Ellen Pao’s book on Silicon Valley’s biggest sexual harassment case shows how sad the boys club really is

Her side of the story.
Her side of the story.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Ellen Pao, a former VC at one of Silicon Valley’s top firms, is telling her side of the story. After a losing legal battle against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for workplace discrimination and retaliation, and years as an advocate for women in tech, she’s written Reset, a book chronicling her experience as a woman in the rarified air of  Silicon Valley.

What she describes is at times harrowing (CEOs musing about naming porn stars to their board) and pathetic, such as the daily slights inflicted on women as they try to claw their way to the top. Not many have an easy ride in the cut-throat world of venture capital. But in a region where “meritocracy” is celebrated as the engine that runs the money machine, it’s striking to hear how so many men treat such well-qualified woman so poorly (Pao holds an undergraduate electrical engineering degree from Princeton, as well as an MBA and law degree from Harvard before stints at Microsoft and startups).

Pao is now running Project Include to encourage diversity in the tech industry after serving as interim CEO at Reddit. Pao lost her case in 2015 (she agreed to pay Kleiner court-ordered legal costs of $275,966), but she says she doesn’t have regrets and is ready to open up. “For a long time I didn’t challenge those stories, because I wasn’t ready to talk about my experience in detail,” Pao writes in an excerpt in New York Magazine. “Now I am.”

The suit, which roiled Silicon Valley, may have helped make overt sexual discrimination unacceptable in the region. During the last three years, women have come out in unprecedented numbers (and with uncommon success) to protest their treatment by firms such as Uber, Binary Capital and others. “My lawsuit failed. Others won’t,” Pao writes. “I was one of the only people who had the resources and the position to do so. I believed I had an obligation to speak out about what I’d seen.”

The VC Boys club is alive and well…

In 2011, after six years at Kleiner Perkins, Pao tells about joining a small group of investors and a tech CEO flying from San Francisco to New York on a private jet. Taking one of the most “powerful” seats, the CEO “started bragging about meeting Jenna Jameson, talking about her career as the world’s greatest porn star and how he had taken a photo with her at the Playboy Mansion.”

He asked if I knew who she was and then proceeded to describe her pay-per-view series (Jenna’s American Sex Star), on which women competed for porn-movie contracts by performing sex acts before a live audience. “Nope,” I said. “Not a show I’m familiar with.”

…Eventually we all moved to the couch for a working session to help the tech CEO; he was trying to recruit a woman to his all-male board. I suggested Marissa Mayer, but the CEO looked at me and dismissively said, “Nah, too controversial.” Then he grinned at Ted and added, “Though I would let her join the board because she’s hot.”

…and it’s really petty.

When I was still relatively new, a male partner made a big show of passing a plate of cookies around the table — but curiously ignored me and the woman next to him. Part of me thought, They’re just cookies. But after everyone left, my co-worker turned to me and shrugged. “It’s like we don’t exist,” she said.

Women get the grunt work

Despite finding the job “thrilling” initially, she saw early warning signs. John Doerr, a legendary VC who invested early in Netscape and Google, allegedly requested an Asian woman for his chief of staff position, which Pao would fill. “He liked the idea of a ‘Tiger Mom-raised’ woman.” Pao also says Doerr typically hired male and female chiefs of staff: the man focused mostly on investing, while the women did more of the grunt work and traveled with him. “‘There are certain things I am just more comfortable asking a woman to do,’ John once told me matter-of-factly.” At one point, he had a suggestion for how Pao could get more notice at work. “He wanted me to go to school — to learn to be a stand-up comic,” Pao writes.

A nerdy frat house

All-male dinners, Vegas excursions, and sports events are the venues to exchange tips and information that form the currency of startup investing. With everyone competing to ensure their picks got investment and a chance to hit the jackpot, deciding who gets investments is fiercely political, especially within the firm. Pao says often found herself, as a woman, on the outside. “At one point I found out the partners had taken some CEOs and founders on an all-male ski trip,” she writes. “They spent $50,000 on the private jet to and from Vail. I was later told that they didn’t invite any women because women probably wouldn’t want to share a condo with men.”

“Sometimes the whole world felt like a nerdy frat house,” she said.