Ellen Pao, KPCB, and the elephant in the room

January 12, 2019 (2019 words) :: What a lawsuit over gender discrimination in the top echelons of Silicon Valley reveals about the weakness of liberal feminism.
Tags: liberal-feminism, inequality

This post is day 12 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today’s post is a reprint of something I’d originally written on Medium in August 2017, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it (like how to publicise it, or if I even had the courage to), so I left it as unlisted.

(If you’re wondering why I’m publishing an old piece today: it’s because I’m going to be laptopless for the rest of the day and I haven’t yet figured out how to make myself write a whole blog post unless it’s perilously close to midnight.)

I wrote this piece when I was still trying to understand the boundaries of my political views - i.e., newly fumbling toward socialism. I was starting to absorb all the new vocabulary and concepts I’d learned, in order to reconcile them with my own intuitive beliefs. I’d started reading some really astute critiques of the tech industry and capitalism more broadly, including Dawn Foster’s fantastic short book Lean Out and Geoff Mann’s Disassembly Required (which is still one of my favourite critical primers on capitalism - it’s incisive and rigorous while still being accessible). You can see the influence of those two books in particular in this piece, and you can also see how many relevant concepts I hadn’t yet fully grasped (like Marx’s labour theory of value, or the idea of power & class struggle).

The goal of this piece was to critique liberal feminism, just not using those words (partly to avoid putting off readers who weren’t sure why liberal feminism would be worthy of critique, and partly because I myself was very new to that discourse). I’m trying to say that the liberal diversity-centric critiques of tech that abounded at the time may have been an improvement upon the world they critiqued (truly a cesspool), but the vision they offer is itself in dire need of critique - a materialist one.

The Pao v. Kleiner Perkins gender discrimination lawsuit that blew up the tech world two years ago was fascinating to follow. Whether your sympathies lay with the plaintiff or with the defendant, it was hard to look away — the world depicted throughout the trial just seemed so strange, so glitzy, so alien. It felt less like the inner workings of one of the most powerful venture capital firms in the world and more like an episode of Gossip Girl.

For me personally, despite instinctively sympathising with Pao for having to file such a lawsuit in the first place (which, really, can’t be fun for anyone), there was always a part of me that felt uneasy about the case, but I wasn’t entirely sure why. I just felt this strange ambivalence and discomfort that I couldn’t really explain. It seemed like there was something missing from all the coverage: some narrative left unexplored; some elephant in the room that the media steadfastly ignored.

It finally hit me — two years later — when I read this excerpt from her upcoming book:

John Doerr wanted his new chief of staff to “leverage his time,” which he valued at $200,000 per hour.

Can we just stop for a second? Let’s take a step back from the whole gender discrimination issue and focus on this for a bit. This is the elephant in the room. This is the narrative I want to explore.

What does it mean for John Doerr to think his time is worth $200,000 an hour?

First, a detour to reflect on the meaning of money. A little elementary, but worth thinking about from time to time. What should it mean to have a lot of money? Does it reflect your inherent worth as a person, or what you deserve to have access to? It’s a complicated topic because there clearly isn’t a simple, 1-to-1 relationship between money and inherent worth, but neither can we say that the two are unrelated, because the world behaves as if they are. People die, or have substandard living conditions, purely because they don’t have enough money, which is at least an effective, if not necessarily intentional, judgement of their worth and what they deserve.

Keeping that in mind, let’s take a moment to ponder the fact that John Doerr thinks his time is worth $200,000 an hour.

$200,000. In a country where the minimum wage is rarely above $10 an hour.

Forget about the market for a second. Forget about the fact that, as chairman of the firm, he has the ability to pay himself (or at least ensure his net worth rises by) what he likes. Forget the standard a posteriori justifications that are usually trotted out when it’s discovered that the people who have most of the power also have most of the wealth.

Can you justify it on other, more fundamental grounds? Can you justify it in terms of efficiency, rationality, or fairness? If you happened to control the world’s wealth and could distribute it any way you liked, knowing full well that certain major aspects of life (education, housing, healthcare, and so on) are monetarily gated, would you ensure that this one guy makes 20,000x what a minimum wage worker makes? Does that seem reasonable to you? Do you think the value he contributes to the world is enough to justify it?

Or have we perhaps drifted away from the distributional efficiency — its very raison d’être — that we thought the market would give us? Could it be that the system that humankind thought up to control the world has come to control us, not just our lives but our minds, deceiving us into believing that what we have is what we wanted all along?

The aspect of this trial that makes it tricky is the sheer scale of wealth on display. The fact that she was making $560,000 as a junior partner made her claim of being passed over for promotion difficult to really sympathise with, even if you do see it as gender discrimination. A lot of the backlash revolves around Ellen Pao being, to some degree, greedy, because she was already making so much money, like really an unimaginable amount of money, and instead of being grateful she had the gall to complain about her working conditions? It’s similar to the reaction every time the Hollywood pay gap is brought up. Your average person, no matter what their own personal views, will have a hard time truly empathising because it’s such a different realm. Any amount of empathy is always marred by that inner voice that says, “But you’re already making so much money in the first place …”

This was the core of my difficulty with her plight. As much as I sympathised with what seemed like a not-always-pleasant working environment— definitely not an experience I would have wanted for myself — the fact that she had already achieved so much success had a way of unconsciously dampening my enthusiasm for her cause. When she asks for her severance package to be the same as her coworker:

After more than a month, the company put Ajit on leave. Two tense months after that, he finally left. When I spoke to the COO, he asked how much I wanted in order to quietly leave. “I want no less than what Ajit gets,” I said — which I suspected was around $10 million. The COO gasped.

Part of me thought: Sure, it makes sense to base your number on his, since he just left, and how else are you going to come up with a number? And the other part thought: $10 million is a ridiculous sum of money to pay someone to leave a company. Just, ridiculous. Not in relative terms, of course — it’s less than Marissa Mayer’s severance package from Yahoo!, for instance — but on its own, when you climb down from the lofty realms of corporate intrigue and remember that the vast majority of the population won’t see that amount in a lifetime, it’s hard to wholeheartedly support the idea of anyone getting $10 million severance pay on top of a mid-six-figure salary.

But of course Ellen is just fighting for what she thinks she deserves. She compares what she’s making to what those around her are making, and she doesn’t think she’s being compensated fairly. In this power hierarchy, she’s not the one on top — the ones who make the decisions are way above her in seniority and prestige, and are undoubtedly making way more than she is.

So maybe the real problem is in the power hierarchy. Specifically, in the way the venture capital industry has morphed into this behemoth, fuelled by an easy monetary policy that results in “assets under management” and thus compensation skyrocketing beyond all reason. An industry that uses its carefully crafted mythos of creating unparalleled value in the world to justify its position as a gatekeeper of wealth and power.

Even though Ellen Pao lost the trial, she forced us to confront a world so absurd in its opulence that, going beyond the unpleasant work environment, we have to ask ourselves: Should it be this way? Does the system as a whole make sense? Should people working in venture capital be making that much money, and control that much wealth? Is there a gap between what it is and what we think it should be? And if so, why?

Once we ask those questions, we start to challenge our own conception of not only venture capital, but the economic forces that led to its ascendance: cracks arise in the foundations of our mental image, and eventually the whole thing may crumble.

I’m grateful to Ellen Pao for having ignited a conversation about the conditions women face within venture capital. My only hope is that we can now move beyond it and tackle the larger problems the trial has shown to exist. Even if she had won her lawsuit, and even if it did help make venture capital more friendly to women, we should still consider that so few women or men get the chance to enter the exalted heights of venture capital in the first place. We can’t limit our goal to reforming VC so that it’s more welcoming to women — we have to aim for more than just slightly friendlier venture capitalists. We have to set our sights on something higher.

To those who resent Pao for even fighting for this, because you think the slights she suffered were so trivial, or because you know there are people with much worse working conditions who deserve more empathy — I implore you, hold on to that frustration, but instead of directing it at her, direct it above. We need to turn our attention to systemic factors, instead of the individual; we need to start looking up, not down. Instead of treating the system we’re in as given and merely squabbling over our own meagre places within the hierarchy, we need to unite in questioning the system itself. The system where one man can think of himself as being worth $200,000 an hour while the vast majority can’t make that in a year.

And it’s not an easy thing to question, because it’s so normalised. We’re so used to the staggering inequality in the world economy that we’ve become desensitised to it. In a way, it’s almost glorified; the disparity has become a perverse sign that things are working properly. Looking at it critically is something most of us rarely have to do and quite frankly would prefer not to, because it‘s disturbing to question something so fundamental. But as long as we continue to give it legitimacy, as long as we collectively buy into this dream, then the system will stay afloat. If we start to question to it, if we start to wake up together, we have a chance at changing things.

And if your response is to say something along the lines of, “Hey, look, some people will just make tons more money than others, that’s just how it is” — please, ask yourself why. Why is it this way? Does it have to be this way? It won’t be enough, but at least it’s a start.

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