Women's Work

What I Learned From the Fall of Ellen Pao


A top scientist in her field reflects on the sexist culture that has held her, and so many other women in STEM, from reaching their full potential. And yet, she's hopeful.



I could tell you stories of biotech and it would all be anecdotal. I could regale you with leadership shenanigans but no one will back me up. I will give you facts because I am a woman in science, but even then I would tell you to notice what you notice. It hides in plain sight, the sexism you cannot prove. Because we are still afraid.

It is 2003, two years after 9/11 when I move to San Diego to work for a global biotech. It is a time when the biotech and IT boom makes opportunities seem ordinary. It is a time when if you’re dissatisfied with your current job, you can quit, and head across Torrey Pines Road to the next biotech, hand over your resume and be hired in 48 hours. It is a time of abundance and I am in a biotech where I have worked weekends and holidays to release two products in two years, a third on the way, along with two patents. It is promotion and bonus time. To date, a decade and a half later, in 2018, these products are still being sold by that biotech near the Pacific Ocean.

My manager, an introverted blonde calls me into her office, “You’re a stellar performer, Madhu,” she starts.

My heart races—I expect her to tell me that I have graduated to Senior Staff Scientist. I have worked weekends and holidays for this.

“Here,” she points to my minuscule salary increase.

I am a scientist. Money is not the motivator. Acknowledgment is.

She adds, not meeting my eyes, “Well, I had only one promotion I could give. So, it’s J who will be the Senior Staff Scientist.”

A decade and a half ago, I am still unskilled in diplomacy and negotiations. I say what’s on my mind. “What do I have to do to get to that level?”

My manager squirms, “Well, J has a stay-at-home wife. And children. He needs it more than you. You’ll get other chances. Not now.”

This type of blatant gender discrimination hurts even more when women do it to women.

***

At work, many women, especially women of color, have reached out to me for career and mentorship advice. One of my mentees told me yesterday, “Madhu, you’re the only senior leader who is a woman who has cared to push me out of my comfort zone.” While that’s great for my ego, it is particularly horrifying that we as women haven’t supported each other in the workplace for decades.

In the past decade and a half, I have worked in small, midsize and large global diagnostics and biotech companies. I have been promoted from being a bench scientist, to a team lead, to a director to a senior director, to a vice-president and then heading research and development to now heading strategy. These are incremental promotions that I’ve had to work very hard to achieve.

At my first performance review in the San Diego biotech, my introverted blonde boss tells me, “I know you mean well, Madhu, but you HAVE to tone down your aggressiveness. It makes the men uncomfortable.”

“I should be making them feel comfortable?” I ask.

She counters: “You really need to work on that emotional angle. You’re too passionate. Your devotion to your team will bring you down.”

Burgess and Borgida noted in their 1999 paper in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, titled, “Who Women Are, Who Women Should Be”, that women who were perceived to have violated prescriptions of the female gender role were subjected to disparate treatment in the workplace.

That is the crux of who an outlier is. When you don’t fit the mold, how do the others perceive you?

****

Ellen Pao reminds me of most biotech women I have worked with. The ones who wear tailored dark business suits. The ones who are driven, hardworking. And yet, they try to fit in by being the good soldier, as their families have taught them. Those who are daughters of immigrant parents, those who have been told not to rock the corporate world. You don’t have to be a rock star in the biotech or VC world. You have to be good at your job.

In 2005 Pao joins Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB) heading the group’s expansion into China. She was asked to be the Chief of Staff, working closely with partners, high-level CEOs and nurturing partnerships and ventures that have high growth and visibility. However, Pao also realizes that junior partners are given difficult ventures with reduced ROIs (return-on-investments). She reaches out to the founder/senior partner, John Doerr for his mentorship and advice when she had been passed over for promotion. Doerr later claims that Pao has a “female chip on her shoulder.” In a company that has no human resources division, any such issues are handled by the senior partners. By this time, Pao has begun and ended a consensual relationship with another junior partner, Ajit Nazre who is subsequently promoted. According to Pao, Nazre actively excludes her from email chains, joint teleconferences, group outings, in essence isolating her from KPCB venture activities that are her responsibility.

In her essay, “This Is How Sexism Works in Silicon Valley,”  an excerpt from her memoir Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, Pao notes, “Before suing, I’d consulted other women who had sued big, powerful companies over harassment and discrimination…“Don’t do it.” One woman told me, “It’s a complete mismatch of resources. They don’t fight fair. Even if you win, it will destroy your reputation.” But every one of these female executives tell her, that despite the uphill battle, they don’t regret it and would sue again in a heartbeat.

So what makes Pao’s resolution so firm? After all, this has been happening for years. The ‘frat-boy (Ivy League Boys’ Club in Silicon Valley) talk of porn stars while flying on company jets, the absence of sexual harassment training at work, the fact that even Pao discourages another female colleague from complaining about harassment (as she didn’t expect the partners to pay attention or do anything about it),  the inappropriate questions of whether a female interviewee was married, had children or wanted to in the near future…this is regular fare at KPCB. So wasn’t Pao irrelevant in such a place?

“Well,” she says, “Someone needed to do the grunt work.”

Despite those odds, knowing her character, integrity, professionalism and work ethic would be questioned and shredded at court, Ellen Pao sued KPCB in 2012. Upon legal advice, she still goes to work at KPCB, still in a hostile work environment and is asked by management to move into a non-operational role. It is expected that she will comply. Within six months of filing, Pao is abruptly fired.

Pao’s regrets are many. That she doesn’t call out the issues early enough. That she advises her colleague not to lodge an official sexual harassment claim at work. That she is labeled ferociously by KPCB’s PR group as a ‘poor performer’. But losing the lawsuit isn’t one. Pao adds, “Losing my suit hurt…I could have received millions from Kleiner if I would just have signed a non-disparagement contract; I turned it down so I could finally share my story.”

****

In 2014, when a public TV interviewer asks if she misunderstood her former employer’s intentions, Pao’s eyes shine behind her serious black-rimmed glasses. Grinning shyly, she nods. It’s a natural response to smile more to show one isn’t a threat. She says, “…I had no choice. (I had to sue).”

The disparity issue magnifies when it comes to Asian Americans. Especially Asian American women. In a 2012 paper in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, titled, “Prescriptive Stereotypes and Workplace Consequences for East Asians in the Workplace,” Jennifer L. Berdahl and Jin-A Min of University of Toronto showed that the automatic assumption of (East) Asians to be submissive and non-dominant is expected in the workplace. If an Asian woman (their four studies on surveys sent to 500 participants were primarily women of Korean, Chinese and Japanese descent) is ‘warm’ or doesn’t match the stereotype in the workplace, they are likely to face harassment and not expected or assumed to expect a leadership role. They were, however, expected to be technically (highly) qualified. In addition, Asian stereotype is also perpetuated in that their ‘cold’ behavior or nature is expected to be a disadvantage in being a leader.

****

I have to marvel that Pao—who did everything by the book, followed all the rules of corporate engagement behaved against type—acted dominantly in a society that expected Asian Americans to be ‘submissive’, ‘technology-savvy’ and in ‘non-leadership roles’. In 2012, was the corporate world ready for that?

*****

According to a 2013 NSF survey, immigrant scientists and engineers in the U.S. increased from 3.4 million to 5.2 million, with 63 percent U.S. naturalized citizens, 22 percent permanent residents, and 15 percent with visas. Asians made up 57 percent.As expected, Indian scientists and engineers top the number, with 950,000 out of Asia’s total 2.96 million, representing an 85% increase from 2003.

The expectation is that these are skilled academicians, and technical workers in industry. Leadership coaching or training is not given or encouraged, in general. This is a trend I have observed in my two decades in biotech.

Early this decade, a boss who I reported to in different capacities in different companies, light-heartedly gives me feedback.“You’re too much of a feminist. Man, I’m afraid to say anything because of how you may construe it to be.”

I protest, “It isn’t what I construe, it’s more of what you say.”

He lays his square palms down, as if in surrender and I know he’s not surrendering at all. He stops the conversation with, “Calm down, Madhu, don’t get emotional.”

To be an outlier means every action of yours is challenged. If it isn’t the norm, it isn’t accepted. If it isn’t accepted, it needs to be removed.

****

KPCB hires a crisis management firm to dig up dirt on Pao’s personal life. In the trial, her husband Buddy Fletcher—who is African-American and has had homosexual relationships, and also sued a New York building board for racism—is implied as the one who may have instigated Pao to sue for ‘profit’. The crisis management team says that Pao was ineffective, difficult and a poor performer. And that she used her sexual relationship with Nazre, now long gone from KPCB, to climb the corporate ladder and failed.  On a Friday in March 2015, Pao loses the verdict at the Supreme Court. Six men and six women on the jury determine that KPCB didn’t discriminate against Pao. There is no gender issue in a liberal state in a liberal high-tech city. There is no retaliation. In a high-tech industry, where unconscious bias is universal. So universal, that calling attention to it, is ensuring a lifetime of suspicion of motive, suspicion of talent, suspicion of credibility.

***

In 2017, my company recognizes me as a leader with potential and offers me coaching to improve my leadership skills. This is a coveted incentive. They ask me to choose a coach, from a reputable customer-focused global training group. I specifically select a woman of color. I am assuming she will understand my motivation, my concerns. And to an extent, she does, but she isn’t an immigrant. She didn’t come to America with two suitcases, $50 in American Express traveler’s checks, or an F-1 student visa and a need to succeed. She has nicely assimilated into the tech culture. She listens patiently on our monthly teleconferences, but when I bring up discrimination, or the unfair treatment I believe has befallen me and other women, she offers caution rather than comfort: “You’re in the boy’s club, play their game. Make your ideas sound like they thought of it. You’ll get what you want if you play the game.”

But playing that game, which amounts to keeping our mouths shut, is what holds women back. I realize that now. Sometimes, the fact that my culture taught me not respond to bad behavior works to my detriment. Women are not supposed to talk back, not supposed to be rude, not supposed to call out bad behavior. You’re supposed to move away from such discussions. That’s why in my field, most of such bad behavior (by men and women included) is and has been tolerated—good girls who behave do and will not challenge the status quo. But the ones who challenge will be punished.

WL, an Asian-American female colleague who is an 18-year veteran in a global diagnostics company was told—by a female president—that “You get what you tolerate in life,” and now tells me, “Madhu, you told me, once you see the discrimination, you cannot unsee it.”

“So, what do you see now, WL?”

“It’s everywhere. It’s so everywhere that it’s normal!” she exclaims like she’s seeing a solar eclipse for the first time. “I’ve been subjected to this for years and I had no idea!”

***

In 2012, I attend a key opinion leader dinner sponsored by our company. After dinner, dessert rolls in, and my colleague SV, a veteran in a European biotech firm, claps her hands and says, “Yay!” like she won a prize. We laugh with her.

The key opinion leader leans forward and announces loudly, “Now we know how she sounds when she’s orgasming.”

All the men laugh with him. I sit with my mouth open. SV looks at me, her eyes say, “Help me.”

I don’t. I keep quiet.

Many years later I ask her what happened next. “Well,” she says, “I complained to my manager. Then human resources. They said they would take it seriously.”

“That’s good, right?”, I ask her hoping for a silver lining to this story.

“No,” she says, “ In a week, they pulled me off the project. That program was why I’d joined the company. They punished me for raising my voice.”

In my own career, the tasks I have done for my male colleagues have ranged from running down to buy hair gel for a colleague who said he was ‘busy’, to a client asking me post-dinner to jump into the hot tub with him, or the numerous times I have been asked to “write and circulate the notes to a meeting” that I was leading.

Much like Pao, I have refused sometimes. But sometimes, I have taken notes. Those times are innumerable.

***

One needs critical mass for a chain reaction to be successful. Pao was that straw. Despite the verdict, Pao’s case has propelled an increase in women and minorities suing their employees for gender and racial discrimination. Chia Hong, a Taiwanese American sued Facebook for discrimination in 2015 (the case went to mediation). Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe, sued Tinder and parent IAC, for sexism, and racially inappropriate behavior (Wolfe settled out of court and went on to start Bumble, a competing app to Tinder). Katie Moussouris of Luta Security sued Microsoft as part of a class-action lawsuit, claiming the company overwhelmingly discriminated against her and female colleagues on the basis of gender. In 2017, reports showed overwhelming evidence of Microsoft underpaying women with systematic career stifling actions.

Women in Microsoft make up 17.5 percent of its technical staff; Google has 20 percent (in 2017); and Apple is 23 percent female. Meanwhile, according to TechCrunch, only around 7 percent of partners at top VC firms are women.

Will the boys’ club change in the VC and tech world? Will Ellen Pao’s influence be recognized for the right motives and reasons? Is it time yet? I hope so.

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