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Summary:

Whatever you think of Ellen Pao and her sexual harassment lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, there are a couple of things we know for sure. She has sparked a watershed moment for women’s rights in the 21st century. And she is sacrificing her entire career for it.

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She’s right. She’s wrong. She’s justified. She’s litigious. She’s a hero. She’s a spurned lover. Whatever you think of Ellen Pao and her sexual harassment lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, there are a couple of things we know for sure. She has sparked a watershed moment for women’s rights in the 21st century. And she is sacrificing her entire career for it.

I’ll let readers fill themselves in on the details, but the gist is that Pao is charging Kleiner with gender discrimination and retaliation, alleging that the partners in the firm excluded her from meetings and important discussions after a terminated affair with fellow partner Ajit Nazre. She is also alleging a broad atmosphere of discrimination at KP against women. It’s not my place to say whether her claims are legitimate. But that is beside the point.

Filing lawsuits against corporate behemoths isn’t easy. Alleging sexual harassment is even thornier. Pao feels strongly enough about what happened in her seven years at KP to take action that she knows will render her untouchable in the industry. Let’s be blunt (and ironic): this takes balls.

No matter what century we’re in, sexual harassment is an issue that is guaranteed to get the plaintiff a lot of nasty reprisals. The fact that Pao readily admits to sex with Nazre ups the ante on those reprisals – and how the defense will attack her in the courtroom.

Let’s be blunt about something else: someone’s finally had the nerve to stand up and say what we’ve all known for years. It is common knowledge that VC firms are one of the last bastions of boys clubs. Whether Pao specifically was excluded from meetings at KP and subjected to gifts of dirty books is still to be determined. But if she wasn’t, many other women have been, and it is for those women that Pao had to do this.

I made my own brief foray into the world of investing and, especially with a business that focused on female-led startups, I can assure you it wasn’t pretty. I still wince at the thought of one particular investor meeting, in which a smoothly flowing conversation about women entrepreneurs screeched to a halt when he asked, “Don’t you all catfight with each other?” Or the storied tech leader and investor who likes to call my company “that woman thing.”

Or the VC firm that bluntly stated they don’t want to be pigeonholed into supporting women’s ‘causes.’ Or – just one more please – the head of a large startup funding organization who told me to ‘try Meetup’ when I sought serious advice on franchising and licensing.

Women like Ellen Pao are the ones who change things for our gender as a whole. It is way past time for someone to try to make a chink in this armor. As Katie points out in her boys-club piece, out-moded views on gender are simply another way these firms are becoming dinosaurs.

I certainly don’t expect them to thank Ellen Pao for this lawsuit, but they probably should. She’s attempting to drag them into the modern age, something that must happen if they’re going to stay relevant. Kleiner Perkins is the Mount Olympus of technology venture investing. Changes that occur there will filter down into the entire industry.

But it’s especially frustrating that Pao will pay for her stance with her hard-earned career, whether she wins or not. One particular comment on the TechCrunch piece jumped out me. “Yishan Sparklepants Wong” who works at Reddit wrote:

“I doubt these are unfounded. I’ve worked with Ellen Pao and she’s not the type to complain or make frivolous allegations. In my interactions with her, she strikes me as someone who just wants to be able to work hard and get a fair deal….If you actually read the filing, the incidents go back all the way to 2006 and are quite detailed, so for much of the time it sounds like she tried to put up with it and go along.”

The men that still pull the strings of the tech industry need to take notice of this lawsuit and start making changes. Follow the model of 500 Startups, which has a bevy of female partners – and specifically seeks out women-led companies in which to invest.

Put more women on your boards, stack your tech conference’s agenda with female speakers, organize straight-talk harassment seminars in your company. Implement programs that help support women in technology, so it’s not longer as difficult to find “qualified women” for events or leadership roles. Then it’s not a matter of checking some gender boxes for your board or your conference, it’s a matter of selecting the best person who may or may not be male.

In short, Ellen Pao – and all the rest of us – want you to come out of your caves. It’s time to start evolving. As for women in tech, and in business overall, we need to support Pao vociferously. She is, in essence, taking one for the team. We should all tip our hat to her.

Carla Cook Thompson is the CEO of Sharp Skirts, a network for women who are building businesses.

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  1. “She’s right. She’s wrong. She’s justified. She’s litigious. She’s a hero. She’s a spurned lover. Whatever you think of Ellen Pao and her sexual harassment lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, there are a couple of things we know for sure. She has sparked a watershed moment for women’s rights in the 21st century. And she is sacrificing her entire career for it.”

    I don’t know that second thing for sure. It could also be said that she sacrificed her career in 2006, rather, albeit for no good reason.

    Years ago, I worked with Ellen for almost two years. I think we corresponded a bit during a few months after that. (Back then, she had a two-part last name starting with “Pao”.) When I was acquainted with her, I liked Ellen a lot. I liked her mind. She was soft-spoken, exceptionally sharp, humane, and surprisingly fierce. Based only on that experience, I agree with most of the Yishan Sparklepants Wong quotation.

    But I’m sticking to my point about the events of 2006 (what we’ve heard about them so far, anyway.) It seems to me that in a few moments of indulgence and indiscretion then, Ellen unleashed the potential for all the awfulness that would follow. That doesn’t mean she deserved the awfulness, but a common sense reading demands that she be held responsible for at least that much.

    KPCB can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. They and all their ilk can, these champions of deal making and finance. They’re all schmucks. The worst sort of people. But that is all the more reason for a woman who has the “balls” to work as one of them to play it squeaky clean.

    All other things being equal, the most important contributor toward having the best life one can is making good decisions. Good decisions often lead to good outcomes, but bad decisions almost never do for those who make them.

    Several years ago, Ellen made some bad decisions. Maybe her recent decision to sue and go public is a good one, to the OP’s point: if not for her, it may benefit other women and society in general.

    Sincerely, I wish her luck.

    1. I didn’t see any indication that the male partner got any sort of harassment for his choosing to have an affair with Ms. Pao. Is he not equally culpable in the bad decision?

      1. Ms. Fisher,

        Since I never knew him, I was unconcerned with him or his decisions, save in principle (to your point, I think), and concretely only inasmuch as they affected Ellen.

        Yes, he made a series of exceptionally bad decisions. Yet no-one else was responsible for those, least of all Ellen in this case.

        So when you say “the bad decision”, I feel it is necessary to clarify that his bad decisions were not the same ones as hers: though they acted in a shared situation, these were two independent, adult minds, each of whom presumably made their respective decisions of their own free will.

  2. “In short, Ellen Pao – and all the rest of us – want you to come out of your caves. It’s time to start evolving.”

    I’m disappointed that you’d end a good article with such a misandrist and insensitive comment, it ends up throwing the whole thing into a completely hypocritical light.

    1. I agree with this comment wholeheartedly, and what’s more, the minute you taint the well with the affair, you essentially have no leg to stand on, in my opinion. Was she a partner when the affair happened?

      1. How much does it matter that the affair happened? What if the gender roles were reversed, and Pao and the other partners had excluded the man in the affair?

    2. Carla Thompson urgh Tuesday, May 29, 2012

      You make a fair point – and get extra props for the use of ‘misandrist.’ My statement is harsh. But so is being objectified in the workplace.

  3. If you believe the statement: “Then it’s not a matter of checking some gender boxes for your board or your conference, it’s a matter of selecting the best person who may or may not be male.” you cannot also propose in the previous sentence “Put more women on your boards, stack your tech conference’s agenda with female speakers.” This is the great challenge. If you truly hire whoever is best for the job, you have no control over what genders end up in the organization. That makes it hard to force a large social shift, but it’s the right thing to do. It means you have to generate change some way other than forcing things through gender-equality rules and such.

    Hopefully this case, as unpleasant as it will be for everyone involved, may be one of those forcing functions.

  4. Bill Cornell Thursday, May 24, 2012

    “Women like Ellen Pao are the ones who change things for our gender as a whole.”

    What if her allegations have no basis? Kleiner Perkins says they don’t.

    “It is way past time for someone to try to make a chink in this armor.”

    That same expression was used on ESPN when in an article about Jeremy Lin and got a staffer fired. It’s a cliche and it’s sloppy.

    “It’s time to start evolving.”

    You first.

    1. Yishan Sparklepants Wong Bill Cornell Monday, May 28, 2012

      Yeah, no kidding. Why do we have to bring race into this?

  5. Wish the piece was a tad unemotional, because the emotion is clouding the point being made. Some examples:

    “I certainly don’t expect them to thank Ellen Pao for this lawsuit, but they probably should. She’s attempting to drag them into the modern age, something that must happen if they’re going to stay relevant”

    This assumes that “modern age” and “relevance” as deemed by the author, are inevitable, Ellen Pao or not. Actually it sounds as though with the exception of KP (or maybe VC boys clubs in general), the rest of the world is gender-neutral already and is cruising smooth in the “modern age and relevance”.

    Also : “Put more women on your boards, stack your tech conference’s agenda with female speakers..” Knowing fully well the chicken-and-egg scenario here, I’d expect a warning or at least a disclaimer. Yes, we need to start somewhere, heck why not everywhere, with having more women, but the valid disclaimer on competence cannot be ignored. I’d choose a competent person regardless of gender. But to restore the gender balance, one would consciously have to choose a woman over a man when they are of seemingly equal competence. This should be the point – not a blind selection of a woman, because more often than not, when such a thing happens, more men will likely claim that “she got nominated because she’s a b***h – or at least that she’s a dumb blonde”

    Women’s movements should stay rational, unemotional and issue-based to stand a chance of success. The odds are always stacked against the women and any slip towards misandry will not help. More over, women need to recognize that there are several men out there who are not biased against women at all – and surely are not misogynists. If women let emotion cloud their judgement, they will only let that “modern age” and “relevance” give them a skip.

  6. rustyspeidel Friday, May 25, 2012

    Are there any woman-owned investment banks? Could Ellen start one? Who needs these dorky men anyway? They could invest in woman-owned businesses only. My point is that if the men are such pigs, stop working with them! Stop supporting their misogynistic behavior. Vote with your wallets, your job choices, your marketing strategies, your associations, your decision to sleep with them at the office. Start you own clubs. Elect you own senators and representatives. You are the majority!!

    I know this sounds ridiculous, but let’s at least debate the point,

    1. The impression I get from your comment is that I should only seek out programming jobs with exclusively women coworkers, vote for someone exclusively based on gender, etc. That’s simply not realistic (Did you want Michele Bachmann elected?). It’s really not that hard to try to avoid being sexist, which IMO all genders should work on.

  7. Philip Leigh Saturday, May 26, 2012

    Okay…let’s be blunt. Attractive women have the opportunity to start a romance with a male in her office who is higher in the management ladder and use his influence to advance her career. Males cannot use sexual attraction in such a manner…yet nobody ever comments upon how the ability of women to do so is a female gender privilege.

    Once such women move quickly up the management ladder, they can break-off the romance and allege sexual harassment if the male continues to show interest.

  8. I originally read this article when it was posted on Friday. Read it a few times since and thought about the comments below, the perspective the article was written and the case itself.

    I believe that there are many women that find themselves in the same position as Ellen Pao. Fighting an uphill battle in a man’s world to be respected and treated as an equal. I am sure her allegations have merit. However, I strongly believe her first mistake was mixing business with pleasure in 2006, even if it was only a handful of times.

    She should have never engaged in any relationship with any members of the office that wasn’t purely professional in nature. I honestly believe, most of the retaliation she is experiencing is that of a bruised ego on the part of Ajit Nazre.

    I think it’s great that cases like this are brought to light, if only to serve as examples that people need to check their ego at the door. However, the human in everyone will always get in the way of work when a new dimension is brought into the relationship.

    Ellen Pao likely should have cut her losses after the first time she engaged in sexual relations and moved on. She is now left empty-handed, killed her career and likely blacklisted herself from top firms. Future employers would rather just not be associated with such a scandal. Is it fair? No. But women have to be strategic given the landscape of corporate competitiveness.

    I think there is some serious work that needs to be done with regards to the glass ceiling women hit in the corporate world. The remains of encroaching power exuded by the old boys clubs and remnants of the white shoe firms needs to not be tolerated. But do I think this is the case that will break down those barriers, not likely since it has been tainted with her poor decision to engage sexually with the same man she is accusing of discrimination.

    Interesting to see which party the state of California will find in favour.

    1. Fantastic points and agree wholeheartedly. You should have written this article with me!

  9. Yishan Sparklepants Wong Monday, May 28, 2012

    “Women like Ellen Pao are the ones who change things for our gender as a whole. It is way past time for someone to try to make a chink in this armor.”

    Look, there’s no reason to be racist here.

    1. I would trust this man. He is a known miscegenist.

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