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A Fish Is the Last to Discover Water: Impressions From the Ellen Pao Trial

We may look back at this as a watershed moment -- regardless of how the very attentive jury comes out on their verdict.


On Tuesday, my fiancé and I took our daughters out of school, canceled my meetings for the day, and, for the first time, walked into the San Francisco Superior Court. Our mission: To hear the closing arguments of the Ellen Pao discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Truth be told, I have been obsessed with this case. Most days for the last month I have Googled news stories to catch up with what has been happening, and I have been actively following Re/code’s great coverage by Liz Gannes and Nellie Bowles. I was spoiled by their liveblogging on the days of high intrigue, and deeply disappointed when I had to wait until the end of the day to read the digest on what happened, rather than the blow-by-blow coverage of each moment.

The case somehow found its way to the fore at our family dinner-table conversations on several occasions. So when I announced on Monday evening that I was going to the courthouse to watch it live on Tuesday, our daughters were quite articulate about why this was an educational experience worth their missing school. With great thanks to the administration of their schools, we all trekked to 400 McAllister Street in San Francisco to hear the final chapter of oration.

What is it about this particular case that gripped me?

At the heart of it, is that I think it takes a lot of guts to do what Ellen is doing, and I think she is hitting on a very valid and important issue. And in so doing, I think we may look back at this as a watershed moment — regardless of how the very attentive jury comes out on their verdict. Let me also add that I don’t know Pao or her partners at KP well enough (other than Mary Meeker, for whom I have great respect) to come into this particular situation with biases on either side.

I find it easy to emotionally “compartmentalize,” to put things in the background that are bothering me, in order to focus on the task at hand. This “skill” is something that many have said has helped me to succeed. And yet there is something about this case that struck a deep chord in me, and that made me want to slow down time and to experience every one of its moments. To process it in real time.

The title of this essay is a proverb that I first heard in college from my favorite economics professor, Derek Jennings. It means that it is hard to see a new paradigm when people are immersed in the one they know. If something is as natural as breathing, it is just the way things are, and the existing culture can make people oblivious to how it might or should be different.

I, and most women I know, have been a party to at least some sexist or discriminatory behavior in the workplace. Many of the examples raised in this trial are behaviors I have personally witnessed along the way. At the same time, the men who may be promulgating it are often very unaware of the slights, and did not intend the outcome. And for the women, it happens in incremental steps that often seem so small in isolation that any individual act seems silly to complain about. So we move on. But in aggregate, and with the perspective of hindsight, they are real.

Although many have questioned this aspect of the case, and the defense hammered at it, I am personally not surprised that Pao did not raise many of her current claims along the way as they happened. She purportedly didn’t ask for HR policies or outwardly complain or report to others the various alleged discriminatory actions as they first arose. To some, this is seen as changing her story for the legal case.

But I can imagine that as the little injustices built up, she compartmentalized and moved on. That’s the easier path. It might not have occurred to her in real time that there should be a policy in place, for example. I know many women in high-powered positions who have not reported incidents or didn’t want to rock the boat. It can be the benefit of reflection on the totality of the situation that provides clarity.

There is no doubt that this case is complicated, and that the defense has raised some good points. That is part of what makes it so intriguing. At the same time, hearing a Kleiner partner call Pao Ellen “entitled” reminded me about other status-quo reactions in history, when a group in minority asks for a level playing field. For the African-American community, they were labeled “uppity” by American culture for asking for such rights. Asking for things that are not the status quo can be perceived as presumptuous.

Some women I have spoken to about this case have the view that “boys will be boys”. One said — about the alleged conversation on the now-legendary plane ride — that Pao should “grow a pair,” since many of us have witnessed that same kind of locker-room discussion during travel with colleagues. It is important to note that several people denied that this conversation occurred. Even if it didn’t happen the way Pao claimed, I’ll admit that had I heard such a conversation, I probably would have ignored that sort of thing, rolled with the punches, and moved on. I have in the past, for sure.

I think it takes someone with a little bit of crazy to actually stand up and take a stand on these issues. It may be that Pao found it harder to not feel slighted by the various examples that many other successful women would have ignored along the way. Perhaps she was raised differently.

But thank goodness there are people willing to stand up for civil rights at times when others are afraid to do so. The numbers have long shown there is a problem for women reaching senior positions in the venture capital industry. No one argues with that.

Whether Ellen Pao was the best plaintiff example of gender discrimination in the workplace, and whether Kleiner Perkins was the most egregious defendant choice, I do not know. There may be better examples on both sides. But it is this case that shined the light on a very important issue, and there is no one I have spoken with who doesn’t think at least a part of Pao’s claims are true.

Regardless of how the verdict comes out, I think it will have the impact of a wake-up call for all of us fish. For a moment over the last month, we jumped out of our water and thought very critically about the environment within which we swim. More and more women and men are starting to “lean in” and take responsibility for changing the waters.

And for my daughters, I think it was well worth the day of hooky to see this process in action. They saw that the waters are changing, and that sometimes it takes a moment of disruption for people to see with more clarity.

Sue Decker, former president of Yahoo, serves on the boards of directors of Berkshire Hathaway, Intel and Costco Wholesale. Reach her at her blog, or @suedecker.

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