Ellen Pao’s Story Is Messier Than Her Book Makes It Sound
Ellen Pao's new memoir, Reset, positions her as a champion of workplace equality. The reality is more complicated — but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention.
Anyone who’s been curious about the Ellen Pao story has been eagerly awaiting her memoir, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, which was finally released this week. To recap: In 2012, Pao filed a $16 million gender discrimination suit against her employer, the legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — and the ensuing five-week gender bias trial in 2015 became an obsession of the tech industry. Reset has a lofty aim: to give Pao a platform to finally explain how she established herself as a champion of diversity and equality in the workplace.
But the reality is much more complicated. At times, Reset scans as strategically engineered to burnish Pao’s narrative, which has been reshaped by time and the collective memory of her trial to turn her into a figurehead for the diversity movement in tech. But Pao is a contradictory figure — one who, even in her own memoir, contradicts herself and remains reticent about details that don’t serve her rebranding purpose.
The book starts by tracing Pao’s “American dream” ascent, from growing up the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants in New Jersey to landing a coveted job as a partner at Kleiner Perkins. But the details are bland: She lives in an idyllic neighborhood in the suburbs, where she and her two sisters are the only Asians in the community, but she isn’t terribly offended by the occasional bigotry the other kids display. Instead, she learns to keep her head down and work hard, and she uses this strategy to excel academically and get degrees from Princeton and Harvard in electrical engineering, law, and business.
When Pao describes her time at a law firm, her anecdotes sound like a metaphor for sexism, rather than describing specific sexism itself. Pao keeps her subjects anonymous: She tells stories of a coworker peering down women’s blouses and a partner who stares at a colleague while licking an ice cream cone. It sounds gross, but it’s hard to connect with; and it feels like she’s tiptoeing around something — perhaps accidentally offending someone in her past.
It is only in the book’s middle section — when Pao recounts her experiences at Kleiner Perkins and at Reddit, where Pao was interim CEO for nine months — that she finally finds her voice. She is sharper and specific; she finally drops her reluctance to tell us which powerful person did exactly what. She trains a wry eye on their eyeroll-inducing behavior: “As a non-managing partner, I would presumably be left to die, flu-ravaged face pressed against the window of the conference room,” Pao writes of one rich VC's obsession with stockpiling Tamiflu for managing partners and their families if the contagion ever arrived. “I was probably labeled a buzzkill” for instituting a rule to ban hard alcohol at the Reddit office, she relays, “but I didn’t care.” Even then, it’s worth noting that it is only events that Pao has already blown the whistle on that she chooses to depict in even more colorful detail in her memoir. The rest of it reads as image control, or contradiction.
Case in point: Pao says she’s a “board games and soda” girl and raises her eyebrows at the excesses of the Kleiner partners, yet she lives in the same San Francisco apartment building as Al Gore. She’s offended by the guys sitting in the "skydeck" (the top row) at business school passing a dildo around, but thought a coworker setting up a porn server at a tech startup she worked at was “dopey, but not terrible.” She talks about being awakened to a “distinctly religious experience” during the trial, which has the flavor of someone considering a run for office.
“Sometimes I even go back and question the things I saw and heard, because I feel like the Ellen Pao story has become so powerful and taken on a life of its own.”
Pao also conducts her post-trial life with a level of caution that would make any PR crisis manager proud. In her memoir, she describes launching the nonprofit Project Include using a formula that is familiar to PR practitioners: a carefully crafted press release, a prearranged interview with a trusted journalist, and a hypersensitivity to the nature of the feedback. (“We were covered positively in all the articles I read,” she writes in Reset.) In a lot of ways, she is much closer to a political figure like Hillary Clinton than a writer and activist like Gloria Steinem. (Pao declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Reading Pao’s book brought back memories of my intense reporting experience covering her trial back in 2015, which journalists with whom I reported remember well. “It's fascinating to me that the public's version is that Ellen Pao was robbed and should have won, but inside the trial room it really wasn't that clear,” said Shalene Gupta, who covered the trial for Fortune magazine. “Sometimes I even go back and question the things I saw and heard, because I feel like the Ellen Pao story has become so powerful and taken [on] a life of its own.”
Indeed, the anecdotes Pao told during the trial, much like the anecdotes in her book, felt at times overly simplistic: Women at Kleiner Perkins were asked to do administrative tasks like note-taking during a meeting, or asked to sit in the back row during a company offsite. But under cross-examination, Pao admitted she sat in the front row on another day of the same offsite. Did that really mean being told to sit in the back row was any less humiliating, though?
Granular questions like this made it difficult, listening to testimony, to get a clear handle on whether the discrimination Pao was alleging crossed into illegal territory. “She was suing for gender discrimination, but it’s such a small field,” said Gupta. “When one of 16 people is promoted, how do you make a case that you didn’t get your promotion because of gender discrimination?” But you can look at the composite field, Gupta pointed out, and you see that only one woman in the history of the company was promoted before the case. “So something is going on,” she said. “But then you get into all these details about the person and how likable she is — could it be this? Could it be that? You aren’t able to see the forest because you’re examining each tree.”
Complicating matters was the fact that Brunswick, the crisis-management firm that Kleiner Perkins hired during the trial (which is mentioned in Pao’s book), often called reporters up after their stories published, nitpicking details and pressuring us into making small corrections here and there — at times not because what we’d reported was inaccurate, but because it “lacked context.” Representatives would also email corrections as we were tweeting, which ratcheted up the anxiety we felt in covering the trial. “Sometimes I thought, was I an idiot who just got wrapped in Kleiner Perkins’ spin machine?” Gupta said.
“Many people thought [Pao’s case and the trial] was simpler than it was,” said Jeff Elder, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal who also covered the trial closely. “When Ellen lost and hung her head in the courtroom, it felt like a defeat for women. And the hits just kept on coming.”
“When Ellen lost and hung her head in the courtroom, it felt like a defeat for women. And the hits just kept on coming.”
Pao’s suit unfolded against the backdrop of what, in retrospect, foreshadowed the populist culture wars we are smack in the middle of today. Just look at what happened in the 2016 presidential election. The misogynistic abuse leveled at Pao at the time mimics the rhetoric from far-right internet personalities in the Trump era, who keep nudging the boundaries of acceptable conversation toward increasingly racist and sexist expression.
Pao certainly doesn't fit the mold of who we are taught is the ideal female colleague: noncombative and eager to help. She describes herself as “introverted” and “bad at self-promotion”; she has been described by others as overly negative, yet later having learned “how to activate her aggression.” But would she have gotten access to the halls of power at Kleiner Perkins at all if she wasn’t willing to be a little aggressive? Would Hillary Clinton, for that matter? And why do we subject women to this line of scrutiny, when similar traits from men make them “ambitious”? Could this be a reflection of society’s unreasonable and contradictory expectations of women? (Yes.)
No, Pao is not the “perfect” poster woman for gender equality, even as she tries to herd her image in that direction; her book is just the latest effort to come across that way. The result, as it always has been with Pao, is kind of…awkward. Sometimes it doesn’t translate. But in our scrutiny of Pao as a public figure, we must also examine ourselves. What the mirror of Ellen Pao shows is that we as a society have a long way to go before we fully accommodate women of all types, personalities, and levels of ambition. We need to work to give every woman a seat at the table, no matter who the table has historically been set up for. ●