Silicon Valley Lawsuit and Subtle Questions About Sex Discrimination

Ellen Pao leaving court with her lawyer, Therese Lawless. Photo credit: Eric Risberg/Associated Press.

Ellen Pao leaving court with her lawyer, Therese Lawless. Photo credit: Eric Risberg/Associated Press.

A gender discrimination trial is gripping Silicon Valley this week with lurid details about an office affair, a nude photo book and a bathrobe-clad man showing up at a female colleague’s hotel room.

But the real drama is in the more mundane charges, about slights familiar to any woman in any workplace that are rarely aired in public, much less in a courtroom.

Women at the venture capital firm on trial, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, say they were excluded from a ski trip and a dinner party because of their sex. They say they were denied credit for deals they brought to the firm. And the plaintiff, Ellen Pao, a former junior partner, was told that she didn’t speak up enough and was too passive — but also that she spoke up too much and was pushy and entitled.

It’s impossible to know exactly what happened at Kleiner Perkins, but the issues at the heart of the case help show what gender discrimination looks like now. Though overt sexual harassment still happens (including at Kleiner Perkins, according to female partners who testified), official reports of it have declined in recent years. More often, women face subtle slights and double standards that can be more difficult to define and combat.

The issue of self-promotion highlights the bind for women. In the modern workplace, people are expected to advertise their own achievements to get job offers, promotions and raises. Yet while men tend to be rewarded for it, women are punished if they do and punished if they don’t.

As David Streitfeld, who is covering the trial for The New York Times, wrote Friday, men at the venture firm essentially told Ms. Pao: “Speak up — but don’t talk too much. Light up the room — but don’t overshadow others. Be confident and critical — but not cocky or negative.”

Self-promotion is essential in venture capital, because individual partners take credit for successful deals to get promotions, board seats and payouts. But the double standard exists in all jobs, said Laurie A. Rudman, a psychology professor at Rutgers who has studied the topic.

Ms. Rudman found that women who speak directly about their strengths and talents and who credit themselves instead of others for achievements were considered more capable. But they were also thought to be less socially attractive and hirable, in a series of experiments in which study participants interviewed people to be their partner in a competitive game.

The only exceptions were when self-promoting women were up against self-effacing men, or when male interviewers’ success depended directly on the abilities of female applicants. In those cases, women’s self-promotion made them more attractive hires.

“People are defending the gender status quo,” Ms. Rudman said. “When women go after high-powered positions, there’s a discomforting feeling that something’s not right there.”

*The article was posted by the New York Times and can be read here