Women Kill the Buzz for Guys Who Hire, Fire Them

June 7 (Bloomberg) — We’ve seen this movie before and the ending still stinks.

The sex-discrimination lawsuit by Ellen Pao against the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers may be the gender and workplace story of the moment. But let’s get one thing straight: This doesn’t describe anything that’s new. It seems to happen routinely. Just yesterday, at a hearing in London, a lawyer for Latifa Bouabdillah, a former Deutsche Bank AG director, said the woman’s male colleagues were paid bonuses “double or triple that of the claimant” for the same work.

Swap out Pao for Pamela Martens, who led the class-action “Boom-Boom Room” lawsuit against Smith Barney in the 1990s, or Allison Schieffelin, who sued Morgan Stanley in 2001, or Carla Ingraham, who sued UBS AG in 2009, and you wind up with some combination of the same old complaints: coworker come-ons, power meetings for guys only, higher pay for men and retaliation against the uppity women who have the nerve to complain.

In the venture-capital world, where you get more than the usual share of people who are prone to thinking their every experience is novel, there is shock over news that a highly qualified woman has filed a suit against a celebrity firm. But sex discrimination isn’t the iPad, folks. It’s more like the electric typewriter.

Only a week before Pao filed her lawsuit on May 10, Jack Welch, the former General Electric Co. boss, told a gathering at a Dow Jones “Women in the Economy” conference that women who wanted to advance just needed to work harder. “Over-deliver,” he counseled — advice that would strike a lot of glass-ceiling casualties as exactly what they had been doing their entire careers.

I don’t know about you, but I got tired of this very predictable narrative about 20 years ago.

I have no idea if Pao’s allegations, filed last month in San Francisco Superior Court, are true. But they sure sound familiar. Pao alleges in her complaint that one male coworker gave her a book with sexual drawings and poems on Valentine’s Day and another cut her out of business meetings after she terminated a brief relationship with him. In her 2007 performance review, she was labeled “the top performer of the junior partners,” according to the suit. After that, Pao says she complained about discrimination. Then things changed, with two subsequent reviews citing her “issues and clashes” with other partners, the lawsuit says.

Pao’s San Francisco lawyer, Alan B. Exelrod, declined to comment. Kleiner Perkins said in an e-mail that the suit “is without merit” and will vigorously defend itself. Kleiner general partner John Doerr, whose name is frequently decorated with the phrase “legendary venture capitalist,” said in a statement posted on the firm’s website May 30 that it all amounted to “false allegations” against his firm, which has “the most” women of any leading venture-capital firm.

Twelve of Kleiner’s 49 partners are women, and in the venture-capital business, that’s considered very, very good.

How is it that 20 years after Anita Hill broke the silence about gender discrimination and harassment at work, there are still companies that can take a bow for being gender-equality heroes when 75 percent of their leaders are men?

There are many excuses used to explain away the snail’s pace progress for women at work, but the two most popular go something like this: It takes time to get women in the pipeline with education and experience. Or — don’t you hate when this happens? — those ungrateful women get jobs only to bail out because they can’t take the stress, want more free time for Pilates or miss staying home with the kids.

Let’s take that last one first.

New York-based Catalyst Inc., which does research on women in business, started tracking the progress of 4,100 full-time Master of Business Administration graduates around the world in 2007, homing in on those it identified as “high-potential employees.” No matter how Catalyst sliced the data in its four reports on “high potentials” since 2009, men started with higher salaries — a pay gap of $4,600 in the first job out of school — and enjoyed larger increases each year.

To address the argument that women are dropping out of corporations because they want more personal time or less stress, Catalyst teased out just the men and women who aspired to be senior officers or chief executives of for-profit companies. They also compared only men and women who had no children to address the “mommy wants to be home with the kids” argument. In each case, men started out making more and advanced more quickly.

So much for the girls-can’t-handle-it argument. As for the pipeline argument, consider Pao. She had seven years of business experience, an electrical-engineering degree from Princeton University, and a law degree and MBA from Harvard by the time she landed at Kleiner in 2005. She’s had a lot of female company accumulating the right pedigrees for years, too.

Women earned only 10 percent of undergraduate business degrees back in 1971, receiving 10,460 degrees compared with 104,936 by men. By 1985, women had increased that number tenfold; in 2002, women received more degrees than men. That doesn’t sound like an empty pipeline to me.

It’s time to shift the focus from trying to “fix” women, to trying to understand the subtle forces in organizations that may be holding women back, Christine Silva, a senior director of research at Catalyst, told me in a telephone interview.

Good idea. But part of the issue isn’t subtle at all.

Some employers just don’t want to hire women. Period. The biggest eye-opener I’ve seen in academic research to support that idea was a study in 2000 that tracked 26 years of auditions and hiring statistics for symphony orchestras.

Orchestras had come under pressure in the late 1960s to hire musicians in an unbiased manner, and began to conduct “blind auditions” where judges couldn’t see the person trying out. They literally performed behind a screen. In the end, professors Claudia Goldin of Harvard University and Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University found that a woman’s chance of being hired increased by 25 percent when juries were clueless about a tryout’s gender.

We could benefit from a corporate version of that blind- audition idea. Until someone figures out how that would work, my guess is we will keep rolling through lawsuit cycles of predictable allegations and ugly revenge strategies. Comb through the reader comments at the end of articles about Pao, and you will see that she is already getting a blast of a tried- and-true “nuts or sluts” attack that deems women who sue as either crazy or a little loose.

Pao herself reveals in the lawsuit that after a peer badgered her, she had sex with him two or three times, which is enough for some of her critics to conclude that she has no case at all.

Her foes are also anxious to get the word out that her husband, hedge-fund manager Alphonse Fletcher Jr., is black, litigious and unconventional. Don’t be surprised to see reporters put more energy into investigating Fletcher than they do probing Pao’s allegations. Fletcher does indeed have what can only be described as an unusual biography. He has sued an employer for discrimination, has himself been sued for sexual harassment of two men and lived with a male partner in New York’s famous Dakota building (which he sued for racial bias) before marrying Pao. His spokesman, Stefan Friedman, said he would ask Fletcher for a comment, but he never got back to me.

Fletcher’s history is an open invitation for guilt-by- association coverage that already is distracting from his wife’s allegations. It has nothing to do, though, with an office culture where, as Pao describes it, women were barred from power dinners with important clients because their presence would “kill the buzz.”

Back in 1987, a Smith Barney office manager in Garden City, New York, sent out an invitation to “All Garden City Brokers” for a day of golf and dinner at his country club. When several of the women tried to RSVP, the message came back that women weren’t invited. Presumably they, too, would have killed the boys’ club buzz. For too many women at work, 25 years later, this bad workplace act is still in reruns.

(Susan Antilla, who has written about Wall Street and business for three decades and is the author of “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room,” a book about sexual harassment at financial companies, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)


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