Thursday, November 9, 2017

Why Ellen Pao Matters

Why Ellen Pao Matters
We all recall the McDonald's hot coffee case: a woman sued after suffering burns when Mc Donald's coffee spilled in her lap. She was ridiculed because coffee is supposed to be hot and, no surprise, it burned her. The case was used for years as an example of a frivolous lawsuit.The truth, well exposed in a HBO doc called "Hot Coffee", exposes the facts of the case: the coffee at 180 degrees could burn flesh within 12 seconds; McD's had 700 known claims before hers, she was not "negligently" driving when the spill occurred; and the burns were severe, resulting 8 days of hospitalization and years of treatment including skin grafts. McD's lost because in the normal course of handling cups of coffee people frequently spill it and such spill should not destroy flesh. It was not the trivial claim that news media outlets and corporate interests made it out to be.
Now think of the Pao vs Kleiner Perkins case in which Ellen Pao claimed she wasn't promoted because of gender discrimination. Many considered her claim to be ridiculous because, after all, wouldn't that mean that every woman who doesn't get promoted has a claim? And what claim do men have when they don't get promoted? Isn't Pao's case a mundane one of the Disappointed (and perhaps entitled) Employee?
No. First, Pao was not just any worker bee. After preparing herself with a Princeton Electrical Engineering degree she went on to Harvard Law School, followed by a stint at a top New York law firm (not easy to do even from Harvard), then back to Harvard Business School before taking the plunge into the unchartered world of tech before many of us knew it even existed. Her resume includes companies and forerunners of companies you know today - like WebTv, Tivo, TellMe, etc. She identified Twitter when it was still in its garage /start-up phase with 20 employees and identified Marissa Meyer as a future superstar. As Pao's star rose, she was among a handful of women offered a job at Google, but instead took a Chief of Staff/junior partner position at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins working directly with one of its super, super stars, John Doerr. There, despite her introverted personality, her investments outstripped or compared favorably to those of her male colleagues, she gained board seats and brought business to the firm. And she made a lot of money.
But she was also asked to babysit, set up meeting rooms, take notes, and respond to senior men knocking at her door at night on business trips. She was disinvited to meetings, left off emails, socially ostracized, repeatedly called the name of the previous Asian person in her position, had her clients poached by colleagues, and was retaliated against when she made a claim of sexual harassment by a Kleiner colleague. And as for pulling up that chair to "lean into" the table? Once she took one of 4 power seats in the room. 2 of the 3 men in the other seats held a long, loud, expansive and specific conversation about a sex act competition reality TV show and which nationality of women they liked to have sex with the most.
Some of her experiences may be the norm in the rough and tumble VC world. And it is true that advancing to senior partner is hard for everyone. But her male colleagues - including the junior ones - were not asked to babysit and were, even by outside accounts, given more respect for their performance records.
Though Pao was a top earner in her class, Kleiner felt that she didn't have the skills to "own the room". This judgement about what someone is not is one of the most insidious killers of diverse contributions in the workplace. Pao received negative reviews after she made her claims about sexual harassment. Even then, the negative reviews were not about her achievements, but how she accomplished them - which of course is directly related to who she is personally - and that includes her gender and racial experience. The arguments against Pao's advancement at the firm were of the non-specific type that any member of an underrepresented group knows well: the kind that are not measurable and as such are hard to defend against. Too this, too that, not this enough, not that enough. Rarely "just right".
Ellen Pao is a profile in courage. She brought suit against Kleiner because she had the money, standing and arguments to do it. She refused to settle. Did you know that even after she lost the case they asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement? What did they have to hide? Answer: the book "Reset". In it she boldly names and shames the lack of sexual harassment policies, the low number of women in the venture capital world (6%) and the challenges they face which differ both in degree and type from those experienced by men.
Pao lost her case. Her resources and attorneys were dwarfed by those of Kleiner Perkins. Though she praises her attorneys, I believe they made unforgiveable errors, an opinion shared by at least one juror who voted against her. To me her loss was less the loss of the partnership and more the loss of the equal opportunity to compete for it. The case should have focused on that. It's harder to prove that you've earned a partnership than to prove that someone threw a banana peel in your path because you were female. For example, an enslaved person would find it hard to prove that he deserved to be a lawyer, but easier to prove that he couldn't compete for it because it was illegal for him to read.
Ellen Pao has much to say about working women who challenge male supremacy. And if you don't believe her, read the blog post by Susan Fowler who experienced very similar things at Uber. Listen to Sallie Krawcheck, the founder of Ellevest, a brokerage focused on women investors, describe men mooing at her when she breast fed at work. Think about that for a second. Your daughter who has extraordinary math, reasoning and sales skills will be reduced to animal status by men when she's feeding your grandchildren because she dared to work and reproduce.
Pao said she sued because she believed herself to be a model plaintiff for the cause. If not her, then who? Still in many corners the Pao verdict was met with "eh" and "so what?"
Is it because coffee is supposed to be hot and women are supposed to finish second?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Author Events

 October 2017 Stanford University, Stanford, California

A lovely event with curious people. It was a joy to see customer's faces turn from skeptical to curious. It's why I write. I sold out!

November 19, 2017 Men's Book Club, Pasadena, California

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"The Golden House" by Salmon Rushdie

"The alphabet is where all our secrets begin."

It's sentences like that that cause readers to jeer Salmon Rushdie's new book "The Golden House".

It's also sentences like that that make it great because it is undeniably true.

This is the story of a rich  immigrant family that tries to bury its dark past in bright American dreams. Classical  history and literature about power, family and tragedy and current events about  power, family and tragedy echo and crash into each other in this story. The title itself harkens back to Nero's Domus Aurea in all its splendor and ruin. All its splendor and ruin. It examines the eternal struggle  between identity and fate.

The novel's structure is complex. The family's backstory is told not in flashbacks, but rather in a series of nesting stories. Each time the story goes back in time,  we get a smaller and more precise framing of the family's past and each time we go forward we get a bigger flash forward of its tragic future. (Similar to the way "This is Us" tells its story.) This is a remarkable feat of storytelling.

This novel is also a coming of age story and also a New York story and also a political story and also a crime story. This review has barely scratched the surface. You may hear that it is "too much".  You may also hear that there is too much surface and no depth. But I recommend it if you're ready for a book where the mythical Baba Yaga inside a conniving woman complains of flying commercial the way she does broomsticks; where a man refrains from suicide to avoid messing up the carpet; where the grand scope of an act of  terrorism meets its match in the depth of a domestic tale of infidelity and maternal honor; where both Donald Trump and Barack Obama make an entrance.

Yep, it's that crazy of  a crazy ride.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"Br’er Cotton" - Review

"Br'er Cotton"  While watching this I was pretty sure that I was listening to the voice of a new master: Tearrance Chisholm. It's a play about a young black man grappling with the violence and hate in "his" society. Though this is, sadly, common fare right now, the writing and production are anything but. Through a sure voice and stunning visuals we see the human response to a static oppressive environment that cannot be escaped - not through time, not through work, not through avoidance, not through prayer.  Lunches, school, play, work - everything is disrupted. That disruption is much more felt by the young who are still being told how life is supposed to be.

The writing (with one or two questionable choices that I can't mention without spoiling) is superb - precise without being cold or sharp; layered without relying on symbolism. It touches on references to literature and folk tale. When the beauty and the talent is in the text, the other artists' contributions rise to that level.  It's no coincidence that good films and books have good key art and covers.  Same here. The production design is inspired and the singing is just right, just enough. Even the program art is evocative and artful. The acting is strong. The ending is challenging. It's one of those where you can see it from two perspectives, but you will probably have an opinion.

 See it. Google Chisholm. Let's talk!

Friday, September 29, 2017

"Brad's Status" - Review

"Brad's Status"
Ben Stiller has quietly become the Woody Allen of the "yearnest" American. That is, those who want to do well and be well, but still wish for the traditional trappings of success, fame, money and respect. Much like Allen's characters, his characters are caught between who they are and who they think they should be. This is an honest and not- too-saccharine look at how you determine for yourself when you are sated

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"The War Between the Tates" by Alison Lurie

When I read pre-20th century novels, I enjoy learning about tea cups and carriages and primogeniture. With equal pleasure, I've just read a novel about a less distant time when people made coffee in a pot over a hot flame, abortions were illegal and everyone read their horoscope. Welcome to 1974 and "The War Between the Tates". It's about a family divorcing - the parents from  each other, the kids from the parents and the parents from the kids. (No, they are not the same thing.) It is a finely observed novel about the manner and mode of family. The mother misses the young incarnation of her teen kids whom she now despises and watches the woman she sees in the mirror grow more and more powerless each day. The father decides that he can take the kids in limited doses and that there's no good reason why he can't have a wife and a mistress.  The wife complains about the financial power and freedom that men have, but at the same time considers men who don't have money or who don't exploit that power as unworthy of her. The wife is more aware than Betty Draper is, but not by much. She is more discontent and more free, but still doesn't see that she is part of her own problem. (I wonder if I would have seen it had I read this in the seventies.) 
The plaint of the 40 year old, upper-middle class, American divorcee may seem pedestrian. But in the hands of the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alison Lurie, this book becomes a folk song for the women who become wise well after the choices that define their lives have been made.
Some critics say that the description of the college setting and the discussion of social issues don't hold up well. I disagree. She is writing in the near aftermath of the 60's. With our 2017 ears we should listen to how a contemporaneous author heard it. The sounds of the the disconnect between the establishment's love of drink versus the youth's worship of pot, the fringe, the new age book stores and the call of California communes - it is all here.
Recommended for people who like "the way we live now" types of novels like "Freedom" or novels about the older female condition - like "Mrs. Dalloway", "Wife" or "Olive Kitteridge".


Monday, September 4, 2017

"Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin"

"Autobiography of Ben Franklin"

The best parts are his warm and nostalgic descriptions of walking up and into Philadelphia from the wharf area for the first time and buying bread at the Quaker meeting house. If you've been on those streets you can just imagine it! He was an old school opportunist - what we call an "entrepreneur" today. Fun to hear his rendition of the rather casual start of Univ of Pennsylvania. He does before finishing and didn't include much of his personal life. Truly would have been interesting to hear more about his fascinating life from him.

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