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Op-Ed: Ellen Pao, Poster Child

When I read about Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination and retaliation suit against the reputable venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, my heart sank. How has she gotten herself into such a mess?Having spent a significant part of my career working with venture capitalists, I can attest that it is a testosterone-fueled environment, driven by large appetites—financial, sexual, and other. Young women coming into that world are frequently unprepared to deal with their male co-workers and stumble, lose their upper mobility, and drop out.

Ms. Pao’s case is a classic one. She reports that she was pressured into having sex with a co-worker, and when she broke off the affair, he ostracized her, leaving her out of meetings and withholding information. When she complained, her male supervisors ignored her complaints and noted in her performance appraisals that she had “issues” with her co-workers. Now, she is outraged and has found an attorney to bring a lawsuit that will be tried in the press. Headlines are running that she is only in it for the money, questioning the validity and timing of the suit, and including bizarre details about her husband’s legal and sexual history. Comments on the news articles are harsh, criticizing her for sleeping with the guy, for her education, her wealth, and her naivete. The comment streams usually deteriorate into name-calling and recommending that women just drop out of corporate America.

As disturbing as all this is, every bit of it was predictable. I wonder if Ms. Pao realizes that she was victimized because of mistakes that she made that could have easily been avoided if we were only more honest and straightforward in preparing young women for a male-dominated environment.

Did anyone tell Ms. Pao when she graduated that there are harassers and sexual predators in corporate America? I doubt it. That there’s a terrible double standard about sexual behavior in the workplace, that men can have affairs but if women do, they pay an awful price in damage to their reputation? Was she told that traveling with co-workers and after hours events are the most dangerous times to commit a career-wrecking mistake that you will regret the rest of your life? That if you bring up gender issues at work, you will be alienated? And that if you sue, your career is finished?

When we as managers, mentors, attorneys, writers, and parents do not speak truthfully about these issues to women, we are hiding important information that we may be embarrassed to share but that could save their careers.

Even now, has her attorney explained to her that her reputation will be smeared in the press, that a whisper campaign will follow her for the rest of her life, and that she had better get enough money out of this settlement to cover all her income needs? I bet he has not. Has he told her honestly that her case is extremely unlikely to go to trial? And if it does, that the fact she slept with her alleged harasser will be thrown up in front of the jury again and again and again? Has he explained that she is very likely to be forced into arbitration just as the women from Wall Street’s Boom Boom Room were? That Kleiner’s attorneys, sterling reputation, deep pockets, history of gender diversity, and the fact that they got rid of the harasser are about to be unleashed against her? That her reserve, her maternity leaves, her ‘bitching,’ and her tweets will be turned into catapults to explain her poor performance reviews, lack of advancement, and why she was left out of the new Kleiner fund? She thought she was damaged before? She is about to experience a whole new level of discrimination. I’ve been on the other side of the table. When there’s money involved, these guys fight hard. Finally, has he told her that she will never be vindicated? That she will only end up a different kind of victim? That’s the conversation they should have.

Ms. Pao is a well-educated woman, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, with both a law degree and an MBA, and probably entered the venture capital world with great ambition and high hopes. Those are now smashed. Her work life will never be what she hoped.

And how about the rest of us? Have we fallen into the trap of pitting women against women, so that for every Ellen Pao, there’s a female partner at Kleiner who says it’s a great place to work? And for every female blogger who says, “You go, Ellen!” there’s another who grouses about how bad this lawsuit is for women. Guess what, misogyny extends far beyond Kleiner.

The solution to discrimination in corporate America does not lie in coming into the workplace ill-informed and ill-equipped, getting confused, making mistakes, and then suing. No matter how much money Ms. Pao gets out of this, she loses. And we lose. Because an intelligent, ambitious woman with a bright future is gone, leaving fewer women behind, facing a more hostile attitude and greater suspicion than before, and a legacy of expensive legal skirmishes and a media nightmare for all involved. What a sickening waste. And it all could have been prevented.

 

Jennifer K. Crittenden

Former CFO and author of The Discreet Guide for Executive Women: How to Work Well with Men (and Other Difficulties)

July 2, 2012

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