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Let's Talk About What the Ellen Pao Case Really Means

The former editor of the Princeton student paper gets a huge scoop on the inner workings of venture capital.

Vjeran Pavic

We’ve learned many details of Ellen Pao’s resume over these past two weeks of the gender discrimination and retaliation trial against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. A salient one is that she was the editor of the Daily Princetonian when she was a college student.

And if you think of Pao as a reporter and not a venture capitalist, she has indeed scored a huge and unprecedented scoop, exposing the raw innards of one of the most powerful icons in the technology industry.

The handful of salacious incidents, the piles of emails, the detailed seating charts, the rancorous board-seat drama, the revealing comments her former coworkers made to a private investigator: Even if the jury doesn’t take her side and agree that her gender was the problem, Pao — who is scheduled to take the stand today to speak for herself for the first time in the trial — has won.

And we reporters are eager to follow Pao’s scoop. We highlight the most egregious examples of gendered workplace conflict, such as the bathrobe incident, the women asked to take notes, the all-male ski trips and dinners and the opportunities lost to maternity.

But the fundamental structure of the case works against Pao, too. If there’s one word Kleiner Perkins has used to portray Ellen Pao, it’s “entitled.” Suing your employer because you thought you deserved a promotion is pretty much the definition of entitled — deserving of certain privileges.

If there were a clear winner here, a smoking gun or proof of a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt sexist culture, this lawsuit would never have made it to trial. So far, the defense team has done a very good job of putting the salacious incidents into a more reasonable context. (It was a male partner who ultimately took those infamous notes, for example.) Yet Kleiner Perkins could have saved itself this pain by settling the case outside of court, although sources within the firm say that was not possible. Of course, settlement is always possible at the right price and, in the end, Kleiner Perkins’ insistence on clearing its name has totally backfired.

And really, intransigence seems to be the thing of which Kleiner Perkins is particularly guilty. That goes beyond the Pao case. Having built its brand on one of the best string of hits ever — Sun, AOL, Amazon, Netscape, Genentech, Google, Symantec — Kleiner Perkins aged poorly. It had a failed foray into green tech and then unsuccessfully tried to hop on the social bandwagon with bets on companies like Zynga, Path and Klout. To save face, it started buying stakes in the hottest companies on the late side, like Twitter and Uber, after they were already seen as winners.

And, most relevant to the trial, Kleiner Perkins couldn’t quite figure out how to recruit a new generation of talent. The VC firm came up with some impossibly high standards to bring people in at a junior level — stacks of degrees from famous universities, technical backgrounds, entrepreneurial experience — and then cut off most of these hires after a few years.

The small coterie that controls the firm has considerably less impressive resumes — in some cases no advanced degrees, in many cases no technical experience. Instead, their qualifications are intangible and entirely subjective: Their ability to command a room and to get their fellow partners to respect them.

Pao was right in the middle of that stagnant era. The privilege of getting to do errands and write speeches for Kleiner Perkins’ head John Doerr was her window into this cutthroat world. And at the end of it, she was not the only partner to be shown the door.

But she was doomed from the start because her personality did not fit that clique. She should have known it when Doerr started calling her his “surrogate daughter.” It’s a genteel way to patronize a woman, but it’s patronizing nonetheless. He was not her dad; he was her boss.

Still, while the media can pontificate all we like, and witnesses can conveniently stamp out all memories of Ellen Pao, and lawyers can make mountains out of molehills, and juries can deliberate as long as it takes, the biggest issue here is that Kleiner Perkins, like the entire venture capital industry, has a woeful gender ratio.

The industry stats are that 4 percent of senior investing partners are women. And at the top tier of firms — with the recent exception of Kleiner Perkins, which now has two women among 10 senior partners — there are pretty much zero women in these key roles.

These people control where the money flows to create the technology that is so much a part of our modern lives. And if you visit their offices on Sand Hill Road and elsewhere, without fail, the women are in supporting positions. They are assistants, researchers, junior partners, HR people and PR people. They’re often seated in the hallway while the partners have private offices with big windows. It’s clear the men are in charge.

And in that environment, it would be impossible to have a healthy approach to gender.

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