The XX Factor

Ellen Pao Trial Reveals the Subtle Sexism of Silicon Valley

Ellen Pao
Ellen Pao at San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco on Feb. 26, 2015.

Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Ellen Pao, now serving as the interim CEO of Reddit, is suing her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, of gender discrimination because it failed to promote her during her time there and fired her when she complained in 2012. The ongoing trial, as Mother Jones discovered, is a fountain of hilarious details about life in the upper echelons of the tech world: $300 board games about excelling in business, confusing corporate jargon that sounds ridiculous in a courtroom setting, discussions of the Playboy Mansion on private jets, and debates about the difference between “cocky” and “confident.” At one point, the court reporter had to ask about the spelling of “Klout,” a detail that will likely find its way into the third season of Silicon Valley

But despite all the goofiness, the question at the heart of the trial is one that will resonate with plenty of women who aren’t vying for offices in the “power corridor” of a VC firm: How do you determine what is and isn’t gender discrimination in a world where you’re competing with men on decidedly subjective terms? Pao is arguing that she didn’t get promoted because a sexist, bro-y environment didn’t make room for women. The defense, however, is arguing that it wasn’t her gender but her inability to meet the firm’s standards on frustratingly vague measures such as “thought leadership.”

Of course, men tend to get judged very differently than women on a lot of those subjective measurements. Nitasha Tiku at the Verge explains how this is playing out in court:

Another question yesterday concerned Schlein’s notes on a potential male hire from 2011 that seemed to imply the candidate’s “cockiness” was an attribute. (Many of Pao’s performance reviews called her arrogant and brash, noting her “sharp elbows,” where similar aggression in partners like Chien was not a cause for concern.) Schlein was asked to explain when cockiness is a good thing. “If you’re cocky and then by the time you’re done talking to somebody and they don’t like you,” it’s the wrong kind of cocky, he said.

The problem is that the line not to cross—when a person’s confidence becomes a turnoff—is very different depending on gender. Similarly, it’s understandable that VC firms want to hire people who fit the mold of “thought leaders.” But unfortunately, that mold is male-shaped. 

Pao’s apparently sole defender at the firm, senior partner John Doerr, took the stand Wednesday and testified that he felt that the VC world is not doing enough to recruit and develop women, but admitted that he felt Pao was not a “team player.” One of the interesting tidbits that came out was an audio recording of Doerr talking about the personalities of the people he liked investing in, as reported by Wired:

At one point in the trial, Pao’s attorney played an audio clip of a conversation between Doerr and Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital, another industry star, recorded during a May 2008 meeting of the National Venture Capital Association. In the clip, Doerr says it was “very clearly male nerds who had no social or sex lives” and who were dropouts of Harvard or Stanford who were likely to succeed as some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. “When I see that pattern coming in … it’s very easy to decide to invest,” Doerr said.

Part of Doerr’s attempts to help Pao during this time involved hiring her social and speech coaches to make her more likable. It’s hard not to sense a double standard here, where “male nerds” without the social skills to build “social or sex lives” are doing so well, but women are expected to work hard on their likability. Is it enough for Pao to prove her accusations of gender discrimination in the absence of more concrete performance measurements? On that, we will have to wait and see.