Like the oped piece in the New York Times laying bare the truth of what happens inside Goldman Sachs, the Ellen Pao sexual harassment lawsuit has broken open an issues simmering just beneath the surface for decades: how do women get treated in the most forward thinking technology firms?
The facts of the case are bizarre enough to warrant repeating.
Ms. Pao, who came to Kleiner with the dream of helping direct such a fund, graduated from Princeton with a degree in electrical engineering. She got a law degree from Harvard and worked for Cravath Swaine & Moore for two years doing international deals. She returned to Harvard for a business degree and worked for a variety of tech companies, including BEA Systems and Tellme Networks. Her geek cred is pretty unassailable.
In 2005, she came to Kleiner as a junior partner, working as chief of staff to John Doerr. He was one of the main evangelists who shaped the modern Internet, a geek’s geek who became a billionaire. But, unlike many here, money never seemed his primary goal.
Ms. Pao’s role was to help Mr. Doerr identify investments, interview executives and write speeches.
According to the suit, her troubles began almost immediately when another junior partner, Ajit Nazre, made inappropriate sexual advances. Eventually, the complaint says, Ms. Pao “succumbed to Mr. Nazre’s insistence on sexual relations on two or three occasions.” When she put an end to the relationship, it says, he “started a consistent pattern of retaliation against her.” This went on for five years, it contends.
The harassment part of the suit pales in comparison to the retaliation part, which blends into an allegation of a general effort to keep women in their place. Kleiner, Ms. Pao’s lawsuit says, discriminated against her and other women “by failing to promote them comparably to men, by compensating them less than men through lower salary, bonus and carried interest, by restricting the number of investments that women are allowed to make as compared to men.”
Fair enough. If true, the behavior is clearly wrong.
But just as a side note, Ellen Pao is married to Alphonse Fletcher Jr., known as “Buddy”. Buddy owns four units in the famous Dakota building in New York City. He was also until recently the President of the Coop board of that building. Prior to marrying Ms. Pao, Buddy lived in the units with his longtime boyfriend Hobart V. Fowlkes.
Buddy is currently suing the board of the Dakota, the same board of which he is President, for racial discrimination because he is black he claims that is the deciding factor in the board failing to approve his purchase of a fifth unit to provide space for his child with Ms. Pao. The board says he just doesn’t have the money.
To cap it off workmen have accused Buddy, in 2003 and 2006, of sexual harassment of the same variety Ms. Pao is claiming occurred in Silicon Valley, on man on man.
I realize that a rape is a rape is a rape. The circumstances don’t matter. And the same is true of sexual harassment. Still, the back story certainly does impact the perceived credibility of the witness, whether we like it or not. If nothing else, Ms. Pao’s life choices can be characterized as less than common.
I certainly think the Pao story forces us to rethink gender and technology, whether we like it or not. My view is that is very healthy. There are still way too many nooks and crannies in our society where we don’t talk about gender, sexual harassment (of both genders), and the need for a level playing field where human beings can reach their potential at work and at home.
Just a few things that I would like to note having zero personal knowledge of the people involved in the lawsuit but having worked in media and technology now for 25 years, including 12 years as the managing partner of a venture firm.
The first is that technology in general and the web in particular is an amazingly democratic force for good. In the end no matter who you know, who tries to screw you over, and what you say about how good you are the proof is in the numbers. Second by second you can see with your own eyes with total objectivity whether a good idea is a good idea. Facebook, Twitter, Google, eBay, Yahoo all created huge market power not because of who started them but because massive numbers of people found them useful. I would say that in many cases, Facebook being a prime example, the power of the tool was so great that users overlooked how much they hated the founder behind it.
So I discount the idea that there is some male club that has a strangle hold over good ideas on the web and will rape and pilage any woman who gets out of line. That is not to say that there are many, many important relationships with venture firms, with other successful technology companies, and with just powerful people that influence success. And those might be dominated by men in a way that is unfair. But I would argue that just as rape is rape is rape, when it comes to the web traffic is traffic is traffic. Success is very clearly defined and gender just doesn’t enter into that equation.
There is the obvious success of women like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Carly Fiorina at HP, and Meg Whitman at eBay. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the leadership of technology firms and technology investment firms don’t continue to be dominated by men. They do. But I just wanted to share my own personal experience.
My partner and CFO of my venture firm, arguably the most crucial person in determining our success or failure over the 12 year life of the fund, was a woman. An employee of our firm was a recent Stanford business school grad. She helped me on well over a dozen deals inside the fund format. Over time she became my most trusted advisor. Since closing the doors on the firm, I have continued to make very significant investments in media and technology for my own account often in messy and complex situations. I have one person I trust to have my back in the trenches of those deals. The Stanford grad with whom I have worked for well over a decade now. She’s the mom of three little kids and works on her own schedule. But when the chips are down I know she will get the job done.
Finally, the CEO of this very site, a technology driven forum for a discussion about manhood, is a woman. At the end of the day the gender of the leader is irrelevant, in my opinion, in the face of such an important mission. Yes we need compelling male voices. Yes it’s important to have a male editor in chief. But in terms of building a vibrant community and business, that is a challenge without a gender.
All of which is to say that at least in my tiny sample of living and breathing the venture capital and technology world I have gravitated towards women as having a unique point of view and unique strengths. It very well might be just the individual women I met in my work life. But I think it’s worth pondering whether there is something not just equal but better that women bring to the conversation of what will work when it comes to the web and technology. Obviously, it is all about results. And everyone involved is looking for that thing which all the overs has missed.
Truth be told the Pao lawsuit is too messy for me to even get my arms around, or care much about. But the underlying issues of gender in the workplace, specially the technology-driven workplace is a topic we should all be thinking and talking about a lot more than we are.