Froma Harrop: Suing over soft sexism can hold women back
Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination suit against her employer contained the juicy elements that captivate us. The plaintiff was a Harvard-educated lawyer suing for a healthy $16 million. The defendant was Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the high-powered venture capital firm. The locale was Silicon Valley, where many complain that the big fortunes go overwhelmingly to men. And Pao’s evidence resided largely in gray areas, where things said and things done could be interpreted in several ways.
The case pitted the very privileged against the mega-privileged. That may explain why the jury rejected Pao’s claims of gross unfairness. The jury members were mostly ordinary working folks, who probably put up with a lot more indignity for a heck of a lot less money.
But the gray areas mattered most of all. When the questions under consideration come down to “he said, she interpreted,” it’s hard to pin down sexual discrimination. That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. But the wiser course may be to laugh at, work around or ignore these slights rather than drag the men into court.
As many women have learned, the guys asked to join the top are the guys other guys have bonded with. Superior credentials go just so far. In collaborative businesses, people yak all the time — in offices, at lunch, in bars, at sporting events. They converse in the wee hours and in various states of fatigue and intoxication.
Stray remarks that could get a man spanked at college for being sexist may flow more freely in these environs. They may be the product of genuine affection, lousy language skills or misplaced gallantry. Or they may be inappropriate beyond a reasonable doubt.
But outside of bald crudeness and sex-for-promotion offers, such interactions can be handled with humor, diplomacy and forgiveness of human frailty. Fear of the vigilant feminist poised to call the lawyers may cause men to keep female colleagues at an unhelpful social distance.
Looking over Pao’s arguments, one might find grounds for complaint. For example, on Valentine’s Day, a male colleague gave her Leonard Cohen’s “Book of Longing.” While the date of the gift and the romantic content might not earn an A in gender consciousness-raising class, it is a book of Zen-inspired poems, after all.
Same guy invited Pao to dinner when his wife was away. A female associate might use it as an opportunity to engage in bonding banter. If his intentions were dishonorable, a professional woman should know how to handle the situation.
Or the man may have simply wanted company at a meal with a co-worker he liked. Should Pao have been happier had he invited a male junior partner instead?
A group of Kleiner Perkins men went on a skiing trip but didn’t invite any women. That is really too bad. On the other hand, the guys drinking grappa around the fire after dinner might not have felt free to let loose in the company of sensitive women. A reference to porn stars on a partner’s private jet was one of Pao’s raps against the company.
We are not so naive to believe that Silicon Valley companies are pure meritocracies, the tech industry’s propaganda to the contrary. Where there is big money, men flock for the badges of male power. Sexual tension is a biological reality. And there’s the comfort factor: Like wants to be with like.
So soft discrimination certainly exists. Sophisticated people should deal with it in a sophisticated manner — with subtlety. Rather than make men more sympathetic to the ambitions of their female colleagues, the threat of suits like this one could make men more scared of collaborating with them.
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