Even If It's Not Discrimination, You're Still That Girl

Office affairs can contribute to the perception that women are self-serving and untrustworthy. Just ask Ellen Pao.

Although she lost, Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has been interpreted as an object lesson in a number of feminist topics, like the problem of sexism you can’t quite prove, the inefficacy of lawsuits in fighting all kinds of sexism, and the power of female representation in the press. Here’s one more: Pao’s experience at Kleiner Perkins illustrates the double standards women endure when they date in the workplace.

Certainly, women are not the default victims of every workplace romance, relationship, or hook-up. Silicon Valley is sexist, but it’s not Mad Men. Educated, wealthy, ambitious women like Pao aren’t secretarial sitting ducks for coercion — they have the social standing, organizational power, and legal protection to avoid unwanted sexual attention at the hands of a superior. What high-powered women don’t have is protection from — or even the language to describe — the death-by-a-thousand-cuts backlash facing women who are seen as strategic and ambitious, professionally or sexually.

As a junior partner in 2006, Pao had a brief, consensual affair with a Kleiner Perkins partner, Ajit Nazre. Pao cut things off, and then watched her career disintegrate. Her desk was moved away from Nazre’s and into office Siberia, she alleged, and she was excluded from important email chains. More important, Pao claimed she was denied credit for — and participation in — an investment she’d spotted years earlier. But when she began to aggressively ask for inclusion and highlight her contributions, her performance reviews indicated that she was “territorial about herself,” “pushing too hard to establish herself,” “not a warm and fuzzy person,” “in need of ‘softening.’” “I’m not really sure I trust her motivations,” one person wrote. Meanwhile Nazre — who had enlisted a co-worker in an extramarital affair under false pretenses — was promoted.

But, again, Pao didn’t sue because she was sexually coerced. She sued because she wanted a seat at the table. The two complaints can be more related than one might think. Rebecca Chory, a researcher at Frostburg State University, studies how romantic relationships influence workplace dynamics, an increasing concern in industries where smartphones and perks erase the distinction between work and life. According to Chory, women who date higher-status employees are perceived as “less caring and less trustworthy” by their peers.

Chory and her research partner, Texas State University's Sean Horan, found that when a woman dates up the corporate ladder, she loses the trust and goodwill of her peers, whereas a man’s credibility isn't impacted at all by the status of his girlfriend. Chory speculates that’s because women are seen as having more to gain from a workplace relationship. The result is that her co-workers are more likely to deceive her in an attempt to level the playing field, Chory says, in particular by withholding information. In other words, exactly the type of underhanded exclusion — relegating women to note-taking in meetings, leaving them off important emails, excluding them from networking opportunities — Pao complained about. What’s more depressing, Chory says, is research indicates that women are perceived to reap unfair advantages through any relationship to a man: sexual, friendship, mentorship. The vocal support of John Doerr, Pao’s mentor and surrogate father, might have also contributed to her unpopularity.

Asked why women bear the brunt of the mistrust and backlash inspired by workplace affairs, Chory told me that “as a society, we’ve decided work is male.” And men have become associated with traditional office culture: rational, impersonal, and uncaring. “So as women come into the workplace,” she said, “they’re blamed for any drama and emotion.”

This relates to what Kleiner Perkins senior partner Chi-Hua Chien meant when he (Pao alleged) said women “kill the buzz.” Women may make up less than 6% of partners at U.S. venture capital firms, but it’s their sensitive, expressive, relationship-seeking presence that means everybody has to censor his jokes at dinner with Al Gore. It’s the 6% that effs up the ski trip housing arrangements. It’s also why, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you relent and sleep with the guy or you push him out of your hotel door in his slippers. That’s how another junior partner at Kleiner Perkins, Trae Vassallo, stopped Nazre’s persistent sexual overtures on a business trip. But the overture alone — which Vassallo later reported to the board, ending in Nazre’s dismissal — is enough to reaffirm your status as a woman. Different from the norm, inherently sexual, a shapely vessel for interpersonal conflict. (Although their encounters with Nazre were entirely different, it bears mentioning that the two vocal female critics of Kleiner Perkins had been embroiled in conflict of a sexual nature.) Like Pao, Vassallo was relegated to secretarial roles and watched as her male peers were promoted over her until she left the firm.

But there is one thing more dangerous to a woman’s career than embracing female stereotypes: defying them. Ultimately, Pao’s downfall was that she complained, loudly and repeatedly —“this constant Ellen bullshit,” as Chien put it. And, in general, the Lean In virtues — assertion, self-promotion — still look weird on women. As a Harvard Business Review report put it, merely having agency contradicts the warmth and sharing prescribed by women’s traditional caregiver role. (And it’s easy to imagine how that incongruence might have been compounded by Pao’s race. More than their Caucasian counterparts, Asian-American women, like the plaintiffs in pending gender discrimination cases at Facebook and Twitter, are expected to be submissive and demure.) So Pao faced discrimination in both directions: Having an affair is too feminine for the workplace; fighting for a seat at the table is too masculine for a woman. Given her options, when Kleiner Perkins senior partner Ted Schlein said that being a V.C. “wasn’t part of [Pao’s] genetic makeup,” it’s hard not to think he was talking about something on the Y chromosome.