On Friday, a former Silicon Valley junior investing partner, Ellen Pao, lost a sex discrimination case against her employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byer. She’d taken Kleiner to court alleging a culture of endemic misogynistic behaviour.
During her time there, despite her credentials, she was not promoted as promised and was expected to conform to behaviour that was neither assertive nor timid, and she experienced a range of unacceptable behaviour, now made very public to the world. She was offered ongoing shares in the company on condition that she remain silent (a common practice, apparently, in Silicon Valley), which she declined. The jury disagreed with her claims, although not unanimous, and after completing a complex 7-page list of questions, the case was dismissed.
Many continue to debate her performance but if the assessment of her performance was tainted, perhaps we will never know the actual truth behind her claims.
What this case does do is expose a double standard for male and female employees and managers that continues to be accepted in many industries and in certain organisations.
Ellen Pao came out of court claiming that she had at least achieved the fact that thousands (more like millions) of people were now aware of the discriminatory behaviour towards women and that she had helped level the playing field for women in venture capital.
One of my colleagues told me about a major merchant bank where analysts openly kept screensavers of attractive tennis players bending over for a low ball. This is one of countless examples where, if a mode of behaviour is deemed acceptable, then you really don’t have to think too much. If they’re going in a particular direction, it makes “sense” to follow. If the blokes are ogling good lookers online and elsewhere, join the club. If a bunch of people decide that they don’t like someone, pile in. What could be more “simple”?
The truth is that marginalising the Ellen Paos of the world is a slippery slope to dangerous groupthink. The worst excesses of groupthink have been documented in Holocaust accounts, cult suicides, witchhunts – you name it – history books are a horrible roll-call of this syndrome. And today we have increasing numbers of cowardly attacks on individuals by cyberspace mobs. Humanity is all too prone to devouring one of its own but we can begin changing this now, in the workplace.
So, how do we accomplish this? Taking companies and employers to court is admirable, but causes a huge dent in your income, your reputation and your peace of mind.
It’s really up to companies to sharpen up their act and abandon the double standards that are subtly allowed. So:
1. It’s not good enough
Ellen Pao and countless others deal with vague criteria guaranteed to cause issues, conflict and complaints. Keep performance criteria non-gender oriented and applicable to everyone. Refuse initiatives or get-aways that are in fact designed to exclude. Set standards, educate, uphold, monitor and determine repercussions if standards breached.
2. Walk the talk
A “good woman” should not mean a woman who drinks a lot or doesn’t mind guys perving at women’s chests – their own staff, their clients, or public figures. There’s no need for this in the workplace. Set an example (if you’re the owner or in senior management) for your employees and make it clear that hormones and double entendre must be parked elsewhere.
3. Can we have fun?
You can, but not in this way, and never on company time if that’s your attitude. Humour is not sniggering. And men, and women, have no “right” to bully, under any other name.
4. Insist on a work atmosphere that is inclusive, friendly and fair-minded
It’s an ideal, but there is every reason to aim for it. Why go out of your way to lose excellent employees? Not smart at all when people are (mostly) trying their best.
At the very least Ellen Pao has put a magnifying glass on male-dominated culture, and perhaps not just triggering new claims from other women, but rather triggering positive change for everyone for a better workplace culture.