Women, in general, tend to have less confidence than their male counterparts.
Women, in Silicon Valley, have an incredibly hard time making it to the top of the tech industry.
It would be a mistake, however, to combine these two observations in drawing conclusions about the Ellen Pao trial.
And yet, in the New York Times this week:
…a lack of confidence does not necessarily equate to a lack of competence (or the other way around.) So the challenge for workplaces is to enable people without natural swagger to be heard and get promoted.
At Kleiner Perkins, one solution was to give Ellen Pao, the former junior partner who is suing the firm, coaching to improve her speaking skills to participate in the firm’s “interrupt-driven” environment.
The solution to getting more women into the top ranks of Silicon Valley venture capital firms is not to adjust management’s expectations of women’s confidence in the workplace, as the above article eventually gets around to suggesting. The solution is to adjust management’s expectations of women’s existence in the workplace.
It’s not actually that radical a thought that a major VC firm expects its partners to have a lot of confidence, regardless of gender. But a junior partner that the male partners treat like a secretary could have all the confidence in the world. Her career is still not going anywhere.
Consider this passage, from one of Nitasha Tiku’s posts on the trial at the Verge, comparing feedback given to Pao and Wen Hsieh, who shared Pao’s chief of staff duties at KP after she hired and trained him:
Compare feedback given to Pao versus that given to Hsieh. She was told she’s too negative, too resentful, comparing “a weekly timecard” with Hsieh, and too concerned with being “personally credited” for the work she does. Hsieh was told to stop being “too optimistic,” that he’s “spread too thin,” and that he gets “undue credit” for successes that are not his.
Pao’s territoriality makes sense if her male co-worker is automatically handed more credit than he deserves.
This is not to say that Ellen Pao definitely deserved to be a senior partner at Kleiner Perkins (KP has some decent points about why she didn’t). But her case makes pretty clear that it didn’t really matter.
She could either receive little credit for her work, or be chastised for complaining about receiving no credit for her work.
Joan C. Williams, a law professor and expert on women in the workplace, wrote in the Harvard Business Review this week that Pao’s allegations against KP demonstrate “three out of the four basic patterns of subtle bias I’ve identified in my research on professional women.” Of Pao’s testimony specifically, Williams writes, “It all sounds more like the Anita Hill hearings or the Tailhook scandal than a modern-day lesson in subtle stereotyping.”
Reading through reports of the trail, it’s fairly clear that Ellen Pao did not fail at Kleiner Perkins because she was not confident enough. She failed because she was not a man. And that’s a much harder problem to fix.
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