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September 18 2017

Self-Described Gender Discrimination Martyr Ellen Pao Is Back

by Charlotte Hays

Ellen Pao is back.

Ms. Pao, you may recall, unsuccessfully sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm, for gender discrimination five years ago.

In a Sunday opinion piece in the New York Times, Ms. Pao indicates that she thinks that her case might have turned out differently today because now such complaints from women are being taken more seriously. Pao wrote:

The huge change is that people now acknowledge the problem. Women telling their stories are believed, for the most part, by the public and by the press. In February, with a clear and powerful blog post about her time at Uber, Susan Fowler blew open the doors on bad behavior in tech. She made deliberate choices that made her an unassailable commentator: no litigation, no P.R. firm and detailed descriptions of each incident left no room for a smear campaign or any question of impropriety. Her clear and precise retelling of the harassment and retaliation she said she suffered — and the failures of management to fix it — are now widely known.

Before her post, others who spoke up publicly and privately about their experiences of harassment were at best ignored. Some of those people — whose names are unfortunately not well known — include Adria Richards, Amélie Lamont, Gesche Haas, Julie Ann Horvath, Kathryn Minshew and Kelly Ellis. Most were disrespected and harassed online, and many found it hard, as I did, to find work after public shaming.

We saw Gamergate attack female game developers and their supporters. But they all paved the way for Ms. Fowler to be heard and believed, and for subsequent stories about sexist tech culture to be accepted at face value.

Ms. Pao gets in the weeds and discusses complaints from women at several innovative companies. I'm not equipped to address all these incidents (though it appears that Gamergate did get a bum rap), and we undoubtedly will know more about allegations of discrimination in tech world as these cases play out in court or elsewhere.

But it is worth noting that, if you consider her past actions in any detail, Ms. Pao may not be the best candidate for martyrdom on the altar of gender discrimination. The New York Times reported in March 2015 that jurors decided that gender discrimination was not the root of Ms. Pao's career problems: 

The jurors said in interviews they did not take on the role of “conscience of this community,” as one of Ms. Pao’s lawyers had urged in the closing arguments. They focused on the facts at hand, and concluded it was Ms. Pao’s own performance that held her back.

One juror, Steve Sammut, 62, said it was difficult coming to a verdict.

“We were split there for a while,” he said, adding that a key point was how Ms. Pao’s reviews at Kleiner deteriorated over time. He also said the witnesses for Kleiner, most of whom came from the firm, helped seal the case.

Ms. Pao observed in Sunday's opinion piece:

I have heard from several women who spoke up in this newspaper and elsewhere this year that they continue to face harassment. They have been told that discussing their experiences has limited their careers.

We welcome debate and more information about women who work in the technology field.

But it is important to reiterate that the jurors in Ms. Pao's $16 million dollar suit decided that the plaintiff's job performance, not the firm's alleged sexism, was what was limiting her career.

So maybe Ms. Pao's attempt to emerge as a role model does nothing to clarify the issues at stake.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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