Against silence: Ellen Pao versus high-fiving white guys

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Yesterday’s talk of silences and sharing was obliquely personal, but it did then make me think about an earlier moment this year when I read Ellen Pao’s book Reset, detailing the harassment and toxic culture in which she (and many other women) worked during her time as a VC at Kleiner Perkins. The timing of the book’s publication coincides with the contemporary tidal wave of public sharing/silence-breaking taking place en masse, but it seems Pao’s gender discrimination legal case came a little bit too soon (at least to deliver her a legal victory). Nevertheless her actions, as difficult and costly they were for her personally, certainly paved the way (however invisibly) for those who have finally found a voice with which to speak up.

I didn’t find the book riveting, nor Pao’s experiences shocking or surprising. In fact it took me a long time by my standards to get through the book. It’s not boring or badly written – it’s just that this is all so familiar. We (women) have seen this same story and had these experiences, all the silently slammed doors, slights, harassment, our part (as women) being cast only as ornaments or quotas to fill but who will be, as Pao asserts many times, compliant, hopeful and helpful enough to do all the grunt work, and to keep delivering ideas, progress and revenue under the radar. All the while, standing just on the edge of the action, we watch the high-fiving other people (usually men) do as they take undeserved credit or undercut or interrupt us. It sometimes feels like they do this because they are threatened; at other times it feels like they do this because we are invisible because this is the way the world is set up – mostly white men steering the ship while the women of the world are just bobbing along in the vast ocean hoping these men will benevolently deploy a liferaft.

And it’s a quiet, almost silent, kind of suffering – you don’t even realize you are in the shit until you are well and truly in it. Pao does a good job describing that first moment of realization – that it’s not just you on the outside. No, it’s the existence of an entire culture of discrimination that dawns on you. You might at first blame yourself, think you are overly sensitive and just not used to the way things are done. But even when you realize this is an offensive and hostile environment, and that you are not the only one to think so, what recourse do you have? You are invisible. OR you are the squeaky wheel, the bitch, the “difficult to work with” one. And it is only when you have exhausted all your options that you move to the extreme (in Pao’s case, litigation). And it’s then that all the energy and resources these men have channeled into insignificant frippery, such as paint colors on their private jets and discussions on porn stars and their ‘attributes’, are turned with full force toward discrediting any source of discord in their world.

And it’s crafty. I am first to admit that when the Kleiner Perkins PR machine churned into gear and started writing unflattering and defamatory stories about Pao (about whom I knew nothing at the time), I was inclined to believe the stories because I simply was not thinking about it critically. But when you think about it – why would well-respected, mainstream publications go on the attack against this individual woman in the vicious way they did unless there were something really big at stake underneath it all? Unless someone with deep pockets felt she had to be silenced? On the surface, it would be (and was) easy to look at her allegations in almost the same way the general public scoffs at the story of the woman who famously sued McDonald’s for being burned by hot coffee: it seemed frivolous. And why? In part because the general public has no understanding of the legal tenets of the case, the actual and physical damages (third degree burns) or the fact that McDonald’s knew their coffee could cause this level of harm – and showed during discovery that they knew and had had more than 700 similar complaints over the years – and did nothing to rectify the situation. But the other, bigger part of why the public vilified the woman for her litigious greed and to this day laugh at the case as an example of America’s sue-happy culture gone-too-far is because the PR machine was at work doing its ugly smear job.

Again. Still. As always.

Perhaps the book didn’t enlighten me in any way, but I certainly noted while reading Pao’s account that sometimes pushing the worst nightmares of your life into the light is your only recourse. Even if you get burned.

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