to succeed in tech. That’s why I admire her. She inspired many other women in tech to raise their voices and wage battle for their rights, getting reporters to come up with a name for women or minorities in tech for speaking up- ‘The Pao Effect.’ She is the David who lost against Goliath and still won. Proving that sometimes in the long run you win, because you lose!